To be honest, I was not really aware of the film ‘The Farewell‘ prior to a week to its opening in Los Angeles and New York City (opening July 12th), when I started seeing #GoldOpen type postings in those cities. I’m kind of ashamed of that considering I’d like to think that I am usually on top of these things, especially since the film stars Awkwafina and was so well reviewed earlier this year at Sundance (and as of this writing, the film has maintained its 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes (out of 164 reviews) – as well as the fact that the film was screened in San Francisco by CAAM and also at the SF International Film Festival – with Director Lulu Wang was in attendance at both screenings.
“In this funny, uplifting tale based on an actual lie, Chinese-born, U.S.-raised Billi (Awkwafina) reluctantly returns to Changchun to find that, although the whole family knows their beloved matriarch, Nai-Nai, has been given mere weeks to live, everyone has decided not to tell Nai Nai herself. To assure her happiness, they gather under the joyful guise of an expedited wedding, uniting family members scattered among new homes abroad. As Billi navigates a minefield of family expectations and proprieties, she finds there’s a lot to celebrate: a chance to rediscover the country she left as a child, her grandmother’s wondrous spirit, and the ties that keep on binding even when so much goes unspoken.”
I saw the film the following weekend when the film opened in San Francisco. It’s a remarkable film for many reasons, and it almost didn’t get made:
“They wanted it to be my big, fat Chinese wedding,” said [Director, Producer, Writer Lulu] Wang of the investors on both sides of the world. “A very broad, ethnic comedy.” … A writer and classical pianist by trade, Wang, who was born in Beijing and immigrated to Miami when she was six, first told her absurdist family drama as a short story and then as a podcast, in collaboration with This American Life and producer Neil Drumming. The result was a segment on an episode of the long-running radio series titled “In Defense of Ignorance” that debuted in April 2016.
Then a funny thing happened. The podcast became a sensation with audiences and suddenly her personal story was just right for film. Producer Chris Weitz (About a Boy), who along with his brother, Paul, runs Depth of Field, the production company behind such films as Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist and A Single Man, was driving down the 10 freeway in Los Angeles with his wife, actress Mercedes Martinez, when the two happened upon Wang’s story.
“I heard this extraordinary true story, this beautiful complete story. It’s really rare when you can think, Oh, this would make a perfect movie. I thought I might as well give it a try,” said Weitz, who was drawn to the conundrum at the center of the film, the notion that lying to a loved one can actually be a good thing. He also found the connection between Wang and her grandmother moving and was taken by the broader immigrant story she touched upon, the heartbreak of having to leave your family in pursuit of a better life.
Weitz met with Wang. Within two weeks, with the help of another production company, Big Beach, The Farewell was financed and Wang was busy banging out a script.
After learning the premise of the film, I was listened to the ‘This American Life‘ piece that Wang had originally produced, which was fantastic. One reason why this story resonated with me was because something like this had happened in my family – telling a lie to my grandmother in Taiwan about a family tragedy in the United States. At the time, and even to some degree today, I still wonder if that was the right thing to do, but it was my Uncle’s decision, who had taken care of my grandmother while the rest of his siblings went to the United States to make their future. In many ways, if I were ever to produce and direct a film, it might be a somewhat similar story, and somewhat autobiographical.
There was a lot of could relate to in ‘The Farewell,’ and the interaction between Lulu’s main character, Billi (based on herself) and her on-screen mother, were very real – real conversations and interactions one could imagine having haven grown up in a Taiwanese American family, but also generally relateable. Though I wonder if a general American audience would enjoy the film given that the film is mostly in Mandarin with a lot of subtitling (so I wonder if the film impacted me more since I could understand much of the Chinese.)
If you want to learn more about Lulu Wang and the film, here’s an excellent interview by Terry Gross on ‘Fresh Air.’
I don’t know how the film will do in a broader release nationally, but I can’t imagine it doing as well as ‘Crazy Rich Asians,’ given that film was based already on a relatively well known book, backed by a major studio with a lot of promotion and grassroots campaign for a #GoldOpen, and is a romantic comedy almost entirely spoken in English.
But I would say that ‘The Farewell’ is much more of an “Asian American” film and story that many of us can relate to (CRA is more of a ‘Cinderella‘ story …), a comedic drama touching on the experiences of many immigrant families, not just Asian Americans. And since we’re a country of immigrants, hopefully broadly appealing. The film opens nationwide on August 2nd.