Cast: Tzi Ma, Awkwafina ., Diana Lin, Jim Liu, Ines Laimins, Gil Perez-Abraham, Zhao Shuzhen, Jiang Yongbo
Director: Lulu Wang
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Running Time: 100 minutes
Synopsis: In this funny, uplifting tale based on an actual lie, Chinese-born, U.S.-raised Billi (Awkwafina) reluctantly returns to Changchun to find that, although the whole family knows their beloved matriarch, Nai-Nai (grandma), has been given mere weeks to live, everyone has decided not to tell Nai Nai herself.
To assure her happiness, they gather under the joyful guise of an expedited wedding, uniting family members scattered among new homes abroad. As Billi navigates a minefield of family expectations and proprieties, she finds there's a lot to celebrate: a chance to rediscover the country she left as a child, her grandmother's wondrous spirit, and the ties that keep on binding even when so much goes unspoken.
With The Farewell, writer/director Lulu Wang has created a heartfelt celebration of both the way we perform family and the way we live it, masterfully interweaving a gently humorous depiction of the good lie in action with a richly moving story of how family can unite and strengthen us, often in spite of ourselves
Release Date: September 5th, 2019
With The Farewell, writer/director Lulu Wang creates a vibrantly alive experience of family, inviting audiences into its rich world with a sly comic premise. At the story's core is a simple yet beguiling question: is it ever OK to falsify the truth with loved ones? In the case of Billi"played by rapper and rising star Awkwafina in her most serious and complex role to date"her world is upended when she's asked to tell an epic lie about her beloved grandma's impending death.
But in telling it, Billi also unexpectedly sees through to the many subtle ways in which families reach out for each other's true selves.
It all starts when Billi, an aspiring New York artist who barely knows the China where she was born, joins her parents and relatives from across the globe on a trip to pay their last respects to the family's matriarch. Though they've secretly learned from doctors that their Nai Nai (Mandarin for grandmother) has mere months to live, Nai Nai herself knows nothing of her fate, and the family finagles to keep it that way. Instead of telling her, they conspire to pretend everything's perfectly fine, while they convince Nai Nai they're all reunited for a joyous, if strangely sudden, wedding"and most certainly not for a farewell.
For Billi, who is steeped in American culture and independence, the whole concept seems potentially unethical, and definitely non-sensical. Here she is, leaving New York at the worst possible moment because she needs to see Nai Nai one last time, only to be forbidden from mentioning the urgent reason for her visit. Billi's reluctant attempts to keep the lie in motion, while navigating a whole slew of cultural and generational divides, lead to comic moments as crisp and dry as wedding champagne. But flowing beneath the buoyant surface of The Farewell is also a deeper current. For within Billi's entertaining journey is a keenly observed portrait of what we keep hidden and what is revealed in families, what family asks of us, and what we in turn receive.
Wang brings all of this to the fore with a distinctive mix of lightness and gravity that reflects the emotions evoked by those family gatherings you aren't sure you'll survive, but you never forget.
Says Wang: "A theme in a lot of movies about family lies or secrets is that there's a big catharsis that comes from telling the truth. I wanted to play against this in The Farewell.
I didn't want the film to place judgement on any character or on the family's decision to hide the truth from their matriarch. Nobody's a bad guy in this family. To me, it's really a story about 'love languages,' about how we express love in different ways culturally and individually and how that can create a lot of miscommunication in modern families, especially families that find themselves between cultures.
But that the things we're communicating are still based in love"just because people aren't expressing love in the way you want to hear it or expect to hear it doesn't mean they don't love you. Sometimes the most important things that happen in families are things that are unspoken."
The Original Lie
As Lulu Wang openly warns at the start of her film, The Farewell is based on actual lie, one the writer-director was very much part of setting in motion.
It all unfolded in 2013, just as Wang was in the early stages of editing her first feature film, the art world comedy Posthumous. In the midst of what is one of the most fraught, pressurized and daunting challenges of any filmmaker's career, she suddenly learned that her own Nai Nai, far away in Changchun, China, had been diagnosed with a rapidly advancing terminal condition. Naturally, Wang's immediate instinct was to reach out. But, when Wang learned that her great-aunt (who received the diagnosis from Nai Nai's doctor) and her parents had decided to keep the truth of the situation from Nai Nai"and, more worryingly, that she was expected to do the same"things got complicated.
