Can you keep a secret? Lulu Wang, writer and director of the The Farewell, sure hopes so, because whole world is about to hear her family's best kept secret.
The Farewell, in theaters July 12, opens with the words, "Based on an actual lie." The lie was simple: In 2013, at the age of 80, Wang's grandmother was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer and given three months to live — and her family decided not to tell her. Instead, they staged a fake wedding so the far-flung relatives could travel to China and see Wang's Nai Nai (Chinese for "grandmother") one last time.
Wang, who grew up in the United States, was horrified. Her relatives were not going to tell her grandmother, the woman who raised her for a year, that she was dying? Not even take her to the hospital? Still, her family proceeded with the elaborate plan, and there wasn't anything Wang could do.
Wang's original intent was to make a film based on this unusual chapter in her life — a giant farewell disguised as a celebration. But when no producers bit on the idea, the story appeared on a 2016 episode of This American Life, "In Defense of Ignorance" instead.
By the time the riveting 27-minute story ran, Wang's grandmother had long outlived her three-month prognosis. Their family's plan had worked. The episode of This American Life features stories from Wang's relatives, who justified the plan. Her grandmother's sister, whom Wang calls Little Nai Nai, lives in the same city as Nai Nai, and spearheaded the plan's execution.
"[Little Nai Nai] believed that not telling her was a way of prolonging her life," Wang says in the episode of This American Life of her aunt's reasoning. "Knowing Nai Nai's personality, she worried her sister would get overwhelmed with fear and depression. She'd stop eating and sleeping. She'd lose interest in life."
As she reveals in the episode, Wang's family has a history of similar lies. When her own husband was sick, Nai Nai waited to share his diagnosis until his health had almost completely disintegrated. He died three days later. Nai Nai perpetuated a lie of her own. Nine years prior, she kept her breast cancer diagnosis from her family — all this time, she'd been wearing prosthetic breasts following her mastectomy.
After This American Life, Wang was able to make a movie about this event. The Farewell, too, became a family affair filled with a certain degree of deception. The Farewell was partially filmed in Nai Nai's house in Changchun, China. Nai Nai was happy to see her granddaughter at work — but to this day, she doesn't know what The Farewell is really about. "She thought that the movie was loosely based on our family, with everybody coming back to China for a wedding," Wang told The New York Times.
The Farewell is completely steeped in Wang's family history. Scenes were filmed in the cemetery where her grandfather is buried, or at the venue where her cousin got married. In the biggest overlap between fiction and reality, Wang cast Little Nai Nai to play herself in the movie.
Awkwafina, who swept the summer of 2018 with her goofy comedic sensibility, taps into her dramatic side to play Billi, a character Wang based on herself. The process of delving into her own experiences in writing and directing The Farewell was cathartic for Wang. "In many ways the film was therapy for me and I think I sort of had to convince myself that no one's going to see it," Wang told The Film Experience.
But given the rave reviews, people will be seeing it — and we'll all be keeping the secret.