Death is a tricky thing in the West, even the very word comes under scrutiny. Some prefer “passed away” to “died” and celebration of life services are frequently held in lieu of funerals. A telling quote from Lulu Wang’s new film The Farewell encapsulates how different death is understood in the East: “Chinese people have a saying: When you get cancer, you die.”
The Farewell universalizes one’s life-long struggle with death. It’s done from the perspective of both cultures via Billi (Awkwafina), who’s parents Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Jian (Diana Lin) immigrated from China to New York City and assimilated to western values. When Billi’s told about her grandmother’s terminal cancer diagnosis she’s asked to keep it a secret. Her struggle to understand why the lie is told, much less keeping it, personifies the tension of Western individualism and Eastern communality to simultaneously sad and hilarious results.
We spoke with writer-director Lulu Wang about casting Tzi Ma to act as the fluid connection between Eastern and Western cultures, her unique use of fluorescent light to capture a modern Chinese aesthetic, and the pressure of bringing The Farewell to the competitive film market.
The Film Stage: I saw the movie at Sundance and thought it was hilarious. Then I saw it a few weeks ago and found it quite sad. Tzi Ma’s performance embodies both; the way he carries seriousness and humor in his facial expressions. Will you talk about casting Tzi and what his character Haiyan means to the story?
Lulu Wang: Tzi was one of the easiest ones to cast. I knew I wanted him since I was writing the script because he’s such a familiar face in American culture. I wanted somebody that had a diplomacy about him. Somebody that was very fluid between the Eastern and Western cultures and felt fairly assimilated in American culture. At the same time, when Haiyan gets back to China, he’s very loyal to the family and understands Western traditions much more than Billi does. He’s probably closest to Billi in the struggle of navigating between his American values that he’s come to adopt, and knowing and understanding the family’s Chinese values.
Since it’s common for Chinese families to lie about terminal conditions, do you find those with the diagnosis speculate and realize they’re being lied to? Certainly they told similar lies in their lifetime.
No, not at all. You would think, right? They really don’t. I don’t know if that’s a matter of self-imposed ignorance. To them, because they’ve participated they also believe that ignorance is good. Even if they felt the family was lying to them, they probably choose to believe the lie. Because they themselves no good comes from knowing the truth. I don’t know for sure if that’s what it is, but from my own experience, no one has mentioned it. With my grandma it doesn’t seem there has ever been a confrontation, so it’s hard for me to know who knows what.
Do you imagine at any point telling your grandmother about your story?
I don’t feel like it’s my place to tell her. The decision will come down to my family. If they felt it was time to tell her or they had no other choice too. Or if my grandmother herself confronted me and said, “I know everyone else is lying to me, I need you to tell me the truth,” then maybe. But I don’t see myself doing that on my own volition.
Among the unique things about your movie is the bright, fluorescent lighting. That’s such a different way to light a movie.
For a long time, a lot of people in China didn’t have electricity, they had candlelight. So having electricity, having light is a sign of privilege. They don’t romanticize the idea of dim lighting, they are like, “If you have light, why wouldn’t you use it?” They are very practical, like, “Light helps you see, so if you have it turn it on.” When you go to homes in China, the feel of the environment is this overhead, fluorescent light that floods the room. I found it’s not just China, but also in a lot of third-world countries and a lot of developing countries. If you look at the high rises in India you’ll see a lot of fluorescent light inside. I think for them as Easterners, they’re used to it. But for me as a Westerner, that lighting is so specific to the place and it’s so uncomfortable for me and it’s not an attractive light necessarily, but it’s very much the aesthetic and ambience of the environment.
My cinematographer Anna Solano talked a lot about that. I wanted to make sure the lighting was portrayed authentically, and she wanted to make sure it was being used in a way that still created a strong aesthetic. If you don’t create an aesthetic around it, flourescent light just washes everyone’s faces out and it becomes a zombie movie basically. So we wanted to make sure not to do that, but you know, it was really exciting. I found fluorescents haven’t really been used that way in film a lot. They’re generally used in Hong Kong movies in a cool, seedy, music video kind of way, or they are not used at all. With Wong Kar-wai movies, they are period pieces so there are pools of warm light. But modern China doesn’t look that way. It was exciting to face the challenge of capturing modern China’s lighting in an authentic way but still capture an aesthetic.
What’s it like taking your movie from an accepting and supporting creative environment like Sundance to the marketplace, which isn’t nearly as friendly?
What I did was really temper my expectations, and my family is really good at helping me with that. When the movie premiered at Sundance and people were responding really positively and audiences seem to be responding well to it, I didn’t then know how it would be accepted beyond those walls. I’ve seen that happen before, in the bubble of a film festival, in the hype of a film festival; Sundance is such a warm audience and they are primed to support a movie like this. I didn’t know when we left Sundance if that would be the case. So I tried really hard to not have any expectations. My parents would always say the same thing, they would say every time something good happens: “Be careful, karma is a bitch. It’ll even things out and something bad will happen.” So it’s hard to celebrate with that mentality. I guess I was always just waiting to see if the world would accept it. Particularly with subtitles, particularly with our casting, it being 100% Chinese/Chinese-American, I didn’t know if people would resonate. We will see once it opens.
To follow up on your quote about capitalism in the Vulture interview, you said that whenever the competing streaming company offered more money for The Farewell, it changed your perspective. What exactly changed? What did it take for you to stick with your initial offer from A24?
It wasn’t like I was mad. It’s a really good problem to have. It’s good to have options, to have people vying film for a lot of money. But I really wanted to work with A24 to bring the movie to the world. When we had this other company come and bring a lot more money, it was difficult for me to convince the producer and the financiers of the film to leave that much money on the table. It’s not that I was upset about the offer itself, but I knew I was up against a pretty difficult battle to say, “Hey guys, let’s not worry about the money. Let’s leave all of this money on the table and go with the company we feel good about.” It’s show business, we live in a capitalist society. It’s hard for me to even say that to somebody when they put in millions of dollars in investing in me. How do I say to them, “Don’t take all the money, do what feels good for me.” Ultimately, I gave this very emotional plea where I said, “Everyone is really ecstatic about this. We were able to recoup the investment, and I would just like to ask that we do what’s best for the film because it’s so personal to me and it’s my baby.” I know it’s a lot of money and it’s a lot to ask, but I don’t want to live in a world where it’s always the person with the biggest wallet that wins. I think that there are other values that are more important. I gave this pretty emotional plea and I was really grateful they listened.
The Farewell is now playing in NY and LA and expanding in the coming weeks.