Thematically, The Farewell is about reconciliation with the past and wrestling with cultural traditions that now seem foreign in a country that once was home. But it’s also simply about grappling with the loss of a loving grandma and everything she represents. And that’s one of the reasons Awkwafina -- a.k.a. Nora Lum -- ended up starring. "When Nora and I met she was like, 'Look, everybody knows me as Awkwafina, everybody knows "My Vag," I get that I’m not the obvious choice for this, but I want to tell you about how I was raised by my grandmother when my mother passed away when I was four, and how much this role means to me, how much this story means to me.'"
"Comedian known for bit parts takes on a serious lead role" is not an unfamiliar narrative for Sundance. (See: Pete Davidson.) But Awkwafina's performance here is special, perhaps because it is so lived-in. By necessity, it's masterful in its restraint, but she never loses the charisma that made her a break-out star in Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean's 8 last year. Meanwhile, Wang searched parks in Changchun -- her grandmother’s hometown -- to find someone to play Nai Nai and settled on the Chinese television actress Zhao Shuzhen. Wang's own great aunt played Nai Nai's on-screen sister Little Nai Nai, the primary person responsible for maintaining the lie. "To this day, even when I told her we premiered at Sundance, she was like, 'Oh that's great, are you sure my fat face didn't ruin your movie?'" Wang says. "I was like, 'Stop saying that. Everyone thinks you're amazing.'"
I ask Wang if she's had the chance to talk to her parents in depth about the film since the premiere. Not really, she says, it's been a whirlwind of press and parties. Her dad did tell her that he cried "a lot" -- a big admission from him, she says. They've mostly talked about where she goes from here. After all, Wang herself became something of an overnight celebrity in the mountains, entering an echelon of newly anointed auteurs. (Think Barry Jenkins or Marielle Heller.) "We have these conversations where I'm like, 'there are these opportunities where I will now finally maybe be able to do things for you guys.' And it's been so powerful because my mom is like, 'You've never made your choices around money and that's what got you here, and everything is going to be fine. There's abundance and you do what you think is best for you, for your film, for your career,'" Wang says. "That's been so powerful because it allows them a sense of freedom from fear. That is a gift that I think is greater than anything material."