'The Farewell's' Lulu Wang and Awkwafina want you to cry, then call your grandma

Jen Yamato, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

For the cast, meeting members of Wang's family helped them understand the complex personalities and experiences that shaped the family dynamic. Lin, who plays Billi's mother, Jian, felt an immediate kinship with Wang's mother as women who put down roots in new countries.

"We were educated in China," explained Lin, a native of China who emigrated to Australia, where she is based. "We try to understand the Western world but we are like a floating boat. We really don't belong to anywhere."

She lends razor-sharp comic timing to the no-nonsense Jian, who is constantly haranguing Billi over her life choices.

"For me, that's this Asian type of love," said Lin. "'You idiots, why don't you put on more clothes, it's a cold day!' We don't coddle you. I think the reason you may feel her mom is judgmental and tough is we believe if we tell kids too many good things, they will feel not humble and won't achieve," she said with a smile. "And we want you to be 100% perfect."

Likewise, veteran character actor Ma ("The Man in the High Castle," "Mulan") took an instant liking to Wang's father, a former Chinese diplomat who worked for decades as an interpreter in the States.

"He is an interesting man whom I think Lulu should do a film about," Ma said with a conspiratorial smile, his Staten Island accent slipping out.

Details of the real Haiyan's life, even those predating the setting of "The Farewell," proved invaluable for Ma, who plays him with sensitivity as he quietly wrestles with the guilt of having moved his family to America and away from his own mother.

"Those things are monumental for an actor," he said. "Unfortunately I don't think we get enough of it, because there's never enough time to do a role. Tom Hanks gets a year off doing 'Castaway' to get skinny and get nasty! We don't. We're ready to fly."

By "we," he means Asian American actors, who rarely get the chance to play meaty roles in Hollywood. "Very seldom will we get a situation where you're so valued that they say, 'We're going to give you all the time in the world.' Even in this case, there wasn't enough time because it was a low-budget film. It wasn't like we had a whole lot of resources."

By the time the film landed at Sundance, it scored some of the festival's strongest reviews and sparked a bidding war. (Wang left a small fortune on the table from an unnamed streaming platform to go with a traditional theatrical release from A24.)

While she and the film have been tipped as award-season contenders, one of the most important critics weighed in as soon as the credits rolled on that very first screening. "Pretty good," Wang's father shouted from the audience at Sundance -- a reaction the filmmaker later said amounted to an "Asian A."

A week before the film's release, the elder Wang described the experience of seeing "The Farewell" take off. He'd been a diplomat and his wife was working as a writer in China when they made the tough choice to leave after the 1989 Tienanmen Square massacre.

"I made the decision at that point that that's not the government that I want to continue to serve," he said.

They started from scratch in America, hoping to give their children opportunities they wouldn't have in China.


"We wanted our children to be free of fear, free of exploitation by the government," he said, "and many times we felt the fear that maybe that wasn't a good choice for my children. Or maybe they wouldn't really appreciate what we had done."

As many immigrant parents do, he admits that he and Wang's mother worried over their daughter's career choice -- until they saw her short films and her first feature, the 2014 romantic comedy "Posthumous."

"I thought, everyone goes to Hollywood, everyone wants to be a movie star, and everyone wants to be a director. But how many people fail? We didn't think that Lulu could be a success," he said. "And we realized, she can do it! We're really happy.

"We're also moved by the fact that like so many Americans, regardless of whether they're first-generation Chinese, she can be afforded this opportunity to make a successful movie career," he said. "That's unimaginable in my country, China, and in many, many other countries, so we're grateful to this country."

Standing up for women

While filming in China, Lulu Wang revealed, she and some of her female department heads, including cinematographer Anna Franquesa Solano, had to fight battles on their own set.

"There were times when Anna and I would be like, 'We don't have the resources but we want this to be a cinematic film, we want it to have a cinematic language.' We would fight for something and somebody on the crew would be like, 'Oh, sorry we've got to do it again because the girls want cinema,' in a very condescending way," said Wang.

"That's the thing about Lulu," smiled Lum, praising the director for pushing to bring her vision to the screen. "We need heroes now. Asian girls need heroes, especially when it comes to writer-directors. We also need heroes that don't take no for an answer when it comes to something that's beneficial for the whole project."

Lum said reactions to the film underscore how strongly "The Farewell" resonates with audiences of all backgrounds -- a testament to the value of empowering more voices in the industry. "When you allow us to tell our own stories, you don't know who they'll reach."

"That's what I hope," said Wang, "that it's tangible evidence that when you fight for specificity, [a personal film] can have broad appeal. And that it leads to studios and independent production companies to go and look for those stories, and green light more of them."

(c)2019 Los Angeles Times

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