In real life, Nai Nai’s relatives were spread around the globe, with Wang and her parents based in the U.S. after moving from China when she was 6. So the family fast-tracked a wedding, between Wang’s cousin and his Japanese girlfriend, as an excuse to bring the entire clan back to China to say their goodbyes to Nai Nai without tipping her off to the illness.
Wang began writing the script in 2014, the year her debut feature, “Posthumous,” came out. But producers had their own ideas about how her story should be told.
“As I was pitching to producers, they were like, ‘It’s obvious — if you’re going to make a wedding movie, then the main character has to be the bride,’ ” Wang says. “ ‘And she doesn’t get along with her boyfriend anymore. And he’s American. He’s a white guy. But somehow she convinces him, and they come and they force this wedding. And they end up falling in love again.’ ”
Wang takes a breath and laughs: “Very different movie.”
It wasn’t until 2016, when she told her family story on NPR’s “This American Life,” that her vision for the film gained traction. Within two days of the episode airing, Wang was fielding calls from producers who now were offering her creative freedom to write and direct a more personal, honest take.
“I sort of scrapped the old version of the script,” Wang says. “I had gone through so many of those iterations that I no longer knew what was mine, and what were the compromises.”
Ultimately, “The Farewell” strayed only minimally from the real-life narrative. Starring Zhao Shuzhen as Nai Nai and “Crazy Rich Asians” breakout Awkwafina as Billi, the protagonist Wang crafted as a stand-in for herself, the film premiered to acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival in January. It expands to Washington on Friday, having earned 2019’s best per-screen average at the domestic box office in limited release this past weekend.
“The Farewell” delivers a heartstring-tugging parable about family, mortality and the immigrant experience as Billi spars with relatives over the ethical quandary at hand. In returning to Nai Nai’s hometown of Changchun for filming last year, Wang revisited her guilty feelings while introducing the cast and crew to members of her actual family.
“When I went through the experience … I had no one to turn to and say, ‘This is crazy. I feel like this is wrong,’ so I had to just spin around in my own head,” Wang says. “It was so great to be back there now with all of these people who not only saw it from my perspective, but were trying to tell the story through that perspective.”
In the film, Wang’s conflicted perspective comes spilling out via an achingly heartfelt speech by Awkwafina’s Billi. Although they were words the writer-director never mustered in real life, having an opportunity to tell her story on film provided the catharsis she didn’t know she needed.
“I never really had a moment where I actually said how I felt,” Wang says. “Maybe, to me, I didn’t know how I actually felt until I did this script.”