The critically acclaimed, award-winning film “The Farewell” is opening in theaters across the country and writer/director Lulu Wang was in Chicago to present her film to the Second City audience at the Chicago Critics Film Festival.
The film, based on Wang’s real life, stars Awkwafina as Billi, a young Chinese-American who must go along with the family’s culture of not telling her grandmother, Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao), she’s dying of cancer. Instead, the family travels home to celebrate a bogus wedding as a way of saying goodbye to her.
It’s a comedic drama filled with love and laughter as it accentuates the bond of family.
Wang answered questions after the film for the audience and me, giving further insight into this delightful film.
The film is your life, but first you told your story through the NPR show This American Life. Tell us how it started there and then became the film.
When this was happening to me, I was actually in post-production of my first feature film, which is a screwball comedy, and as it was happening, I was like, ‘Well, this is why I love screwballs because my life is a screwball.’ This is so ridiculous yet so sad, and I knew I wanted to make it into a movie.
And the Sundance Institute helped you develop this?
I did a lab at Sundance, and it was really helpful. We did a workshop and a writing exercise that just allowed for me to go even deeper with the characters.
Tell me about casting Awkwafina, who has an incredible performance and, to be honest, a very unexpected one.
My producer brought her name up, and they said there’s this woman named Awkwafina. I don’t know if you know her. It was before “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Oceans 8,” so I knew her because my brother introduced me to her music, and to have the girl who did “My Vag,” that’s who you want? Are we like on the same page here? This is a drama; it’s funny, but it’s a drama.
She sent a self tape of a couple scenes, and I was watching it recently, actually, and I remember the moment that made me realize I had to cast her.
It was not when she was speaking the lines; it was in all the moments when she was on the camera waiting for the person to deliver the line, and she was listening, and she was silent. She had so much emotion on her face when she was silent. And those were the moments I knew she was the right one for the role.
Shuzhen Zhao plays Nai Nai with absolute perfection. Who is she?
She is a very famous soap opera actress in China, so she’s worked a lot in her lifetime and also gets paid a lot of money. And she [said], “This is my rate,” and we were like, “Whoa! That’s not what we budgeted,” and I had to fight for her.
When we first got to China, we started casting, [and] we saw a bunch of people. Most of the ones who were good, we couldn’t afford, so we were casting directors at the park every day.
Just going to random parks?
Yes, every park around the city, they were just stopping old ladies.
No arrests were made and everything was OK, though, right?
Everything was OK. (Laughs) But a lot of them were trepidatious and then other people were really hammy, but they’re not actors. We did that for a few weeks before I finally put my foot down and found Zhoa and said, “This is the woman. We’ve got to make it work.”
This story has connections with cultures around the world, not just Chinese.
It started with “This American Life.” People did hear it all over the world, and they were able to say, “Yeah, my family’s Iranian, and we did this to my grandma,” and I thought we were the only culture that did that.
Music is a very important and very unusual score in this film. Tell me about that.
I knew I wanted a classical score, and I didn’t want piano to be in it. I said I wanted an all vocal score. It was really inspired by the Greek choir. It basically is a group that sings as a unified voice as a collective and makes a commentary as a collective.
Audience Question: Is your cousin still married?
My cousin is still married. They’re good. (Pauses) I think they’re good. (Another pause) I don’t know. (Laughter)