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'I knew the film I had to make and I knew what I wanted to say'

Director Lulu Wang tells a deeply personal story in her new film The Farewell. She tells Laura Harding how making a movie about her own experiences changed how she felt about her family

Family reunion: Awkwafina as Billi Wang and Zhao Shuzhen as Nai Nai
Family reunion: Awkwafina as Billi Wang and Zhao Shuzhen as Nai Nai
Awkwafina as Billi Wang

Do you mind if I film a little bit?" Lulu Wang is seated at a boardroom table and has propped up a sparkly new iPhone using a takeaway coffee cup, a water glass and a hardback book, and is pointing the lens right at me.

The phone keeps slipping out of its makeshift holder, but Wang is undeterred, constantly re-positioning her props to keep the camera in place.

"I'm doing a short film with this new phone, so I decided to document some of my press."

She has been doing a lot of press of late as she rides the wave of success with new film The Farewell, which was a hit at the Sundance Film Festival and is based on family experiences.

It follows Chinese-born, US-raised Billi (played by Crazy Rich Asians star Awkwafina), who learns her grandmother Nai-Nai is terminally ill and is horrified when her family in China say they have no plans to tell her about her diagnosis.

"I was torn between my family and respecting their decision, and what I felt to be unethical," Wang says.

"In the exploration of making the film and examining both sides, I think I came out with a much more balanced view."

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When Billi, who lives in New York, finds out Nai-Nai has been given weeks to live, the family reunites in Changchun to see the matriarch.

The guise of a rushed wedding gives them an excuse to gather round her without alerting her to the fatal illness.

One of the most poignant scenes recreates a conversation Wang had, when Billi's uncle explains to her it is the duty of the family to carry the emotional burden of the news and to tell her grandmother would be a selfish act to alleviate her own guilt.

"I always felt like the selfish factor line was something that everyone felt towards the west and towards me as a westerner," Wang remembers.

"They felt like that was an influence of being westernised because it is a more 'selfish', individualistic culture.

"I talked to my uncle and he said those specific words to me about carrying the burden."

She pauses.

"Making the film gave me a lot more compassion for their decision because throughout the process I had to interview them, ask them questions and really come to have a greater understanding.

"I think that is what was so great about this process, that it wasn't just like I knew the story. I knew the film I had to make and I knew what I wanted to say - it was a true exploration."

The exploration actually started before the story headed for the big screen, when Wang recounted it on an episode of the podcast This American Life.

"I always wanted it to be a film - as a filmmaker that is my natural inclination - but I pitched it around town and wasn't able to find producers or financiers. That's when I set it aside for quite a while.

"When I met a producer from This American Life, it was always in the back of my head, trying to find a way to tell this story, so I brought it up to him and we ended up doing it for This American Life. Then producers came to me after hearing it on the radio and, 'Have you ever considered making this a film?'"

She laughs. "Funny you should say that!"

Making the film gave her the opportunity to return to China and cast her grandmother's sister, Lu Hong (known as Little Nai Nai), as herself.

"In the beginning we didn't know if she could act, as much as I loved her," she says

"I initially thought about casting her to play Nai Nai herself, but because she doesn't act it's much harder for her to play a different character.

"So then I thought she should just play herself, instead of her playing her sister and an actress playing her.

"It took a few auditions before I realised she could do it because she kept trying to act. Then I said, 'Just be yourself, just talk to me like you would normally'. When she did that all of the emotions came out because she was talking about her real life, her real experiences."

She showed the tape to the film's producers, who were blown away by her performance but were also worried that being in the film would be traumatic for the older woman.

"They asked, 'Is it unethical for us to put her through this because she has to revisit and relive these experiences?', but she said, 'No, I think it's actually really therapeutic to talk about it'."

Starring opposite Little Nai Nai is the actress and rapper Awkwafina, best known for her comedic roles in Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean's 8 and her viral YouTube videos.

She has already won critical acclaim for the role, but Wang is the first to admit she wasn't always keen on her for the part.

"We cast her before Crazy Rich Asians came out, before Ocean's 8. She was not famous. I knew her from her rap videos on YouTube and I knew she did some comedic acting, but I hadn't really paid that much attention.

"I hadn't seen a lot of those films when I met her, so it was really just that I was worried that my producers only wanted her because she's an influencer, but her audition tape is what really convinced me.

"I saw her performance on the tape and just realised that she has tremendous range."

Wang was also nervous because Awkwafina did not speak great Mandarin.

"At first it was not a mark in her favour. The fact that her Chinese wasn't so good I felt was not true to reality because I actually did speak it and I was worried about the connection she would be able to form with the grandmother if she spoke such little Chinese.

"But we realised that she spoke enough that she could say the basic things and have that connection, but not so much that she felt she was more native like I am, or like I can seem. It just made it that much clearer that her awful Chinese makes her much more foreign, much more a fish out of water."

Are her family still convinced they did the right thing in not telling Nai Nai?

"Yes, absolutely," Wang replies. "Even more so now there is a film."

The Farewell is in cinemas now.

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