Wang appreciated that her family believed that sending Nai Nai out on a wave of happiness, surrounded by upbeat family but blissfully ignorant of the end, was the loving thing to do. But she was totally unconvinced. Was it really more compassionate to keep such a strong, savvy woman in the dark? Wasn't telling the truth the most important thing in relationships? Didn't we all have an inalienable right to leave the world in our own chosen way? And anyway, how was this lie even going to work? How on earth was Wang supposed to keep up a happy-go-lucky façade when she came face to face with a woman she loved and desperately didn't want to lose?
It all seemed very shaky. Nevertheless, to keep the family peace, Wang agreed to try to keep up the pretense. Jettisoning her misgivings and arriving in China, what happened next was so full of baffling and beautiful twists, Wang could not help but sense the seeds of her second feature film.
"The whole time I was in China, I had more questions than answers," Wang reflects. "But I realized this was also exactly the kind of story I most like to tell"stories that mix pathos and absurdity. This situation was a true-life screwball setup, but there were bigger questions inside the comedy."
There were, for one, broad ideas of how any of us manage to forge our identities in modern families that pull us in so many directions. But there were also questions specific to Wang's experiences as a Chinese-American, which she had yet to explore cinematically. Much like the character of Billi, Wang was born in China but, after leaving Beijing at age 6, grew up in Miami, then followed the very American ritual of going to a Boston college.
It was only when she returned to Beijing for a semester abroad that it fully hit Wang how intricate her identity had become. Being in China felt like a homecoming in some ways, but it was also full of more discomfiting revelations: that the China she had preserved in her memory no longer existed, and that she was now an outsider, so culturally American she couldn't fully fit in. All of these feelings came rushing back again when Wang made the journey to visit Nai Nai. Not only was she caught between multiple versions of the truth and multiple versions of herself, she felt caught between traditional Chinese beliefs and modern rationalist Western views. While these tensions were tricky and anxietyproducing as a family member, they exhilarated her as a filmmaker.
Back home, Wang initially chose to tell the story of her family's elaborate lie in a popular This American Life episode entitled "What You Don't Know" on National Public Radio. An audio documentary proved a great way to start excavating the many comedic and revealing layers of the events. But Wang didn't feel done with the story. She still felt drawn to dive deeper into the experience's more mysterious side, which is why a screenplay continued to beckon. Truth from fabrication The screenplay of The Farewell might have started with Lulu Wang's family's falsehood, but it became just as much about what make modern families tick"which Wang notes is just as often the things we don't, or can't, or struggle to tell one another as it is the things we chat about constantly.
As she conjured up Billi, an alter ego who is close to but not quite herself, Wang found she was creating a woman determined to weather the vicissitudes of family life. As Billi struggles with how to lie to her grandmother, she becomes increasingly sensitive to the fact that everyone in the family has smaller secrets they are withholding, including Nai Nai, and even Billi herself. It all pushes Billi to surrender to the delicate but entrancing flow of joys, regrets, insecurities, conflicts, and awkward love that drive her crazy but also, she realizes, ground her in inseverable connections.
"With a screenplay, I was able to focus more on the raw emotions of the story and to capture this very specific tone, of being in a state where you don't know if you're going to be laughing or crying from one minute to the next," says Wang. "As I wrote, I had a lot of ideas in my mind about framing and visuals that could capture these juxtapositions between comedy and anguish, between hiding and exposing things."
Wang likes that Billi"who spends much of the film in a state of dismayed powerlessness"breaks all the standard rules for lead characters. "Lead characters are supposed to take action, but Billi's journey is actually about becoming inactive," she muses. "Billi wants to change the situation, but she can't change it, and she has to accept that. So, one of my biggest challenges was how to craft a constant dramatic tension around that, so that you really feel that pressure of what it's like getting up every day desperately wanting to tell your grandmother the one thing you can't tell her."
