Shooting around the real Nai Nai created an extra challenge for the cast and crew who had to make sure they didn't let anything slip. "We had to whisper scenes, it was real," Awkwafina explained during an Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences screening I moderated. "They were originally going to shoot in Nai Nai's real apartment and then eventually realized that would be too much. She would come to set, give us all massages, and hand out food and stuff. She was so full of joy. She really became all our grandmas."
Wang hadn't been to Changchun since she was 6 years old, and when she returned to film The Farewell, she found her relationship with her surroundings evolve beyond her childhood nostalgia. It wasn't just that she could now frequent bars; she had a newfound agency. "I got to see the city in a different way because I think when you look back on places that you’re from or the places where you spent a lot of time as a child, you are viewing it through a romantic lens and a nostalgic lens," she says. "Whenever I’m there with my family, I basically revert to a childlike state. You don’t really have any agency. That’s kind of also what Billi’s character is [going through]. In New York, she’s a strong independent person with a lot of agency, but then you go home and you have no agency and you're not even allowed to talk because you might spill the beans. But for me, going back and having agency allowed me to see the city as an adult. I went to bars -- I never went to bars as a 6 year old, obviously. And also the city's changed a lot. It's developed a lot more. So I feel like in a way, I now have an adult relationship with China, with the city."
As much as The Farewell is about confronting loss, it's also distinctly about place. The decision not to tell Nai Nai about what's ailing her is part of a Chinese cultural tradition Billi feels divorced from as someone who has grown up largely in the West. And, yet, as much as Billi disagrees with her family's decision, she also feels an inexorable pull toward the country in which she was born.
This is articulated heartbreakingly in a scene where Billi breaks down after telling her mom she wants to stay in China and take care of her grandmother. Sitting on the floor, Billi shares the isolation she felt when her parents left the rest of their family to move to America. That dialogue was inspired by a conversation Wang had with a friend who is American-born Chinese, unlike Wang who was born in China. "I said something that she responded to which was: 'In China, I felt whole because I had my entire family and then I came to the U.S.,'" Wang says, "She was saying she's never felt whole in her life. She's always felt like an outsider. And I said my brother went through that. My brother was born in America. He just thought he was weird and got made fun of. It wasn't until he went back to China for the first time when he was 4 years old that he was suddenly like, 'Oh, I come from some place. There are other people who look like me as a whole.' And somehow that just clicked for him and he became a lot less awkward and things made sense to him as a child. When I was explaining this to my friend she was like, 'Oh my god, that’s the difference. You were whole once.'"