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Cinema Junkie Podcast Episode 173: Lulu Wang’s ‘The Farewell’

Film boasts it is based on ‘an actual lie’

Photo credit: A24

Actress Awkwafina and director Lulu Wang on the set of "The Farewell."

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Chinese-American filmmaker Lulu Wang talks about her film "The Farewell" that she says is based on an "actual lie." The Sundance hit draws on her own family and first came to life as an episode on "This American Life." She also reveals how a trip to Ikea led to her career in filmmaking.

Aired: July 12, 2019 | Transcript

Lulu Wang's "The Farewell" was a hit at Sundance earlier this year and now opens in theaters. It draws on the director's own life for inspiration.

"Chinese have a saying when people get cancer they die," said Billi's mom in the new film "The Farewell."

That may not sound like the set up for a funny film but it is. "The Farewell" is a warm, heartfelt human comedy about family and it’s all based on an actual lie… if we are to believe the poster.

That's right. The poster for the film proclaims it is "based on an actual lie."

"Well it was my way, I guess, to say this is based on a true story," filmmaker Lulu Wang said. "But even the true story itself is about a lie that was told to my actual grandmother. The lie was that we were all coming home to China for the wedding of my cousin. But in fact, the wedding was staged by my family as an excuse to see my grandmother and say goodbye to her because she had cancer and the doctor told her she had three months to live. But they decided not to tell her that she was ill. And so that's why the wedding was necessary so she wouldn't be suspicious when everybody suddenly rushed home to see her."

With "The Farewell," writer/director Wang creates a family portrait based on her own life and exploring how her Chinese and American cultures interact.

In the film, Chinese-born but U.S.-raised Billi (played by Awkwafina) questions her family’s decision to not tell her grandmother that she is terminally ill. Reluctantly she returns to China for the expedited wedding that provides cover for the whole family coming to say goodbye to Grandma.

Wang first turned to this story for an episode of "This American Life."

"I always have wanted to make it as a film," Wang said. "But I found it really difficult to find the right partners who would support the vision of the film that I had. And there were a lot of producers who liked the concept initially but wanted to make it a much broader film and that's not the film that I wanted to make. So I set it aside because I thought if I can't tell the story the way I want to tell it then I'd rather not do it at all. But I had the urge to tell the story so I wrote it down as a short story and set it aside for one day. Then I met a producer from 'This American Life' and pitched him that story and it got picked up. And as soon as it aired within 48 hours producers were calling me to make it into a film."

The result is a wonderful film that examines the dynamics of a family and explores how different cultures view family duty in different ways. The film is both poignant and delightful and reveals Wang as an accomplished director.

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