Lulu Wang is an American filmmaker whose second film, The Farewell (2019), will be released in various Boston-area theaters this week. The movie begins with Billi (Awkwafina), who lives in the US, learning that her Nai Nai/grandmother (Zhao Shuzhen), who lives in China, has been diagnosed with a terminal illness—and that, in line with local custom, her family does not plan to inform Nai Nai about her own diagnosis (the vast majority of the film then takes place in Changchun, where Billi and many of her relatives spend time with grandma under the guise of planning for a wedding that’s not actually happening). Wang presented the film at the Independent Film Festival Boston this past May, and we spoke at the Kimpton Nine Zero Hotel the following day.
You worked on many different projects during the first years of your professional career, not just a feature (Posthumous, 2014), but also music videos, pitch videos, short films, and more. But there’s a gap leading up to The Farewell—it seems to be the longest period of time you’ve ever invested into one individual project. Did that in any way affect or influence the visual language of the film?
I didn’t go to film school, I come from a writing background, and a musical one as well—I was trained in classical piano. And I think early in my career I was still really trying to find my voice as a director, and I didn’t even know if I could put together a movie in general, so in the earlier films I was [focusing] a lot on working with the actors. With this film I really set aside the time and energy to make sure that … first and foremost, I wanted to approach this film as a director. I was very confident in my ability to work with actors, and the one thing that I hadn’t yet explored was really pushing myself in visual storytelling. And so I worked a lot with my cinematographer, Anna Franquesa Solano, to convey … the mise-en-scene of this family, through camera movement, blocking, and choreography.
We only had 24 days to shoot, so it was really, really difficult… One thing we realized early on is that we only had enough time and budget to do the film one way. Meaning we can do it the artistic way, and spend all our time on blocking and setting up that one-er—or we could go into coverage. We did not have the luxury of doing both. We couldn’t take the risk [of filming primarily in master shots and long takes] but also do the coverage for safety. And so we had to make a decision—what kind of film are we going to make? We decided that we wanted the film to feel elevated, we wanted to make it in a very cinematic way—we wanted to make cinema, not just tell a story and cover it and figure it out in the editing. Which is often what happens when you’re on this budgetary level.
During last night’s screening you discussed having to argue in favor of certain performance decisions in the movie, such as the lack of traditional movie-world warmth displayed by Billi’s mother (Diana Lin). The decision to stage most scenes via master shots and to hold your compositions for relatively long periods of time—were there conversations with producers where you had to fight for those choices as well?
Absolutely. I think that when we were under a time crunch, certainly, the conversation was always, Well, you know, it’s better to have a scene than to not have it, so you better just frickin’ shoot something. And there were often times where we actually stopped the production to say, This doesn’t feel right, this doesn’t feel like the language of the movie. And I have to admit this is the first film that I’ve actually done that with—where me and my cinematographer figured out the language of the movie. And you don’t figure it out before you start production. But as you’re working through the first week, you start to get a rhythm, and you go, Okay, this is what the film wants to be. Maybe it’s not what I want, or what we have the time for; it’s really what the film wants, and is asking to be. So when we started shooting things that were in a way easier—like coverage shots—some of us felt so uncomfortable, because it was like we were speaking a language the film was rejecting.
There’s a particular scene in a bedroom where it’s two people [Billi and Nai Nai] talking in a white room. We had no ideas for that scene, we didn’t have it as we were planning or shotlisting, and it showed, because when we got into the room and just went into coverage we both felt so uncomfortable. I could see it in [Anna Franquesa Solano’s] face, and I could see it in the camerawork. We had already done the grandmother’s side of the scene. And I just said, I’m sorry, we have to stop, and I pulled Anna aside and we locked the door and I said this isn’t working, am I right? She’s like, Thank God, I didn’t want to say anything because we don’t have time left, but what are we going to do? and I said, I’m not unlocking that door until we’ve figured it out. Literally people are pounding on the door, because we stopped for like an hour, and we were already behind that day. I said, White walls, two people talking, let’s just embrace it, lean into it. So we brought Awkwafina in, we did her side, and we were like, This feels right, this feels good. I said, What about that other shit we just shot? And what about the fact that we now have to go back and reshoot grandma in this same framing? How do we tell people that? So those were often really hard conversations. We did go back and shoot grandma in the new framing, with lots of empty, negative space…
This is the scene with all the headroom, right?
Exactly. And the producers said, Well, you better do the close-up version, the coverage version, for Awkwafina as well. That was one of those moments. If we did the coverage of Awkwafina, we would not have been able to go back and get the headroom-space shots of grandma. They said, But you already got grandma on camera, don’t go back, you’ve already got that. And I said, But we didn’t get it right. So I skipped the coverage of Awkwafina and went back and got the headroom shots of grandma because I knew that in the edit room we wouldn’t be able to use the coverage shots unless we had them for both people.
Much of the film is not literally in deep focus, but it still grants us an unusual level of freedom with regards to how we’re able to choose who or what to look at within relatively dense frames. I think specifically of the scene where Billi arrives at her grandmother’s house, and probably eight characters all turn around simultaneously, giving us time to register probably just one or two of those reactions per viewing.
That was a big thing that we talked about. There’s all these individual characters, Billi and her mom and Nai Nai, but one of the other most important characters in the movie is the [larger] family, as a unit. First of all we picked a wider aspect ratio, which is traditionally used for landscapes, because we wanted to explore the landscape of a family, and when you have a wider lens, you can fit 13 or however many people inside one frame. It’s for practical reasons, too—how do you [film] 13 characters in coverage? It would take so much time to cover each one, and so we chose that ratio to represent the family as a unit, so that they all fit on screen as a whole. And then whenever you cut to the other side, it’s just Billi, by herself in that same wide frame, so then you really feel the lack of the family and her isolation.
