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'The Farewell' director Lulu Wang on fighting Hollywood and coronavirus

Jen Yamato, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

LOS ANGELES -- Lulu Wang always wanted to tell a story about her own family. When a visit to see her ailing grandmother in China became the crux of a dramatic family secret, her trip became the basis of her hit 2019 drama, "The Farewell," which won a Golden Globe for star Awkwafina and two Film Independent Spirit Awards for best feature and supporting actress Zhao Shuzhen in the grandmother role.

Wang's fight to tell that story, about family ties, cultural difference and intergenerational Asian American identity, was hard won. At first, industry execs didn't get it. They told her she was trying to say too much. But for the director, whose Chinese diplomat father and journalist mother immigrated to Miami when she was 6 years old, all of those threads were woven into one.

"I don't know how to tell a story about losing my grandma without the perspective of an immigrant, because that that's connected," Wang said when she visited the L.A. Times studio to dive into her life and work with me and columnist Frank Shyong on "Asian Enough," a new podcast we co-host about being Asian American.

Wang talked about fighting to tell her own authentic story in "The Farewell," in which she cast her own great aunt, and how to make Hollywood more inclusive. She also updates the true family lie that inspired "The Farewell."

Since recording the episode just a month ago, however, the world has seen immeasurable change. Like most industries, Hollywood hit pause amid a devastating pandemic. The full health and economic ramifications of COVID-19 have yet to come into view. Doctors and hospitals are running out of protective masks and gear and turning to the public for help.

Wang, now working from home on her next project, the Amazon series "The Expatriates," has added her voice to a homegrown effort to collect much-needed N95 masks and protective medical supplies from the Los Angeles community on behalf of emergency room and medical personnel.

 

After tweeting out and amplifying a friend's call for donations March 19, Wang received hundreds of replies and says that they were able to collect 300 masks within the first 12 hours. In the last week their effort resulted in donations of 1,000 masks and 1,000 gloves from across the city, which were delivered to medical personnel who distributed them further. The grassroots effort continues with drop-off locations around L.A.

"I've gotten so many messages from people saying, 'Can you help us do what you guys did? Can you help my friend's hospital? Can you help my brother, who's a doctor at this place? I saw what you did on Twitter -- can you help us do the same thing?' " said Wang on Monday, adding that she hopes that people in other cities can rally similar efforts in their own communities.

As for the future of making movies and telling stories, Wang says she is grateful to be able to work safely at a time when so many others cannot. After hosting a spontaneous bartending pop-up Q&A just last month in Los Angeles, she is one of many artists taking to social media platforms to stay connected to their communities while apart, as in a recent livestreamed Instagram Q&A she hosted with partner and fellow filmmaker Barry Jenkins.

"I think it's an important time to be more transparent and to be more connected to community than ever," Wang said. "If we can do something fun or helpful, it helps everybody. It helps me cope, certainly."

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