Lulu Wang: 'Financiers told me I needed a white man as a lead character in The Farewell'

  • Video report by ITV News Arts Editor Nina Nannar

I meet Lulu Wang, the new voice in Hollywood, at what was Britain's first picture house, the Regent Street Cinema in London.

It's a case of British cinematic history hosting Hollywood's future. Or so she hopes.

This Chinese-American writer and director is hoping the acclaim she is receiving for her new film The Farewell will encourage others who look like her to forge a career in an industry which stands accused of ignoring a sizeable population of the US.

The Farewell is an autobiographical story focused on Ms Wang's visit to Changchun in China with her family. Her grandmother falls ill with cancer - the decision is taken not to tell her but to stage a wedding so that everyone can come together to say goodbye.

The family focuses on a family tragedy, set in China. Credit: The Farewell

It is a beautiful, moving and funny film. One which is rightly winning acclaim and box office dividends in America - but it nearly didn't get made.

Lulu, who had previously made the 2014 film Posthumous - well received by critics, found herself struggling to get financial backing. Some Hollywood financiers kept suggesting she needed a white man in her lineup, or the picture wouldn't sell.

A Chinese financier offered her the same advice.

To add to what was seen as a hard sell, her insistence on making a film mandarin is spoken 70% of the time meaning subtitles were needed.

She stuck to her guns, told her story on a radio podcast, and it was picked up by a sympathetic filmmaker who allowed her full creative control.

Director Lulu Wang faced opposition to getting the film made. Credit: The Farewell

It is a miracle, she tells me, that the film exists at all. Thank goodness she persevered. She even turned down lucrative offers from a couple of streaming services, she said, because she was insistent on keeping the story, and the characters in it, as true to life as possible.

It is still a rarity to see a film like this - a Hollywood movie which is entirely populated by Chinese actors, where the language is not English, and where the story is a real portrait of life for a Chinese-American woman living with two cultures.

Hollywood has faced criticism over the past few years for its poor representation of black people. Latino Americans have also long spoken out. This industry has tried to take measures to change this - and we are seeing the differences.

But it has been slow progress for Asian Americans.

Lulu Wang met Nina Nannar at one of London's oldest cinemas. Credit: ITV News

Crazy Rich Asians last year was hailed as a breakthrough, but Lulu Wang stresses this is still early days. She believes it only takes one of these new wave of films to fail and it will suddenly become even more difficult to get films like hers made.

An Oscar would help, of course. And this film is already being talked about as a contender, not least because of the standout performance of its lead actress, Awkwafina.

Wang, who was born in Beijing and moved to Miami at the age of six, tells me she's already getting letters from young Chinese-Americans whose parents are allowing them to pursue a film career on the back of her success. It was Tiawanese Oscar winning actor and director Ang Lee who similarly encouraged her, she said.

The Farewell is opening doors for a new diverse community of filmmakers on Friday 20 September.