Conflict also surrounds Billi as she tries to straddle some gaping chasms"between American and Chinese cultures, between who she is with her family and who she is in her personal life, and equally between the generations of her family. "I was very interested in exploring the clashing values that play out in every family, but especially in a family that emigrates," says Wang. "One thing I find really interesting is that immigrants often preserve traditions in their new country more than people do in the old country. Many Chinese immigrants in America adhere to certain traditions that people in China have entirely left behind. If you're a millennial living in Shanghai, your life is incredibly modern and high tech and you don't see any of the things there you'd see in a Chinatown of a U.S. city. So, for Billi there's a unique type of culture shock in returning to China, because it's not the same place that was in her memories or the stories she has heard."
Even for Billi's relatives who have remained in China, memories of tradition are so personal that no two people have the same view. This comes to the fore in the scene at the cemetery where no one in Billi's family can agree on the proper rituals. "This is something very real," notes Wang. "I saw it in my family, but even when we were shooting that scene, the entire crew was debating the right way to do the rituals. Everyone had their own personal recollection of how it should be done, and they were saying 'that's not how my family does it!'"
Much as the film is a rare portrait of the Chinese diaspora, and a compellingly personal snapshot of one family, Wang tapped into family dynamics that have a universal emotional charge. At the core of the story, she cultivated a fragile but deeply familiar balance between the black comedy of a family trying to cover up what really matters, and the earnest sweetness of how much they genuinely care. "Families can be so strange in how we relate to one another," admits Wang. "But I hope what people take away is how much this family means to each other without them ever saying that out loud."
The first draft of the screenplay was written entirely in English. But Wang always knew that she wanted Billi's family in China to realistically speak their native Mandarin" in part to highlight that, in China, Billi faces obstacles to communicating with her loved ones at the most basic level, long before getting to philosophies of life and death. While she can speak Mandarin fluently, Wang doesn't write it, so she brought in a translator to turn 60% of the dialogue she wrote back into Mandarin. There was just one problem with that: while the translation was entirely faithful, it was almost too accurate, and something ineffable got lost in the process.
"Because the translation was so literal, it didn't match at all what I'd been hearing in my head," Wang explains. "I turned to my parents to help me work with it and transform it back into something more conversational and authentic. They were of great help because they not only know the language, they also know all the real people involved and what they sound like in real life."
If there was any qualm Wang had about the dangers of writing about one's own family, it was not spilling secrets or offending anyone. Rather, it was having to leave so much out. "It was hard for me, because there's so much more to my parents – for example, my father speaks fluent Russian and he was a diplomat and he's really funny; and my mother's a writer and she's really, really smart. But none of those characteristics factored into this story. The characters in the film are a more universal version of my parents."
Even as Wang was fleshing out her draft, she was approached by producers Dani Melia and Peter Saraf of Big Beach and Chris Weitz of Depth of Field. They had independently heard the This American Life piece and had the same gut instinct Wang did: this was a movie. They were gratified to find Wang's screenplay had brought out all the comedy of the situation, but added in her own tender humanism, giving the family a trenchant poignancy as recognizable as the funnier side of their dilemma.
Melia brought aboard Big Beach's Marc Turtletaub, while Weitz brought aboard Depth of Field's Andrew Miano. The filmmaking team then expanded globally to include Taiwanese producer Anita Gou of Kindred Spirit and Chinabased producer Jane Zheng of Seesaw Films. Meanwhile, Wang was clear that casting the film was going to be the key to making what was on the page work. It wasn't just that she wanted the family to feel connected under the skin as all real families do. And it wasn't just that she would need to find actors capable of working in multiple languages. She realized she also needed actors who could tune into the subtle ways we "perform" for our families, presenting certain personas that we feel will meet approval, which is taken to a whole new degree as Billi's family performs their happiness in the middle of grief. That became the crux of the production.