Another part of the visual design of this movie which risks going overlooked—not in general, but overlooked as part of the visual design—are the subtitles. There’s an expressiveness to the subtitling here which I suspect is only there because you understand all the languages being spoken in the film, and thus can help to expand certain nuances, such as in one moment where a terse line is translated as “K, thanks” (not “okay”, not “OK”, but “K”).
I thought a lot about subtitles. I think that translation is an art form in and of itself, subtitling is an art form in and of itself. So I thought a lot about where to take creative license with the subtitles, because often times it’s more about the tone rather than about the literal translation. Sometimes the English translation is not word-for-word what’s being said in Chinese, but it does have the same attitude or the same tone. And that was really important.
Also with subtitling, you want the audience to forget they’re reading subtitles. Often times I chose to leave out certain words and not translate them because it was more about putting the viewer into the experience. So I would have a shorter subtitle than what was being said in Chinese because it’s not important to understand everything—more important to get the general gist. There’s even scenes where I don’t translate at all, for instance when everyone at the table is saying Eat! Eat! Eat the tofu! It’s really fresh! It’s good!—I wanted the audience to be immersed in the experience rather than thinking about the specific [translation], and as you know Billi herself doesn’t understand what’s being said half the time. That’s from my experience of China, only [catching] bits and pieces, so there’s a general chaos in the lack of understanding.
Also central to the film is the juxtaposition between rural or traditional spaces and urban or let’s say “neon” spaces. There’s a lot of cuts which being us from one to the other. For you how did that relate to the more central narrative of the film?
I wanted to explore the juxtaposition of modern China with the values and traditions and rituals of old China. And to explore these questions of What do you bring with you from the old world? What are the things that are valuable and what are the things that are not? And what are we losing, either intentionally or unintentionally? And so the neon was a very big thing, because florescent lighting is a really big thing in China, even in domestic spaces and homes. And it’s not exactly warm, or inviting, you know? But the philosophy in China is that… when you used to not have money, people wouldn’t have lights, and in the villages outside the cities people often didn’t have money for it. So when you start to have a little bit of money, it’s just put in as much light as you can! There’s no romanticism, the chiaroscuro dark pools of warm light—no, no pools, just flat and lots of light. To them, that’s we now have money, we now can see, it’s a very pragmatic thing.
And so [it reflects on] all of these themes about seeing and not seeing… the coldness versus the warmth… and the performative nature versus what is reality. Even the scene in the photo studio—wedding photos are a big thing in China, it’s almost like they spend more money on the photo shoot than on the wedding itself, because it isn’t always about enjoying it, but instead about the pride that you bring to your family by doing these beautiful photos which they can then share with the entire city, neighborhood, or village. I wanted to play with the juxtaposition of all of that without necessarily making a judgment on what’s right or wrong.
On a related note I wanted to ask you about the production design, specifically on the set of Nai Nai’s house. There’s so many evocative trinkets laid about, as well as other striking and telling design elements like that poster we see in her bathroom. How did you find the look of the house, and then how did that relate to the other sets and settings you were using in the film?
I have to give so much credit to our incredible production designer, Yong Ok Lee. She’s Korean but is based in LA and went to AFI. We went out [to Changchun] together, and… It was important for me to capture the warmth of this home, even with the fluorescent lighting which again is traditionally used in a way that’s not warm at all. That was a bit challenge: How do we capture the warmth of this family and this home whole still filling it with the fluorescent lighting that is natural to these Chinese families? And so much [of the solution] came through production design. Like we used the wood in the house, for example, to provide a later of warmth that in a way fights the flourescents. And the little details, like the fake flowers, the color palette for all of that—there’s something about pastels in Asia, the way those colors are used… It’s almost childish in a way, they really embrace those things because there’s an innocence to them that’s [more generally] being lost in China. So there’s a real holding onto things which are—not childish, but—youthful, innocent, or naive. And the poster is one of those things.
When seen through the eyes of an American, either myself or Billi in this case, that location has a counterintuitive quality to it, both homey and somewhat alienating. It’s a hard contrast to untangle as one takes in the images.
I’m so glad you said it, because we spent a long time scouting that location. My real grandmother got her apartment because she fought in the war, in the military, and because of that she was given a bigger apartment by the government. Most apartments in China are much smaller. And we needed to fit a crew and a camera. But when we looked at bigger spaces, all those apartments were much more modern, and had a different look. So to find an apartment that aesthetically resembled hers and was the same size or big enough to shoot in was really challenging. It took a long time to find the perfect apartment—one that had both that mustard-y 70s color of wood and was also big enough in size.
Lastly I should be careful not to give our readers the mistaken impression that there is no camera movement in the film. There is movement, it’s just that there are very long stretches without it, and when it happens it’s usually motivated by something—as in the scene where the family plays a party game during a “wedding rehearsal.” How did you determine where and when you’d make those moves?
The other reason we chose these still frames is because in a way they’re theatrical. It feels very performative. And because the entire family is putting on a performance, essentially putting on a play, for the sake of grandma. The entire wedding, in a way, is a performance of emotion. That’s why we chose the still frames: to encapsulate the performative nature of the story. And when there is camera movement, it’s often at times in which a character is active, things are happening—when people are real.
Conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
THE FAREWELL. RATED PG. OPENS FRI 7.19 AT THE COOLIDGE CORNER THEATRE, KENDALL SQUARE CINEMA, AND AMC BOSTON COMMON.