Shuzhen Zhao, Hong Lu, and Awkwafina in "The Farewell" (2019)

Shuzhen Zhao, Hong Lu, and Awkwafina in The Farewell (2019)

“It took me a long time to even have the confidence to tell my own stories,” says Lulu Wang, writer-director of The Farewell. As a female filmmaker and a minority, Wang hurdled challenges before she got to make her feature-length debut, 2014’s Posthumous, and The Farewell, which has been winning acclaim since it premiered in the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

Born in Beijing, Wang and her family immigrated to Miami, Florida, when she was six years old. After college, the writer-director moved to Los Angeles. She recalls, “When I was first pitching The Farewell, the thing that people kept asking was, is this an American or Chinese story? It was very much reflective of, am I American or am I Chinese?” Wang faced criticisms from both Chinese and American would-be financial backers. She almost gave up on Hollywood.

The Farewell is based on the story of Wang’s real-life grandmother. When Wang’s Chinese family learns that their grandmother has only a short while to live, they decide to keep her in the dark. The story is told from the perspective of Billi (Awkwafina), a New Yorker who travels to China to visit her dying Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao), whom she is close to.

The film hinges on the filmgoers’ empathy with Billi, an Asian-American returning to China and grappling with the traditions, including her family’s decision not to tell her grandmother about her terminal diagnosis and instead stage a wedding as an alibi for the family members who live in other countries to come home and see Nai Nai.

“When I cast Awkwafina in the role, I knew her from her music videos,” Wang shares about tapping the actress, who was then known as a YouTube artist, to be her screen alter-ego. “I knew her as a rapper. That’s how I discovered her work. So, when my producers brought her name up, I was like, ‘The rapper, that’s who you think I should cast to play me? Is that how you see me?’

“So, it was definitely an unconventional choice. I met up with her for coffee and she told me that for her, Awkwafina was a persona that she created to do her music and comedy. Her real name is Nora Lum. She was raised by her Chinese grandmother to whom she is very close. So, she brought her own personal connection and relationship with her grandma to this role.”

“She sent in an audition tape because neither one of us knew if she could really act, dramatically anyhow. The performance (in the audition tape) was so emotional that I knew she could carry the movie.”

The resulting film is one of this year’s big box office success stories and an indie dramedy that has been earning nominations left and right in this awards season. From The Farewell, Awkwafina went on to her scene-stealing role in Crazy Rich Asians, and virtually nonstop projects, including The Prom.

Wang, who almost left Hollywood, is now poised to direct Children of the New World, her film adaptation of Alexander Weinstein’s short story collection of the same title.