Lulu Wang‘s deeply personal, disarmingly universal story of culture clash and family grief became an indie phenomenon when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last year. Based on Wang’s own experiences, The Farewell tells the story of a Chinese family who decides not to tell their grandmother that she has Stage 4 lung cancer, and the Chinese-American granddaughter (Golden Globe winner Awkwafina) who struggles with this decision.
But what about the real grandmother that the story is based on? She never found out the truth, even when Wang first told the story on This American Life in 2016, nor when Wang began shooting her film in her grandmother’s hometown in China. Wang and her family would have liked to keep it that way, but due to Chinese-language reviews published ahead of The Farewell‘s upcoming release in China, Wang’s grandmother found out the truth.
The Farewell became 2019’s little indie movie that could, earning acclaim out of the gate at Sundance last January and going on to garner awards buzz for its phenomenal cast and, last night, a Golden Globe award for breakout star Awkwafina, who made history as the first Asian actress to win Best Actress at the Golden Globes. But even as The Farewell took America by storm, it stayed quiet enough on the Eastern front that Lulu Wang’s real grandmother, upon whom the film is based, never found out the truth of her cancer diagnosis.
But unfortunately, the world’s best-kept secret couldn’t stay secret for long. Wang revealed at the Golden Globes Foreign Language Symposium, held at Hollywood’s Egyptian Theatre on Sunday that her grandmother “just found out” that the film is based on her (via Slate):
“It’s very traumatic that it’s coming out in China. And the title of the movie is Don’t Tell Her in Chinese. And her friend saw a review of it and was so proud of her, one of her longest friends, and sent it to her. And the review said, ‘The film is based on Lulu Wong’s real life. Her grandmother was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer in 2013. Her family threw a fake wedding for her cousin from Japan and her grandmother didn’t know. Then she made a movie about it…’ so it went through the entire history of our family, and my grandma read it. And so she said to little Nai Nai, her sister, who plays herself in the movie, she said, ‘I just thought that you were really daft, because you went and shot a movie, you went to the premiere in New York, and you come back and you can’t tell me anything about it. You can’t tell me what it’s about. You can’t tell me the title. But look, it says in the newspaper it’s called Don’t Tell Her, and that’s why you didn’t tell me, because I am the ‘her’ of the ‘don’t tell her.’” But we haven’t talked about it, so I’ll see what happens when I see her.
It’s a little astonishing that Wang was able to keep that secret from her grandmother, through the shooting of The Farewell and as the film garnered praise at film festivals and award shows. Wang’s grandmother even visited the set, which was shot at her hometown in China. But Wang elaborated that her grandmother only knew it was a “family story” and actually encouraged her to shoot the film at their hometown.
Wang maintained the secrecy on set and her great-aunt, who played herself in the film, didn’t tell Wang’s grandmother the details of the story. Things went smoothly as they made the festival circuit, because “it’s an American festival, so it’s never going to leave the country, and your grandma doesn’t go on the internet, she doesn’t read English, so it’s fine.”
But The Farewell makes its debut in Chinese theaters on January 25, 2019, which made it more likely that Wang’s grandmother would find out — and, of course, it was a Chinese-language review sent to her by a friend that would reveal it. I don’t envy Wang in finally having that conversation to her grandmother about the diagnosis, but at least she could finally see the movie that is getting her granddaughter so much acclaim.