If you had six months to live, would you want to know?
That’s a question that writer and director Lulu Wang tackles in her semi-autobiographical movie The Farewell, which chronicles a family’s decision to say goodbye to their matriarch — without telling her that she’s dying.
Awkwafina plays a Wang-like character named Billi, who as American, feels conflicted about keeping the secret from her grandmother as the whole family travels back to China for a wedding that has been set up exclusively to say goodbye.
Wang too felt conflicted when her family told her that her “Nai Nai,” or grandmother in Chinese, had cancer but that her grandmother would not be told about the diagnosis.
“I was actually in Berlin working on my first feature film, and struggling through the edit, as we usually do, when I got the news. And I very much felt the way that Billi in the movie feels, which is that it’s wrong to lie,” Wang tells PEOPLE.
At the time, Wang hadn’t heard of keeping a prognosis from a family member, something that could never happen in the United States but is allowable under Chinese law.
The issue became cultural, Wang says. Her father had lived for long amounts of time in both the United States and China places and felt torn.
“He understands it from the American perspective, but also understands the Chinese perspective more than I did. But he has more of a responsibility to respect the culture because he’s older generation, and he left a lot later than I did, and so there’s less of an excuse for him to be taking on these Western values,” she says.
Her mother often tried to make her understand the Chinese perspective, but Wang insists that she doesn’t need to. “I was like, ‘No no no, Mom. I don’t have to understand anything because I’m not making a documentary, and this isn’t actually a think piece.’ It’s a movie and the perspective is from a person who often doesn’t understand. So it was tricky to find that balance,” she says.
Wang says that it was her great-aunt, her grandmother’s sister, who ultimately made the decision to keep the terminal diagnosis a secret, and her father and uncle who supported it, as the men of the family.
“Nai Nai’s sister has been taking care of her, they’ve been very close since they were kids, and they live in the same apartment building, so it was ultimately her decision. And she was the one who got the diagnosis from the doctor, like in the movie, and she made the decision and she told the rest of the family that this is what she felt was best,” Wang says.
Saying goodbye came with a lot of guilt, according to Wang, who felt she hadn’t accomplished everything that her grandmother had wanted her to.
“It was difficult to go back and know that I was saying goodbye to her, not be able to tell her that I was saying goodbye first of all, and then also struggling with my own sense of self worth for my family immigrating to America to give me a better life, and that separated our family, it made it so that my grandmother grew older without her kids around and her grandkids around. And so I felt a lot of guilt about that,” she says.
The movie not only largely follows Wang’s own story, it was also filmed in her grandmother’s neighborhood in China. Wang was also able to cast her own great-aunt as Billi’s great-aunt in the film.
“I talked to a lot of companies and they loved the idea but wanted to make it much broader, and they wanted to make the Billi character the bride, for example, and I just didn’t want to make any compromises on this particular story,” Wang says, adding that her aim was to make it as authentic as possible.
As to whether she believes that keeping the secret from her grandmother was the right choice, Wang says it’s hard to say.
“Of course the entire family feels like it’s obvious. Like, ‘Of course. See, this was obviously the right decision and obviously the best decision,'” she says, “For me, it’s hard to say because I know other people who’ve made similar decisions and they have a lot of regret or they still feel like the person deserved to know.”
Would Wang want to know?
She says, “You know it’s complicated, I don’t know. I really don’t know.”
The Farewell is in theaters now.