The dilemma at the crux of “Crazy Rich Asians” is whether pleasing parents should take precedence over staying true to oneself. With his ninth feature, director Jon M. Chu was fortunate enough to do both. His mom and dad “always told me to do movies about my culture, about China, about where I come from, and I’m the one who always moved away from it,” he said in a recent phone interview. “When you’re the only Asian person in the room, the last thing you want to talk about is you being Asian. It’s a very sensitive, delicate part of your life that’s hard to share.”
An alum of USC’s film school, Chu spent most of his first Hollywood decade making sequels, including “G.I. Joe: Retaliation,” “Now You See Me 2,” a pair of “Step Up” successors, and “Justin Bieber’s Believe,” the follow-up to his original documentary on the pop star, “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never.” Yet as he entered his late 30s — and followed the social media dialogue from those like his future lead actress, Constance Wu, about whitewashing and the lack of onscreen representation for people of Asian descent — Chu acknowledged he was “part of the problem” and “shifted his focus”: “This was my time to push something through.”
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Columbia Pictures’ 2005 “Memoirs of a Geisha” was the most recent studio film with a predominately Asian cast; 12 years prior, Buena Vista Pictures released the last one set in modern times, “The Joy Luck Club.” “Crazy Rich Asians” author and executive producer Kevin Kwan kept his creative say by optioning the film rights to producers Nina Jacobson, Brad Simpson, and John Pennotti for a single dollar. Next, they attached screenwriters Adele Lim and Peter Chiarelli — plus their director — before approaching a studio. Netflix bid to back each adaptation from Kwan’s best-selling trilogy; installment number one, “Crazy Rich Asians” will instead receive a traditional theatrical release from Warner Bros.
“This was the first chance we had in 25 years, god damn it,” said Kwan alongside his behind-the-scenes colleagues at an August 5 press conference in Beverly Hills, which seemed unimaginable back when he was pitched the movie with white protagonist. Or, as Chu lamented to IndieWire, “When you have one movie every however many years to represent every Asian culture in the world? It’s just unfair.”
Something else Chu faults with typical depictions: “We usually see Chinese people, Asian people as ancient, and in this other time, definitive time, and it’s just not true.” Thus his “Crazy Rich Asians” vision translated to “this idea that old, classic, Hollywood movies could have starred Asians with just as much style, just as much pizzaz…I was really excited to dip our whole movie into this color and this vibrancy.”
As a negotiating tactic, Warner Bros. — the lone studio ever to have an Asian-American chief executive, chairman Kevin Tsujihara — gave the producers just 15 nerve-racking minutes to select a distributor upon announcing its final offer. However, the studio was much more conciliatory when it came to casting, a global undertaking to combat what, at the press conference, Chu said happens when “people get lazy,” and audiences see “the same 10 Asian actors” again and again.
To play main character Rachel Chu — the professor who rankles the matriarchs of Singapore’s wealthiest real estate dynasty by dating its heir, Nick Young (Henry Golding) — Wu was the director’s immediate choice. Not only had she never starred in a studio film, but also her ABC contract for “Fresh Off the Boat” made her unavailable until four months after shooting was scheduled to start.
Then, during a flight, Wu wrote Chu a fateful email. “Basically, I thought I would be remiss and I would regret it if I didn’t just express what [the movie] meant to me, what I thought I could do with it,” Wu told IndieWire at the Beverly Wilshire. “So I told Jon, ‘You know what, no matter who you cast, I’m still going to be first in line, number one fan. But, if you wait for me a little bit, I’ll put 110 percent of my heart into this. I know what to do with this character. I’ve been on a show for four years. I know how to carry a show, how to carry a movie.” The reported $30 million production accommodated her sitcom commitment, and another request.
Simpson explained at the press conference that the script reduced the novel’s “complicated” reasons for why Rachel had never previously dated Asian men to “a throwaway line” that “none of us had really questioned” until Wu “wrote this really impassioned email to Jon that said, ‘I think that you’re going to contribute to desexualizing Asian men if you keep this in.’” The line was cut.
The filmmakers were also very collaborative with “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” veteran Michelle Yeoh, who portrays Nick’s disapproving mother, Eleanor. Before signing on, Chu said Yeoh informed him, “‘If you expect me to be a villain the way she is in the book, then I’m not doing this movie. I can’t be mustache-twirling, I need to make this person a full human being, and I’m going to defend our culture in the best way possible, and you defend the American culture, and we’ll let the audience decide.’”
Cartoonish antics fell to Queens-born rapper Awkwafina, cast as Rachel’s loaded, filter-free college roommate. She’s a modern “Jiminy Cricket,” Chu said, for her ability to “flip each earnest moment and make it really fun, and she actually speaks the truth throughout the whole movie.”
Right now, the movie enjoys a 100 percent ‘Fresh’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and is tracking to earn between $18 million and $21 million over its five-day debut, prompting articles such as a Friday CNN dispatch called, “‘Crazy Rich Asians’ stars explain why the film should be allowed to fail.”
“I’ve separated myself from the emotion of box office,” Chu said. “I learned that lesson years ago. So as a filmmaker, I am free of that burden; as a fan of movies like this and new perspectives, I really hope that people understand the importance of showing up. And unfortunately, that’s what the corporations are looking at, is the numbers.” He believes potential ho-hum ticket sales “won’t stop anything” with the momentum towards onscreen inclusivity, but a bona fide hit “can accelerate the change.”
Linking “Crazy Rich Asians” to “Black Panther” and “Get Out,” Chu contends, “These are the original ideas we’ve been waiting for” to “save cinema.” “The medium I love so much is under attack and is shrinking,” he said. “The idea of paying money, fighting traffic and parking, and sitting in a dark room, and giving attention for two hours and saying, ‘Tell me a story’…it’s something I don’t want to die out. We love superhero movies, and there’s a lot of them; and franchises, there’s a lot of them; and there needs to be others for cinema to really reach its full potential.”
“Crazy Rich Asians” arrives in theaters this Wednesday.