How food communicates love and tension in 'The Farewell'

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A scene from "The Farewell." Photo courtesy of A24

At various points in director Lulu Wang’s movie "The Farewell," a Chinese family is shown interacting around the dinner table. The family members have gathered for a wedding banquet, though it’s actually a ruse.

The real reason for their reunion: the matriarch has cancer and is dying. But the family has chosen to keep the news a secret from her. 

These events are based on Wang’s life. In 2013, she rushed back to China after learning her grandmother was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. 

Wang tells Good Food's Evan Kleiman that in “The Farewell,” food is meant to show the family's dilemma when it comes to expressing love.

"Because the family is grieving, the one thing that they've lost is their appetite. . . . But because grandma has gathered the family under the guise of a wedding and a celebration, she continues to feed everybody, and it surprises her when somebody in the family doesn't want to eat or seems to be sort of almost disgusted by the food," Wang says. "I really wanted to use food in this way to sort of visualize the internal tension that the family is facing: that the one way they can express love back to Nai-Nai (grandma) is by eating her food." 

Wang chose to depict food in realistic ways, without the lengthy, sensual close-ups increasingly common in other movies and TV series. "I wanted the food and the eating to be part of the texture of the family, of life—and not above it, not romanticized, not idealized, and not made to be food porn. . . . In these ancient cultures, nobody is a foodie, and nobody's a non-foodie. Everybody just eats food, and good food," Wang says.

Lulu Wang. Photo credit: Elias Roman

Where to find the dishes featured in 'The Farewell'

Wang says her mother's friend, who lives in the San Gabriel Valley, recommends these local restaurants:

ShenYang Tasty Restaurant - 127 S San Gabriel Blvd, San Gabriel, CA 91776

"It's specialized in northern Chinese cuisine… And so you're going to get a lot of the food that was in the movie," Wang says.

Popular items: Flatbread, fried sweet and sour pork, glass noodles, lamb skewers

Northern Chinese Restaurant - 8450 Valley Blvd, Ste 108, Rosemead, CA 91770

"I hope that lots of white people just show up and be like, 'I heard this on the radio. Lulu's mother's friend lives around here and said I should come.' It'll be an adventure. Please find me on Twitter and tell me how it goes. That would be very exciting for me," Wang says.

Popular items: Sour cabbage pork soup, fried lamb chops, meat pie

A meal cooked by Lulu Wang's real-life grandma. Photo courtesy of The Farewell.

--Written by Amy Ta, produced by Nick Liao