Lulu Wang Speaks Out about Ron Howard Directing the New Lang Lang Biopic

Lulu Wang
Lulu Wang
The most accurate stories get the specifics right. Can outsiders ever emulate that kind of knowledge? 

Yesterday, Imagine announced that Ron Howard would helm a film based on the life of Lang Lang, a classically trained pianist from Northern China. The story would be based on the musician’s memoir, Journey of a Thousand Miles.

According to Vanity Fair, "The biopic will trace Lang Lang’s upbringing in Shenyang, a city in northern China, and the sacrifices his family made so he could become a world-famous musician. Lang Lang is set to executive produce the upcoming biopic alongside Howard and producer Brian Grazer."

Normally this would be a big announcement, an A-list director and producer making what feels like an Oscar-bait type movie. But the subject matter of the story and the race of the protagonist are hot button issues in Hollywood right now. Especially since the crew behind the new movie is white. 

Even with Lang serving as an executive producer, projects like this have come under heavy scrutiny recently. 

The Farewell’s writer-director, Lulu Wang, weighed in on the news on Twitter, questioning whether Howard is the right person to tell this story. 

If you keep reading her thread, you'll see that Wang added that she is not personally interested in directing the film—but still feels that Howard and Grazer are not the right fit for the project. “I just don’t think these are the artists to grapple w/ the cultural specificities of Northeast China where Lang Lang (and my family) are from. Or w/ the cultural aspect of the physical violence in his upbringing.”

She went on to talk about another 2020 movie, like Mulan, which she thinks suffered from the same lack of representation, saying “Have we learned NOTHING from Mulan? I haven’t said anything because yes representation and many people I love are involved, but I just have to. Just HAVE to. Because 2020 man... and I’m fucking exhausted.”

My gut reaction is...of course someone said something. Hollywood has been getting pinged for these kinds of stories and business decisions for a while. I'm not sure why they thought this one would be any different. 

It's safe to say if you are going to have an announcement like this, you should lead with the consultants you're bringing on to these projects and the intent you have to actually learn the nuance of the culture and situation. Having source material is not enough. I think it's very important to talk about the connection to the work and the promise to be authentic. 

Even with A-list directors, you can never assume they'll do the right thing. 

It's tough, because of the nature of this story I think you really do need A-listers involved to make sure it hits the screen. But maybe only as producers and not as the main creative force. And if they are writing or directing the story, they need to take the proper steps to ensure the story they're telling is accurate. That means publicly acknowledging how you plan to take those steps. 

But that's just my two cents. 

What do you think of the situation? 

What are some strategies Hollywood can employ to still make these kinds of movies at the studio level? 

Let us know what you think in the comments.      

Your Comment

13 Comments

Nonsense. I'm living in Europe but am of indian origin and my most beloved films are American and some Japanese and the rest comes from everywhere from the world. So I'm allowed to love movies regardless where they're from but, according to the nonsense philosophy of an unknown person who probably just longs for a bit of publicity, I should only produce films that tie in my cultural background, even though I was raised in a western country and have almost zero connections to indian movies? Film is art. These leftist nonsense ideologies have no place there.

September 23, 2020 at 11:48PM

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DingDong
2187

What a snotty, immature brat. Ron Howard is absolutely qualified to tell this story. He's certainly more qualified than she is.

I swear, all these "woke" people just want to bring back segregation. Get some brains, you fools! Skin color doesn't matter. Race doesn't matter. Only your abilities matter!

September 24, 2020 at 12:15AM

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Its the "absolute" part of her statement that I don't agree with. I don't think its IMPOSSIBLE for a Western filmmaker to tell an Eastern person's story, its really about doing the due diligence. And after watching Ron's MasterClass, he definitely is one to do the proper research into the subject so that his approach will achieve the authenticity needed. You really cant compare what Niki Caro did with "Mulan" to what Ron's approach to this film, if Ron directed Mulan, we would have a very different film than what we got from Niki. Because each is their own artist and bring different sensibilities to the work.

September 24, 2020 at 7:16AM

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Nicholas Ortiz
Director/Writer/Stuntman
317

Lulu Wang is right, and it's not about being "woke". It's about knowing more and demanding more from the stories being told and the art being made. Stories today turn on their specifics, whether cultural or visual effect, we, the audience, want them to be evermore detailed and intimate. Not everyone, not even great ones have the capacity, the experience, or the ability to produce the necessary alchemy to tell every tale well. Some specifics need to be lived to be told. Hollywood and those it empowers have been very slow to learn this fact, but they will learn it because audiences, you and me, want, deserve, and can recognize excellent detailed intimate art. Lulu Wang is right.

September 24, 2020 at 8:42AM, Edited September 24, 9:13AM

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Dean Moss
Performance/Video Artist
15

So what you're saying is that it is impossible for outsiders to learn and understand the culture without experiencing it first hand? Cuz that is nonsense. Empathy, critical thinking, history books, curiosity, skill are just some of the tools available to all, and it is simply a matter of using them well. Perfect example "8th grade." What does Bo Burnham know about being a girl in an 8th grade? Probably not that much, considering he is home schooled and not a girl, yet the film is constantly praised for its "authenticity." There are many other examples as well such "Letters from Iwo Jima", ""Color Purple". None of those filmmakers are from "that culture," yet films speak for themselves. Lulu Wang is wrong.

September 24, 2020 at 11:52AM

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Daniil Deych
Director, Director of Photography, Editor
99

Not to mention, sometimes those "on the inside" aren't the most objective observers. Using football as an example - or any major team sport really - the players, whether current or past, aren't necessarily the best at explaining what has happened and why. Sure, many are. But there are plenty of people who never even got close to "the big leagues", but had an enormous interest and love for the subject, that go on to understand "the game" (not just what happens on a field/pitch/court, but also everything surrounding it/in that world) far better (and sometimes more objectively) than those "who were in it, man".