Awkwafina Gets Serious
Every once in a while, an inexplicable synthesis occurs between a character and an actor that blurs the line between real-life and performance. That's what happened the minut Awkwafina took on the role of Billi. Largely known as an underground rap sensation, Awkwafina suddenly broke out as a movie star in 2018 with charismatic turns in Ocean's 8 and Crazy Rich Asians. Still, she had never played a dramatic lead before. Her public persona had a brash swagger that was quite different from Billi's more inward demeanor. And yet, Awkwafina seemed to know the character from the inside out"-and was able to slide right into Billi's distinct mix of self-possessed confidence and flustered anxiety right from the beginning.
There were some basic parallels. Born Nora Lum in Queens, Awkwafina had been raised mainly by her own beloved grandmother, after her mother died when she was four. She had an innate understanding of both Billi's experience as a Chinese American and of her love for her Nai Nai. For Wang, as soon as she saw Awkwafina on tape (which happened well before her film career blew up), there was no question the role should be hers.
"I was searching for someone who could not only find that mix of lightness and drama but who could handle the language challenges of playing Billi," says the filmmaker. "Awkwafina felt definitively American, yet she knew some Mandarin. She's very funny, but she's also very attuned to subtle emotions. Most importantly, you could really feel that the love for a grandparent was so personally meaningful to her. There was also rawness to her sense of grief that felt truly authentic. I really didn't want someone to try to portray me directly as Billi, so I was very happy that Nora brought parts of herself to the role to create something original."
Awkwafina harbored that one thing that sometimes can spur the most delicate performances: intense trepidation. "I'd never done anything like this and really did not know if I could," she admits. "At the same time, it was a challenge that meant more to me than any I could possibly imagine. Given that the story centers around an Asian-American woman who has a very special relationship with her grandmother, it felt like it was made for me. But to be honest, I was never entirely sure I could do it even when we were shooting. I'm just thankful that Lulu saw something in me and that, for some reason, she fully trusted me to find my way."
Wang's trust was instinctive. "I felt the only thing that could stop Nora was fear, so my main job in directing her was make her as comfortable as possible," the writer-director explains. "She often surprised me. When she came to China, she had stripped off her Awkwafina persona and become Billi in ways I had not foreseen. She developed this almost slumped posture that was so perfect. There was something iconic and cartoonish but also real and human about it. Her facial expressions had incredible nuances. And even those moments when Billi is silent, she just nailed."
Awkwafina says a lot of those precise telling details emerged simply from being able to imagine herself so completely in Billi's shoes. "I quite literally asked myself: what if my own grandmother was dying and I wasn't allowed to talk with her about it"how would I act? That's where all the subtleties of Billi come from. For me, Billi is always stuck trying to maneuver between two worlds: between being American and being Chinese, between grief and celebration, between saying what's on her mind and trying to let it all go. That's an interesting place to be."
It also felt like a natural place. "The first thing you learn as a kid in a Chinese family is guilt," laughs Awkwafina. "You learn the words 'filial piety' as a little kid, and that concept sticks with you, even though at times it can seem at odds with the world we live in."
While Awkwafina was drawn to this uncommon window into Chinese-American culture, she also began to see Billi as what she dubs "the Universal Girl." "She's girlish in all the best ways, in that she always tries her best to make her own way, she knows what she's good at and she refuses to give up her ambitions for something that isn't her," Awkwafina observes. "At the same time, she has this really weird role in her family, where she's constantly negotiating between their world and her own. I think a lot of people will relate to that. And in the year 2019, I think we need this kind of story that reflects both our cultural identities and our shared humanity."
Awkwafina continues: "Every family in every culture has to deal with identity and secrets. It's part of the human experience. This story introduces some Chinese cultural concepts that are rarely seen in American movies. But at the same time, no matter what culture you're from, I think you identify with the love and conflict in this family, you laugh with them and you are moved by them."
Most important to Awkwafina was underlining the strength Billi soaks up from Nai Nai and the wonders of grandmothers in general. "For me, one of the most beautiful themes in the movie is the love and cherishing of the family matriarch, the neck of the family. Those feelings of tenderness and care for the person who holds the family together are completely universal."
