Performing Joy and Swallowing Pain: An Interview with Lulu Wang
On the occasion of Lulu Wang’s sophomore feature The Farewell, the director speaks to Ava Wong Davies about the specificities of living and loving a family between two worlds. The pair dive into the film’s understanding of food, balance, empathy and more.
The Farewell is a film which exalts the necessity of seeing both – both Chinese and American, both celebration and grief, both artifice and truth. It’s a film which encourages simultaneity in your watching, which nudges you away from a binary understanding of right and wrong. You leave The Farewell and everything feels a little lighter, a little easier to bear. Interviewing Lulu Wang is a similarly expansive experience – an utterly generous yet fastidious filmmaker, whose hard-won craft is evident from the moment she begins speaking.
Ava Wong Davies
Chinese people are obsessed with the concept of qi (roughly translated as the energy that runs through our bodies) and they believe that if you have an imbalance of qi, then it can lead to physical and psychological ailments. Was balance something you thought a lot about while making The Farewell?
I think unconsciously I did, because that idea is so ingrained in Chinese culture. If anything, I think it most overtly applies to the tone of the film, which always strikes this delicate balance – it’s never too heavy, and there is lightness there but it’s a lightness that isn’t broad. It’s never overly sweet or overly salty.
Did that influence the way you and (DoP) Anna Franquesca Solano shot the film?
Partially – those very still frames that we use when we’re in China came because we wanted to show the theatricality of what was happening. The family is performing joy, performing this wedding, and it’s not real. I wanted the blocking of the actors to feel very alive and free – so the wide still frame forms the stage, and that’s juxtaposed with the amount of life you see onscreen. Within these larger frames you can have more things happening – sometimes there’s something happening in the foreground which is quite sad, but there’s something ridiculous happening in the background. And the audience can choose, but you can feel both.
We chose a more landscape aspect ratio because we wanted to include more faces, and show this landscape of family, essentially. It’s a frame in which you expect to see mountains and scenery, but here it was used for faces. And the family is spilling out of frame, full of life, and we juxtaposed that with Billi, alone in that same wide frame, so you really feel her isolation and it’s jarring to have that negative space when a moment ago there was a tonne of activity. Because that’s what it feels like as an immigrant – there’s so much happening when you’re with your family, and you’re almost overwhelmed because you have no personal space – but then it’s over so quickly, and they’re gone, and you immediately miss them.
I love the scene where Billi gets cupping on her back. I never thought I’d see that in an American film. My Popo tells me that you have to get cupping if your blood is stagnant or stuck, and I thought was a really deft metaphor for Billi’s psychological state. Can you talk a bit more about that scene?
I think the cupping added to the ridiculousness of the whole situation. The family are at this massage parlour, talking about how the lie is about taking pain away from Nai Nai, and meanwhile Billi is having these painful cups put on her back. And it’s also about how Billi goes to China and suddenly doesn’t even have autonomy over her own body, never mind the lie. It’s a statement of a lot of how I feel about going back to China to see my family, because nothing is really my own. I don’t really have any control.
Food is a really complex thing for lots of Chinese families. How did you want to utilise it?
When you go home, you’re inundated with food and it’s to say, “I love you”, and in order to say “I love you back” to your family, you eat that food. I wanted to use it to visualise the difficulty of keeping the lie. Because if Nai Nai is expressing her love by giving you food and you’re not eating (because grief causes a loss of appetite) then you might be giving away the secret, because Nai Nai knows that normally, you would eat. So these characters have to swallow the pain and grief along with the food. It’s this growing tension throughout the film, because there’s just more and more food. There’s dinner, and then there’s this big breakfast, and then there’s more dinner, all building up until the wedding, where there’s a literal mountain of food in front of Billi and chopsticks are flying everywhere.
Can you talk a little about the types of food you decided to include?
My grandmother and so many Chinese people care so much about face, and about what certain foods represent in terms of your wealth or generosity. In the film, Nai Nai wants to serve lobster at the wedding, because of course, she wants only the best for her grandson, but she also wants to show off to her friends. So she gets really upset when they end up having to serve crab and not lobster, because that’s a statement about her standing. Aside from that, it was about staying really authentic to the northern foods that my grandma eats. It’s always really large portions, whereas somewhere like Shanghai, you eat more delicate food like dim sum. In the north it’s not like that, you’ll get a giant fish, lots of meat, loads of rice, all at one meal.
What is it that attracts you to film over other mediums?
You can really shift perspectives with film, and there’s a lot of power and responsibility that comes with it. You have to think carefully about intention, and what you show onscreen, particularly in this day and age. What are you capturing – real life or some glorified fantasy, and for what purpose? Media shifts the way we think about the world and the way we think about the world, and I think film is fundamentally a tool for empathy.
Ava Wong Davies (@avawongdavies) is a theatre critic and playwright from London.