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There are many movies in cinema history that are based on a true story, but Lulu Wang’s The Farewell is really on a different level due to the personal nature of the true story being told. After all, the film is based on Wang’s own experiences coming into conflict with what she discovers is a Chinese societal tradition: not telling the elderly about terminal illnesses when they only have a little time left to live.
In The Farewell, Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, and Diana Lin play fictionalized versions of Lulu Wang and her parents, respectively, as they head from their homes in the United States back to China so that they can covertly say goodbye to the family matriarch, Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao). Given the autobiographical nature of the story, you may wonder how the reality of the situation was ultimately influential on both the narrative and members of the cast – and by clicking play on the video below you’ll find out!
A few weeks back I had the pleasure of sitting down with Lulu Wang, Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, and Diana Lin at the Los Angeles press day for The Farewell, and the big question at hand was how everyone felt influenced by the “Based on a true story” aspect of the film (or, as the movie’s opening text puts it, “Based on an actual lie.”)
As acknowledged by Lulu Wang, at the end of the day this is not a word-for-word account of exactly what happened to her, but she was able to use reality to create greater depth for the characters featured thanks to the fact that they are inspired by real people. This isn’t necessarily information that is specifically delivered in dialogue, or affects the plot in any way, but it was material that the actors could use to add dimension to their characters and the relationships they have with the rest of the ensemble.
To that end, Tzi Ma and Diana Lin were also deeply appreciative of the opportunity that they had to meet Lulu Wang’s actual family – who clearly showed them tremendous hospitality in the making of The Farewell. They were impressed by the openness that was expressed whenever they inquired about specific details, and it was an experience that left them feeling grateful.
Awkwafina, of course, had a bit of a different job as the rest of the cast, as to a certain extent she had the responsibility of playing a version of her director. As she explained, however, it wasn’t a situation where Lulu Wang was telling her precisely how to act, but instead was actually the complete opposite, as she was given wonderful freedom to play the role as she wanted. Said the actress,
I think the awesome thing about working with Lulu is that when crafting Billi, I don't think Lulu was necessarily precious to like, 'This has to be me. This is what I do.'… It's a character, and it's based off the story. And I think what was cool is that Lulu, she was always open if I had an instinct, you know? That gave it freedom. I think Billi is a vessel, right? Aside from being based on one specific person, she represents every Asian-American kid that has to deal with loss like this. I think that with that neutrality it does come across.