BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- Over breakfast on a recent morning in Beverly Hills, Awkwafina proudly estimated that 80% of the people she's met at screenings of her latest film, "The Farewell," have come up to her misty-eyed. Hearing that, the film's writer-director, Lulu Wang, smiled.
Those tears are validating for the rising filmmaker, who based her second feature on an "actual lie" her family agreed to tell her grandmother in 2013. When the matriarch was diagnosed with terminal cancer, family members requested she not be told to spare her the grim prospect of facing the truth in her remaining months -- a practice not uncommon in China.
"My goal is to leave people talking about the film, or talking about their own lives and their own family, or calling their grandma," said Wang, whose parents emigrated from China to Miami when she was 6 years old. "That's my gift to the world. We should all call our grandmas more."
Awkwafina -- the stage name of rapper and actress Nora Lum, who scored killer breakout roles in last summer's "Crazy Rich Asians" and "Ocean's 8" -- stars in "The Farewell" as struggling New York City artist Billi. The fictional stand-in for Wang makes a last-minute trek to China to say goodbye to her dying grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen) over the objections of her relatives, including her immigrant parents, Jian (Diana Lin) and Haiyan (Tzi Ma).
They worry Billi is too American to keep her emotions from betraying the truth to her grandma, whom she affectionately calls "Nai Nai." But as the family gathers at a wedding staged to bring the clan together one last time, conflicting cultural ideas about identity, mortality and filial piety collide as everyone aches from the grief of their shared secret.
The extraordinarily personal inspiration means "The Farewell" is more than just a film to Wang; its very existence is part of a real story that continues offscreen.
That's because (spoiler alert!) the real Nai Nai is still with us, six years after her initial diagnosis -- and she remains unaware of both her condition and the premise of her granddaughter's film.
Nevertheless, Wang shot "The Farewell" in her grandmother's actual neighborhood and the matriarch was a frequent visitor to the set in Changchun, China, squeezing Lum's cheeks and attempting to feed her filmmaker granddaughter between scenes. She even has a cameo onscreen, scooting across a busy street in her motorized wheelchair as actors playing her family walk by.
The secret has been upheld this far. But the film just locked a Chinese distributor, which Wang acknowledges could throw a wrench into the family's pact.
"I was like, 'Guys, remember how we were always like, punting the question until later?'" Wang said. "We have Chinese distribution, which means they're going to cut a Chinese trailer, and all the marketing is still going to come out."