Awkwafina was thrilled to spend time with the real Nai Nai in China, who she says was every bit the character you meet in the film. "She would ride around the set in her electric wheelchair and I came to really love her. But it was a crazy experience to be playing a character who thinks she is saying goodbye to this woman who was right there with us years later," she muses.
Language was another challenge. Though Awkwafina had been exposed to Mandarin and Cantonese (her mother was Korean, her grandmother from Beijing and her father's roots were in Southern China), she doesn't consider herself fluent. "I did spend a year in Beijing at 18 and took some language classes, but my grandma still never understood a word I was saying so that was a little depressing," she laughs. "I was literally terrified of doing a movie where I had to speak Chinese."
Nevertheless, she dove into study with language coaches and was able to evoke Billi's own passable but stilted language skills with authenticity. "The fact that Awkwafina was able to give such a deeply emotional performance in a bilingual role is incredible," producer Daniele Melia reflects. Once she arrived in Changchun, Awkwafina says the effect was "magical." "When I lived in China years ago, I didn't really feel like I had any purpose to being there, but returning to China to make a movie about an experience I identified with so strongly was a very powerful thing. It became my own journey into my identity. I realized a lot of things about myself and my family."
As someone who has always mined the mixture of absurdity and reality, even in her raps, Awkwafina especially hopes audiences will respond to Wang's distinctive style of humanistic humor. "The humor of the film is so real that sometimes you can't draw the line between what's funny and what's sad. Lulu makes it a very subtle shift between those two," she describes. "And to me, that's a lot of what it's like to be sitting around your own dysfunctional family's table. Billi's far-flung family While casting Billi was the linchpin of the production, it was equally vital to Wang to gather a family around her that could push all of her buttons, for better and for worse. Finding the film's Nai Nai was the toughest task, if only because the character was so incredibly close to Wang's own heart. Whoever she cast, that actor had to spark that same depth of feeling.
After an intensive but fruitless auditioning process, and with no time to spare before production began, Zhao Shuzhen suddenly came to Wang's attention. Though well-known for her television roles in China, she had never been seen before in a major international film.
"I felt so lucky to connect with Zhao," says Wang. "When our casting director sent her name across, I started looking at her previous work and I immediately knew she was the one. Her face and whole demeanor are just so quintessential grandmother. Also, she has a gentleness to her that I felt was very important because Nai Nai can be quite bossy, tough and surprising at times, but Zhao was able to balance that beautifully with a softer charm."
On the set, that decision seemed even more right. "As soon as Zhao met my real grandmother and great-aunt, they were calling her sister and going to breakfast holding hands," Wang recalls. "It all fell right into place. And then Zhao and Nora seemed to instantly have that grandmothergranddaughter kind of affection that is beyond words." Awkwafina says her fondness for Zhao Shuzhen only raised the stakes. "My love and reverence for Teacher Zhao was so real that it became part of the performance," she explains. "I developed a true attachment to her as a person that maybe you can feel on screen."
To play the vital role of Nai Nai's younger sister, Little Nai Nai"who makes the initial decision to keep the doctor's troubling prognosis a secret from her sibling"Wang found the right person closer to home, literally. She wound up recruiting her real-life great aunt, Lu Hong, to play the character she wrote based on her actions.
Having her own Little Nai Nai at her side as she directed the film proved invaluable. "I was always able to ask her questions, such as 'does the energy of the family dynamic feel real to you? Was this your experience of it?' It helped keep the reality of it always alive," says Wang.
For Little Nai Nai, the memories were the easy part. The bigger challenge was facing motion picture cameras for the first time in her life. "Little Nai Nai was intimidated at first," Wang recalls. "She said to me, 'How can you expect me to act with such an experienced actor as Zhao Shuzhen?' But it ended up working out so well. She brought so much authenticity to Little Nai Nai and she also brought a very grounding energy that the whole cast responded to."
Similar to Billi's family, the rest of the cast hails from a variety of international backgrounds. Chinese-American actor Tzi Ma"known for his work in the Rush Hour films, Arrival and "The Man in the High Castle""plays Billi's kind-hearted father.
