“Papa! You must say that he has done a good job,” the director Lulu Wang said. She spoke to her husband, Haiyan Wang, who was sitting at dinner next to me. It’s been a perfect last night at West Hollywood Auburn bar. In front of us was a bottle of Maotai, the fiery Chinese liquor, opened, a Chinese food festival. Lulu made a documentary about her parents this week entitled “The Farewell,” and I was wondering if her dad enjoyed how actor Tzi Ma depicted him. The husband of Lulu, the Oscar-winning director Barry Jenkins, the ever-peacemaker, chimed in: “He did a good job knowing him and understanding you. He doesn’t mimic you; he’s like you.” Her dad smiled with a grin of experience.
“The Farewell” is a tender tale about family deceit. Five years ago, Lulu heard that her aunt, the mother of her brother, or her Nai Nai in Chinese, had stage-four lung cancer; the doctor said she had three months left to live. The family has never decided to tell her, but plans have been made to see her regularly. To explain the sudden arrival of every family member in Changchun, China, where Nai Nai lived, Lulu’s father came up with an innovative proposal: Why not say that Lulu’s cousin married his Japanese girlfriend and that they had a wedding in Changchun? The story of the time — as well as the fact that Nai Nai is still alive — finally became a series called “This American Life” in 2016, which ultimately became a feature-length film starring Awkwafina (Nora Lum) as Lulu.
Last night, Auburn — where Lulu’s younger brother, Anthony, works as Eric Bost’s sub-chief — was closed to the public, offering Lulu a quiet space to celebrate with her family and friends before the film’s promotion flurry started. There was also Bost and his family. The Chinese food they served was off-menu; Auburn usually serves more California’s seasonal, western cuisine. There are cubes of spiced cumin lamb, pickled lemon seed cucumbers, slices of fermented cone cabbage, wood ear mushroom bowls, cold sesame noodles, braised pork shanks, a steamed fish, fresh snow pea shoots, sautéed eggplant, scallion pancakes made by their mother, Jian Yu, in honor of Lulu’s film that depicts how meals are consistently a way for the family to come together. Once I asked Yu, who used to work as a writer and editor in China, how she had learned to cook — Jenkins confessed to being a great chef— she answered, “I taught myself.””My mom just says,’ It’s common sense,'” Lulu stated. Yu agreed: “Yeah, it’s common sense, I guess. My family’s family to eat. You know how this can make it. That’s in the blood itself.
There are many clichés about Chinese families gathering over a dumpling plate or what you have, but “The Farewell” can portray something more complicated. Wang told me that when she pitched the film to producers, she resisted more packaged ideas about a Chinese wedding. It’s always been a story about her and her grandmother to her. Yet her film often reflects the complexities of her immigrant experience. “You feel like you’ve been whole at one point when you come from China,” Lulu explained to me. When she was six, she left China for the United States. “You feel like something was taken away when you leave.””The Farewell” communicates the need for a sense of integrity, the feeling that one pulled in two ways as an outsider. There are small details in the film that clearly illustrate it: fictitious Lulu’s Chinese is not that good anymore, she is deemed too emotional relative to her more traditional family members. Food is a way to connect to a location that was once home for the Wang clan. Below are some tips for Lulu and Anthony on how to create a meal that highlights Changchun (where Lulu ended up filming “The Farewell”).
Play With Tradition
For the night, the Wangs had set up an impressive number of dishes. I shared with me that the family had engaged in a series of heated discussions about what delivers and how to do it. For instance, Anthony prepared his cold sesame noodles with sweet potato noodles rather than the more traditional flat noodles, much to his mother’s objection. His sliced pig ears recipe — loosely inspired by a sliced beef tendon Sichuan dish — was more of a reference to what he and Bost served daily at Auburn. At 90 degrees Fahrenheit, the pig ears are cooked for 10 hours in a vacuum-sealed bag, pressed into a tureen mold, and then sliced into strands. They coated in vinegar made from leek blossoms and wrapped in herbs such as butterfly sorrel from a local farm in California, designed to complement the meaty, gelatinous texture of the pig ears. “It’s not true,” Yu said, “but it’s far from the traditional Chinese way.” It’s a friendly reminder that home is often more of a concept than anything else.