“The Farewell,” a dramatic comedy by director Lulu Wang, opens the Atlanta Film Festival Friday, April 5, with a premise that some Americans might find preposterous.
When a Chinese matriarch is stricken with cancer, her family decides to keep the terminal diagnosis a secret from her.
Instead they hastily arrange a wedding of a young family member so that the extended clan -- including the Chinese-American émigrés -- can gather for a reunion.
Their struggles to keep the secret from Nai Nai -- especially the struggles of American granddaughter Billi (rapper-turned-actor Awkwafina in her first dramatic turn) -- are played for both laughs and poignance.
But that couldn’t really happen could it? You wouldn’t keep a terminal diagnosis a secret from an aging grandmother right? (As Nai Nai’s son points out, “In America this would be illegal.”)
Actually, it does happen. Wang, 36, speaks from experience, since such a diagnosis was kept from her own Nai Nai.
The young filmmaker’s second feature was a hit at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, which is why the curators of the Atlanta Film Festival were thrilled to have both Wang and her movie serve as the opening act in Atlanta.
Both Wang and Awkwafina are to attend Friday night’s ceremonies at the Plaza Theatre in the Poncey Highland neighborhood. Earlier Friday Wang met with the AJC for coffee and a few questions.
Her film opens with the note: “Based on an actual lie.”
That actual lie was revealed in a 2016 episode of “This American Life,” a radio appearance that eventually led to the opportunity to make the movie.
Wang said the mind is powerful, and the benefit of the lie can be powerful too. But how would Wang feel if she were the Nai Nai being kept in the dark? “I think, too, I would want to know, but I also avoid going to the doctors,” she laughs. “Because I don’t want to know.”
Like her protagonist Billi, she was urged not to travel to China to attend the reunion, because she was too likely to show her emotions -- a result of being “too American.”
But she had to go. First of all, because, though they saw each other rarely, she and Nai Nai were like two peas in a pod.
“People would say, ‘You take after her. You gotta be careful because she started gaining weight after she was 40.’” (The very diminutive director appears to be safe from that fate.)
Wang’s family moved from China to the U.S. when she was six years old, but she stayed in touch with Nai Nai through phone calls and visits.
She also maintained her command of Mandarin, and during shooting on location in China she directed the action in both English and Chinese.
Does the success of “Crazy Rich Asians” and “The Farewell” mean that we’re in a renaissance of Asian-American cinema?
“I hope so,” says Wang brightly. “I certainly hope that it’s a movement. But also I hope that it isn’t (only) Asian-American film. I hope that it’s a movement that’s just about embracing films that represent what America actually looks like . . . Let’s just tell stories of Americans. And we all look different. And we all have different backgrounds, and let’s make sure all those perspectives are represented.”
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