The Farewell was arguably the sleeper hit of 2019. Lead actress Nora Lum, better known as Awkwafina (Ocean’s 8, Crazy Rich Asians), walked away with the Golden Globes’ best actress award and put director and writer Lulu Wang’s name on the map. Wang has now officially joined the club of female American directors changing the scene in Hollywood, one woman-centric film at a time.

Lesser known is the fact that Japanese actress Aoi Mizuhara made her Hollywood debut in The Farewell for which she spent the past few months living in Los Angeles and promoting the film.

“On my own, I saw this movie five times. I loved it that much,” Mizuhara tells The Japan Times. “One time, I even took my mother.”

The Farewell, as the opening subtitles inform us, is “based on an actual lie” from Wang’s own life experience.

Awkwafina plays Wang’s alter ego, Billi. Billi, who was born in Beijing but grew up in New York, has been informed that her beloved grandmother, Nai Nai, has lung cancer, though Nai Nai is unaware of this fact. With her sons living abroad — Billi’s father lives in the United States and her uncle is in Japan — the family agrees to hold a reunion in Changchun, a city in northeast China’s Jilin Province, to bid Nai Nai a heartfelt farewell. To this end, the family concocts a story that Billi’s cousin will marry a Japanese woman named Aiko (Mizuhara) and the ceremony will be held in Changchun.

Actress Aoi Mizuhara explores Asian family values in The Farewell, another step closer to international stardom

“I was told that Aiko was ‘the most Japanese-y Japanese woman ever seen in a Hollywood movie.’ I was really proud of that,” says Mizuhara. “So many Hollywood movies get the Japanese woman all wrong. Like, they’re bowing all the time and apologizing left and right, and they speak strangely accented Japanese. Aiko is none of those things.”

If Mizuhara’s character is one thing, it’s that she’s in the dark. While she understands the importance of respecting the matriarch in an Asian family, she doesn’t speak any Mandarin and, most importantly, she knows nothing about Nai Nai’s illness. The poor girl is also confused about what exactly is required of her (hello, she’s supposed to be the bride — the center of attention!). Instead, everyone except Nai Nai seems wildly distracted — including the groom.

At the time of this interview, Mizuhara is back in Japan, though she says she misses Los Angeles, and talks about the city as she remembers it, pre-Covid-19.

“I love the freedom of southern California and the whole LA culture,” she says. The city is full of actors and performers working day jobs, hoping to get their big break. Hollywood is so very different from anything I had experienced in Asia.”

Mizuhara is normally based in Beijing and, unlike Aiko, she’s completely fluent in Mandarin and is now eager to add English to her accomplishments.

“I was studying the language in LA but it’s very hard,” says Mizuhara. “English is an entirely new language for me, since I spent so many years living my life speaking Japanese and Mandarin.”

Mizuhara spent her childhood in Shenyang, in China’s Liaoning Province.

“My father was transferred there, so we all went with him,” she says. “After eight years in Shenyang, we returned to Japan, and my parents were adamant that I retained my Chinese. They felt that China was the future, and that Mandarin language skills would go a long way. This may be true, but I do feel that English is best when it comes to conversing with the world.”

Growing up, Mizuhara secretly pined to be an actress and went to her first audition when she was in middle school.

“My parents were very strict about schoolwork and getting good grades,” Mizuhara says. “They would never have agreed to a career in the entertainment industry.”

For the 10 years that followed, Mizuhara kept that audition a secret. She excelled at school and went on to study law at Kyoto University before attending Waseda for graduate school. Through it all, she never got over the acting bug. She took a year off from Waseda and went to China, where she enrolled in the performance department of the extremely competitive Beijing Film Academy. Among its alumni are Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern, Hero) and Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine), and Mizuhara was thrilled to be inside the storied gates, though “the work was very, very hard.” In 2014, she graduated at the top of her class — the first overseas student to do so — and her dialogue delivery in Mandarin was said to be better than her native classmates.

Since 2014, Mizuhara has worked almost exclusively in China, in TV and film, and you can even hear her voice on the Japanese language announcements at Beijing International Airport. Last year, an agent knocked on her door and asked her to audition for The Farewell. Initially, Mizuhara turned the agent down, as he could give her no particulars, “just that they needed a young Japanese woman.” Eventually, she got in front of the camera and auditioned for the part of Aiko.

“I was so surprised when I first saw the movie in its entirety,” says Mizuhara. “When we were shooting, the story struck me as very serious and moving, but it turned out to be a comedy as well. And on that first viewing, I thought, ‘Oh no, Aiko is so awkward, she’s rigid and nervous!’ But after seeing her several times, I realised that Aiko was fine as she was. I mean, who wouldn’t be awkward prepping for a wedding in a foreign country where no one spoke your language and everything was different?”

Mizuhara says she felt naturally in tune with the character she was playing.

“Aiko’s tenseness seemed natural and real, which really worked out for the story,” she says. “And I liked that Wang didn’t give any directions. She just told me to be myself and do my thing. She has such a flair for scooping out all the good stuff from a performance and putting it on film.”

The Farewell is, perhaps, emblematic of the way female directors work and how they seem to zero in on the joys and trials that come with being a daughter, a mother or a grandmother. The Farewell also shows the deep ties that some immigrants have to their family and heritage, though they may live thousands of kilometres away from their hometowns. In the film, Billi calls her grandmother weekly and has taught her to say the English-language sign-off of “Love you” before hanging up.

“I feel that The Farewell speaks to everyone, and its message is universal,” says Mizuhara. “A lot of people are estranged from their grandparents, though they may live in the same country. And families are the same the world over — they argue, they make up and many of us try to do the best to make our families happy. One of the best things about this film, though, is that everyone in the story exists. They’re all real, including Aiko.”

Has Mizuhara ever met the real Aiko?

“No, but I watched a video of Aiko’s wedding. I could tell she was head-over-heels in love with her Chinese husband,” Mizuhara says. “The Aiko in the film is more restrained, and kind of clunky. That worked, too, but if I were to do it differently, I would be all starry-eyed and lovey-dovey.” — By arrangement with The Japan Times

Published in Dawn, ICON, May 17th, 2020