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In 'The Farewell,' The Bad News Bearers Keep A Secret

In <em>The Farewell</em>, Billi (Awkwafina, left) returns to China to spend time with her grandmother — who doesn't know she is dying thanks to an elaborate ruse.
In The Farewell, Billi (Awkwafina, left) returns to China to spend time with her grandmother — who doesn't know she is dying thanks to an elaborate ruse.

The Farewellis a movie with a wedding at the center — but the wedding isn't really the story.

The new film stars the rapper and actress Awkwafina as Chinese-born, U.S.-raised Billi, who travels with her family from the United States to China ostensibly to celebrate the marriage of her cousin. Really, it's to say goodbye to Nai Nai, her beloved grandmother. Nai Nai has been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer — and her family decides not to tell her.

To many Americans, the premise probably sounds ridiculous or even cruel — but is it? That's one of the questions posed by writer and director Lulu Wang, whose second feature film is surprisingly funny for one about terminal cancer. The Farewellis based on her own true story — or "based on an actual lie," as the film bills it — a story she first told to This American Life.

"I felt pretty upset about it [at the time it happened]," Wang says in an interview. "And it was also just so confusing because I was sad, but then I had to kick into action to decide whether I was going to support this plan or not. And regardless of all of that, I wanted to see my grandmother. But then if I went to go see her under this ruse of a wedding, what if I couldn't hold my emotions in? And that was something that my mother warned me about, was that I am pretty transparent about how I feel oftentimes, and she was worried that I would give away the secret."

Interview Highlights

On why withholding such bad news is a common practice in China

I think it's very, very common. I didn't learn that until after ... when I started telling the story and started doing research. I had done a podcast for This American Life, so when that came out, a lot of people came up to me saying, "Oh my God, I thought my family was crazy because they did this!" And it wasn't just Asian families, even — it was people from all over the world.

And I think that these older cultures do it because there's a mind-body connection that they believe in — that the spirit really affects the physical. And in more practical terms, my great aunt, who plays herself in the movie actually, said, "You know, if you tell somebody bad news, then they're going to get depressed; they're not going to eat; they stop sleeping. And when you don't sleep, when you don't eat, that affects your health." So you really can, in a very literal way, scare somebody to death.

And so there's even the consideration that they have, which is when there's bad news, you should never tell a person at night, because they're not going to be able to process it in the dark, when there's no sunlight and they can't sleep. So the best thing to do, really, is to tell them first thing in the morning so that they have the entire day to process it. And I just felt like: Wow, that actually really makes sense. I don't know that I've ever considered that. I don't know that we live in a culture that gives that much thought to how to deliver bad news.

On casting her actual great aunt ("Little Nai Nai") to play herself

It was amazing — I've always thought she is just so wonderful. She has an amazing face that's filled with so much joy. She is so lighthearted, and no matter what burden she's carrying, she never wants to give that to anyone else in the family. She'll carry it herself. And it's been a tremendous burden because normally in China, it's the kids that take care of her mother. But because my Nai Nai, both of her sons live abroad, Little Nai Nai — [who] is the youngest of the family — has been carrying the burden of caring for her older sister.

So I wanted to put her in the movie as a way to also just ground the entire movie in reality. She was the one who came up with the decision to lie to Nai Nai. And having her there also allowed the actors to ask questions. You know, how did this happen in real life? Am I doing a good job? Am I representing your relatives correctly? ...

She was actually very respectful of my position as a director, because she didn't want to do the movie at first. She would always be very self-deprecating, in a funny way. But she would say, "Ugh, my fat face, I don't want to ruin your movie. Why would you do that?"

On this film coming out at a time when American politicians are identifying China as a threat

I mean, it's something that people talk about for sure, and politics often enter dinner conversations, as much as I try to avoid them. And I'll say this — that some of my family members, especially the ones who live in America, don't necessarily disagree with that political position. But politics have to be separated from the individual, from the personal. My parents had their own reasons for leaving China, and believed very much that I would have a better life here. And I feel very strongly that they did the right thing. I don't think that I would have been a filmmaker if I had stayed.

But of course, it's impossible to know that. And one of the things I explore in the film, too, is that we tell ourselves stories to justify our own choices. So whatever decision you make, you're going to be able to find stories or signs to say "I did the right thing," because we have to believe we did the right thing in order to survive.

But you know, for me the film is really about the effects on family and personal life, right, regardless of the politics, regardless of nationalism/how you identify. At the end of the day, this is still a family, and everyone feels the pain of the loss of the things that you lose when you immigrate, and the connections that you lose, and all of the gaps that happen — whether it's generational gap, cultural gap, that's just sort of the reality.

On what her parents think of the movie

My parents saw the film. They've seen it three times now. The first time they saw it was at Sundance [Film Festival] ...

I think you'd have to ask them — maybe they'll be more honest if other people asked. But somebody in the audience at Sundance said, "What did you think, mom and dad?" And my dad said, "It's pretty good!" And everybody laughed. And my mother is — actually, she is very honest. And I think she's very proud of me — I'm sure that she would have approached the film very differently, but that's also the reality ... she has a different perspective of China, a different perspective of America. And the story is not told from her point of view.

But at the end of the day, I think that they're really, really proud. Especially because when my father first read the script, he said — I wanted to make sure that they were aware of what I was putting into the film, and that they were OK with it — and he said, "Yeah, this is all very authentic, very accurate, but why would anybody care?" You know, in some ways he thought I'd dramatize things more, and fictionalize it to make it more exciting. I mean, he watches Die Hardand those types of movies. ... He didn't understand why these (to him) very mundane details of our family life would be interesting to anybody. And that's been the most wonderful thing, is to show him, to show Little Nai Nai, that our stories deserve to be on a big screen — and that people do care.

Eliza Dennis and Natalie Friedman Winston produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
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