September 24, 2020 at 8:30PM

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Tuor Eladar
maker
16

What I'm saying is that individual lived experience is unique and wholly subjective, and no amount of education or consultation can substitute for the insights a lived life brings. It's curious to me why anyone would argue against that fact. It seems to suggest that you believe the contradiction, complexity and intimacy of your own life could be substituted by another and that you yourself would find it authentically you. Of course the argument makes more sense if what is really being considered is money and power rather than art and identity.

September 25, 2020 at 7:49AM

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Dean Moss
Performance/Video Artist
15

Perhaps. You missed my point. I agree you are right...but only in some case. Not everyone is the most objective observer of their own life, and thus, if someone hearing the life-story of another wants an objective re-telling of it, perhaps in some instances another person could do it better.

To use another example to illustrate my point. Michael Jackson. Let's presume everyone reading this (like, 3 people) agrees he molested children. Ok, do you think Michael Jackson is going to oversee a film that includes those aspects of his life? Or even those nearest and dearest to him? Sure, you could stay this is an extreme example, but the rationale still sticks because it's broadly applicable.

The point is, Lang Lang could be right. Perhaps someone else closer to the context could do a better job than Ron Howard at telling the story. 'Perhaps', 'could' - key words. But let's face it, she does not know it to be a fact (despite what she may think), and nor do you. The problem with what she has reportedly said is that it's based purely on Howard's own race/ethnicity. She's making a presumption that he could not tell the story better than someone from that region....because of his race. That's racist, and as you say, that's a fact. It's also a fact there's an irony in all of this that where (I presume) she's coming from is a desire to overcome historical prejudices against non-whites in the film industry....by being prejudiced herself. Oh. The. Irony.

September 26, 2020 at 1:12AM

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Tuor Eladar
maker
16

I understand Lulu Wang's point, and I understand that her goal is to open doors for BIPOC artists to tell their stories.

But, at the same time, she's saying Bernardo Bertolucci (Italian) shouldn't have helmed 'The Last Emperor', or Craig Brewer (white) shouldn't have helmed 'Dolemite is My Name' and 'Hustle & Flow,' or that Ryan Coogler or Barry Jenkins (both black) couldn't possibly have directed films like, say, 'Fried Green Tomatoes,' or 'Terms of Endearment.'

Lulu Wang's goal here is a noble one. But, I don't agree that the color of your skin, or the culture you grew up in, keeps you from being a thoughtful observer of a culture you may not have grown up in.

All this being said, is Ron Howard right for the story? I think instead of looking at his skin and cultural background, we should be looking at his filmmaking sensibility. Howard is very mainstream and accessible -- and occasionally watered-down to achieve said accessibility. Does this suit the story? I can't say. But, that's what people should be looking at. Based on what I know of the story, and the grit and realism it may require, I'd prefer a different director. Let's think: John Woo is Chinese -- but is his sensibility right for the story? Ang Lee, maybe? He could shoot it at 120fps so no one will want to watch it. Wong Kar-wai has the sensibility, for sure, but would he want to do it? Even Lulu Wang herself said she isn't interested in telling the story.

Point is, there are more factors at work than, "Ron Howard is white and therefor can't possibly tell this story." I am all for diversity in casts and crews, and the new diversity requirements AMPAS will be putting in place for Best Picture requirements are a great start. But, presuming any given filmmaker can't tell any given story well, based solely on their culture and skin color, is absurd, because it pigeonholes filmmakers into telling specific stories, rather than any given story they might find interesting.

September 24, 2020 at 8:57AM, Edited September 24, 9:33AM

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Jeff Payne
Writer/Director
336

Ang Lee - first filmmaker I thought of! By her rationale, he should not have been allowed (keyword right there) to make Brokeback Mountain. And what hatchet job he did! Terrible execution, very inauthentic, grossly misrepresented the people in it, nobody saw it, everyone unanimously agreed it was terrible, and didn't get a look in at a single awards show....

Let's face it, she's basically being racist. Like, we all get where she's coming from and why....but...ya know...the grounds for what she's calling for stems from Howard's race/ethnicity. *shrug emoji goes here*

September 24, 2020 at 8:33PM, Edited September 24, 8:35PM

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Tuor Eladar
maker
16

I actually thought the same thing in the past.

Ron Howard SHOULD NOT have directed Apollo 13. He is NOT an astronaut and clearly cannot tell the story as it was meant to be told. Only a fellow astronaut should have been able to direct the movie. When will Hollywood come to its senses and be more inclusive and understanding of the astronaut community. Sure, he can do his due diligence with research and interviews as well as making sure to have staff on hand that were astronauts to act as consultant's at anytime during production, but COME ON Hollywood!

September 24, 2020 at 9:57AM

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hahahahaha

Oh my god, I laughed so long.

September 26, 2020 at 4:15PM

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Minu Park
Director
174

Okay,

Let me tell you guys as an Asian director's perspective.

1. In my opinion, the best Asian periodic feature film ever made was "The Last Emperor" (It was not directed by Asian, but it is great)
2. I believe Asian director could direct Asian story better than American. But if Ron directed one I would definitely agree that the story would be told better than a lots of shitty Asian directors.
3. Mulan suck, that's nothing to do with her argument. There are many good western directors tell Asian stories well. On the other hand, there are many good Asian directors who tells western stories.
4. Crossing culture is a great thing, and we shouldn't against it. If the movie suck, we will criticize later.

Wow... I reactivated my twitter account in order for me to write a reply to Lulu....
Her argument made me so sad...

September 26, 2020 at 4:36PM, Edited September 26, 4:37PM

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Minu Park
Director
174