"When Tzi Ma and I first met to talk about the script, he started referring to me as 'daughter,' so it was pretty clear to both of us that he was meant to play this part," muses Wang.
"He's so charming, with a dry sense of humor, and a love of what you might call 'dad jokes,' but there's also sadness in his eyes. I think of him as kind of like a Chinese-American Bill Murray."
Ma took advantage of spending time with Wang's real-life father in preparation. "Tzi got to know my Dad so well that by the end of production he knew stories about him that even I'd never heard before," Wang laughs.
Billi's outspoken mother Jian is played by Chinese-Australian actor Diana Lin (co-star of the Australian series "The Family Law"). Lin tapped into her own experience of emigrating to Australia as a young woman to create a sharp, stirring portrait of a woman determined keep things on track during a challenging time for her family. of what seems to be very bad family news.
Wang says: "I was looking for someone who had a natural wit and sarcasm, but who was also very insightful. I was so happy to find Diana because she even looks a bit like my mom. She has great comic timing and she really understood the character." For Awkwafina, this connection was also deep. "Diana became a kind of surrogate mom to me, that's how close it felt," she comments.
One of the most fun characters to cast was Billi's uncle, the father of the groom who gives one of those overwrought speeches that can make or break a wedding, played by Jiang Yongbo. "He made an audition tape of the wedding speech and it was so good that I immediately knew he was the one," says Wang. "He told me that he'd never been cast in a film without meeting the director in person. He said, 'You put your faith in me, and I will not let you down.' It was very moving." For Wang, directing a cast speaking a range of languages on and off camera was at times a dizzying experience. "I was constantly switching from one language to the next and sometimes the wrong language came out," she laughs. But Wang's creative drive became a uniting force. "What kept everything together was Lulu's incredibly clear vision for the film," says Melia. "She was able to command an ensemble cast in two languages, some of whom could not fully communicate with each other. Despite all the complications, Lulu never lost sight of the importance of each individual character to the family."
Creating the look and feel of The Farewell For a film set mainly in small, plain rooms"and one sprawling banquet hall"The Farewell creates a strong visual ambiance. It's a look that Lulu Wang first envisioned as soon as she started putting words to the page. "I knew even then a lot of the tone I wanted to create would be done with lighting," she notes. "I knew I wanted to use the fluorescent lighting that is so ubiquitous in China. It's this very harsh, uncomfortable lighting that a lot of homes use, because the concept is that lots of light is actually a sign of affluence. There is no romanticism to dim light in China. There is a desire for as much light as possible, which Americans might consider way too much lighting."
The effect of all that fluorescence was at once comedically off-kilter and exposing. "What I love about this lighting for the film is that while it is very cold and awkward, the family connections and emotions are all very warm and intimate," Wang continues. "Those juxtapositions interest me."
To hone the film's style, Wang collaborated closely with the female-led team of cinematographer Anna Franquesa Solano and production designer Yong Ok Lee"who both have their own experiences of emigration (Solano was born in Barcelona, Spain, and now lives in New York, and Lee is a Los Angeles-based native of Seoul, South Korea.)
"Anna is a really story-focused DP, which is what I love," says Wang. "She's such a cinephile that we were able to talk about everyone from Mike Leigh to Kore-eda to Ruben Ostlünd, and I love that she has a very European aesthetic. She'd never really done a comedy before, which was exciting. We both had a lot of thoughts about how to create humor with the framing. We talked a lot about the performative nature of family and how everyone in this movie is performing their emotions"that's what led to these really staged frames that have a kind of theatricality to them. It was a very specific stylistic choice to highlight that they're all performing for grandma."
Another idea Wang and Solano focused on was how to create a kinetic dynamism out of a plot woven, like any family reunion, out of one round-table meal after another. "One of the first things Anna and I did was to break down each meal in the film into their individual themes and emotions," Wang explains. "So, for example, in the first family dinner in Changchun, we used a longer lens, so you get more of a sense of isolation and separation between the family members, because while grandma is excited about the wedding, everyone else is tense about trying to keep the secret. But that changes in later dining scenes."
