As her second feature film opens across the country and around the world, filmmaker Lulu Wang is a director with a strong sense of the stories she wants to tell.
“The Farewell,” currently in limited release, is a personal story based on her own family. In the film, she shows a command of storytelling and style that many directors struggle for years to find. But this promise was already on display with her first feature, “Posthumous,” in 2014.
We’ve long heard the tales of artists who spend their whole lives trying to make their mark only to be discovered after they died penniless. “Posthumous” plays with that idea as it tells the story of an artist whose death is inaccurately reported. When he learns he is the subject of sudden fame, he decides to go along with the ruse and pretends to be his brother. At least until he meets an eager and enthusiastic reporter.
From this debut film, Wang showed her skill at crafting intimate stories about people that feel authentic. Even in “Posthumous,” a film about an artist who doesn’t correct anyone when his death is inaccurately reported, the premise is a bit wacky. But the story that unfolds manages to feel genuine, rather than silly.
Jack Huston plays Liam Price, an archetypal struggling artist with the attitude and ego to go with it. He knows there’s something to his work, but he also faces the self-doubt and frustration of never truly breaking into the Berlin art scene.
In a similar fashion to “The Farewell,” Lulu Wang builds her story around a lie. In the case of “Posthumous,” she interrogates the lie. Through Liam’s eyes and those of his mentor/art dealer, we see the personal and immediate benefits. And yet this is an act of fraud. When she comes to “The Farewell” five years later, she never answers the question of whether the lie is wrong because “it is a good lie.” This is a cultural difference and not a selfish one. Her family’s story is one of love and not personal gain.
In the case of “Posthumous,” as time goes on and Liam gets closer to McKenzie Grain (Brit Marling), he finds himself questioning things more and more. Where are those lines? What is acceptable and what is not? Can you truly be close to someone when they don’t know the most important truth about you?
Wang’s perspective and experience in the world help her tell interesting stories. And it is her ability to assemble and direct a team that makes those narratives come to life. She has a command of humor and how to bring out the comedy in a story where none of the characters know there is a joke. She builds trusting relationships with her actors and gives them the tools to feel confident in their choices. “Posthumous” may be a small-scale film, but the performances are lived in and real.
In addition to her cast, Wang pulls together a talented crew behind the scenes. This film captures the sprawling beauty and intimate peace of Berlin, a city always on the verge of something new. Stefan Ciupek is the man behind the camera. He brings his command of space and light to the work in a way that highlights the sense of confinement one feels when trapped in a prison of their own making. He also shows off Berlin as a destination. It’s impossible not to want to hop on a plane after seeing it through his eyes.
There is little doubt that “The Farewell” will throw doors open for this impressive writer and director. Visiting “Posthumous” serves to demonstrate that those foundations were already laid. Wang’s perspective and enthusiasm are welcome and needed. As we see more female filmmakers and women of color crafting new stories, Wang is not only a welcome member of that group but is poised to lead the way for others.