Ultimately, Wang and Solano chose to shoot largely with spherical wide lenses that allow the entire family to be seen at once without distortions. "Wide aspect ratios are commonly used for landscapes and I liked the idea of portraying the landscape of a family, capturing all the faces of one family in a single frame. Also, by using such wide frames for the family scenes, when Billi is isolated in that frame, you really feel the absence of the family," Wang notes.
Filming in the real Nai Nai's home city of Changchun"an industrial center located in China's Jilin province in the northeast, sandwiched between North Korea and Russia" added another level of verisimilitude. "We initially scouted Beijing and Shanghai"big international cities with serious production infrastructure for filmmaking," says Melia. "But as a smaller, regional city, Changchun has a unique feel. To add to the authenticity, we were able to film the wedding scene in the actual banquet hall where Lulu's cousin had his reallife celebration in 2013."
One of the shooting locations most personal to Wang turned out to be her actual grandfather's gravesite, used for the cemetery sequence. "I last saw my grandfather when I was 6," Wang explains. "He died a few years after my parents left for the U.S., and I didn't get to go back for his funeral, so this was incredibly meaningful for me. People who knew him said he'd wanted to be a writer all his life, and that I was carrying on his legacy by returning to Changchun to make this film."
Wang returned to the U.S. to edit The Farewell, working with both Michael Taylor and Matt Friedman. "The edit was all about rhythm and pacing," she says. "Michael did a wonderful initial cut which was exactly the way I had imagined it with all the longer takes. But then Matt came in and created a skeletal version that pared it all down to pure story. He questioned me on every single frame and the result was that it was still everything I wanted, but it all landed in a fresh way. A final element brought more of the mix of the real, the funny and the beautiful to the fore: Alex Weston's choral and string-based score. The New York-based composer whose work has previously been featured on Showtime's "The Affair" and the acclaimed PBS documentary "The Emperor of All Maladies" created something that literally speaks to Billi's state of mind.
"I knew I wanted a score with voices"a score that functions a bit like a Greek chorus," Wang explains. "Those voices are both kind of a warning to Billi and the sound of community. I loved what Alex created from that idea. He used a male singer doing falsetto so that it had a very specific sound"it's a beautiful sound but it's also unexpected."
Elsewhere, for the family photo sequence, Weston revisited one of Beethoven's most haunting and textured melodies, that of "Piano Sonata No. 8 (Sonata Pathetique)," in an a capella rendition that gives it a whole new feel. "It was one of my favorite pieces to play growing up, so I have a personal connection to it. It's also just such a lovely, sad melody, but in this rendition there is equally a sense of playfulness that takes you by surprise," Wang describes.
The Farewell maintains that interplay of melancholy and mischief, laughter and a sense of the bittersweet throughout as it builds to its surprising climax"one in which the meaning of the title comes into question. Is the "farewell" that of Billi trying to say goodbye to her Nai Nai, or is it Billi leaving behind the clarity of her ideas of how things are supposed to be in family and life?
Given the outcome, Wang now wonders if the lie that seemed so dubious at first somehow aided, however paradoxically, her grandmother's healing. She notes that in her family every person has his or her own explanation for Nai Nai's unanticipated survival, from the psychological to the mystical. "I do think humans will always find ways to justify the choices we make, and that would have equally been the case no matter how things had turned out," Wang says "But there is something mysterious about what happened, and I like that it remains a mystery that lingers."
"I'm not that concerned, though," with judging whether the lie was right or wrong," she continues, "For me, this is ultimately a story of acceptance and understanding, which are so important, particularly at a time when everything is so polarized. It's about having the strength to have your own opinions, but also having the grace to acknowledge that others have theirs."
Awkwafina is also of two minds about how things turn out in the end. "I feel split," she admits. "It raises a lot of questions about what really happened, and whose version of the story you trust. While I was playing Billi, I so strongly felt her anxiety to get out the truth that I still feel a bit loyal to that. But then maybe the lie worked in a certain sense, and there is something to the idea of 'what you don't know can't hurt you.' Whatever the explanation, and I'm sure everyone will have their own, it leaves you with a cherry on top.
Release Date: September 5th, 2019