Filmmaker Jon M. Chu found the novel "Crazy Rich Asians" relatable — "not so much the crazy-rich part" but the experience of being an Asian American going to Asia for the first time. Now, Chu's film is an extremely rare Hollywood studio film with an all-Asian cast, and the first in 25 years, since “The...
“Crazy Rich Asians,” Kevin Kwan’s deliciously frothy 2013 best-seller, deals with life within an ultrarich extended Singaporean family; a clan so wealthy that their response to being snubbed at a posh London hotel is to buy the place. But filmmaker Jon M. Chu (“Step Up 3D,” “Now You See Me 2”) looked at the book and saw something else in its designer-name-filled pages: an echo of his own story.
Chu, whose film version of “Crazy Rich Asians” arrives in theaters Aug. 15, read the book several years ago at the urging of his sister and mother. He enjoyed it, but at the time “it didn’t click for me,” he said in a telephone interview. But later, he remembered the book while searching for a new film project that would be more personal, something that might “tackle some of my cultural-identity things that I’d gone through,” as both a California native and the son of Asian immigrant parents.
“My parents came to San Francisco when they were probably 19 or 20, in the mid-’60s,” his mother from Taiwan, his father from mainland China, he said. “They opened a restaurant in 1969, and it’s still there. An incredible American dream story — not knowing the language, coming here, working hard, starting their own business, sending all five kids to college to pursue their dreams.” Their youngest son, he noted with a laugh, ended up in the most American job imaginable — working in Hollywood movies.
“Rereading the book made me realize that it said everything I wanted to say, without actually being my story,” Chu said. “It was amazingly relatable.” Not so much the crazy-rich part, he clarified, but the experience of being an Asian American going to Asia for the first time.
Kwan’s book has many stories and subplots, but the one Chu wanted to focus on was the journey of Rachel Chu (played by Constance Wu), an NYU economics professor and American-born daughter of a Chinese immigrant mother. In love with handsome Nick Young (Henry Golding), Rachel agrees to fly to Singapore with him to meet his mysterious family, of which he’s said little. The reason, she quickly learns upon arriving, is that they’re loaded — and that his imperious mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), disapproves of her son considering marriage with an American nobody.
It’s Rachel’s first trip to Asia, and Chu wanted us to see it through her eyes. “I think a lot of people, even if you’re not Asian, you go to your place of origin where your family comes from, and you get this sense of, wow — people look like me and talk like me and treat me like their son in the stores and like a cousin in the restaurants. You get this weird feeling of being very loved here. And then they call you something like gwai lo, which means white devil, and you think, oh, I don’t belong here.”
Rachel’s story, he felt, perfectly embodied a clash felt by many children of immigrants, like himself. “The American culture is pursue your own happiness, follow your dreams. The Chinese side is sacrifice everything for your family, it’s all about the group. Those conflicting ideas were always a battle in my head.”
To tell that story — and to do it “in a really fun way, a romp” — was a challenge, and much of the detail in the book’s 500+ pages had to be left behind. “Every choice we made had to be around Rachel’s journey,” Chu said. Some new scenes were added — a multigenerational gathering of women making dumplings; a mahjong game — and some major characters in the book, such as Nick’s glamorous cousin Astrid, stepped to the background.
“We struggled and struggled,” Chu said, of the decision to make Astrid, a character beloved by readers (including this one), a minor supporting role. “We just couldn’t take the focus away from Rachel. That was just not an option for our movie … I know the fans love Astrid. I love Astrid. But the story, especially the first one, could not be about her. We needed to take the entire world to Singapore for the first time. We couldn’t do that through Astrid.” The elegant Gemma Chan, who plays the character, makes a vivid impression in just a few scenes.
Might we see more of Astrid, as well as Rachel and Nick and the rest, in a sequel? The book is the first of a popular trilogy (subsequent volumes are “China Rich Girlfriend” and “Rich People Problems”), but no definite plan is in place. “It’s up to the audience,” said Chu, noting that box office is the key. “We would love to. I’m down, the cast is down.”
As an extremely rare Hollywood studio film with an all-Asian cast (and the first in 25 years, since “The Joy Luck Club,” to center on an Asian American’s story), “Crazy Rich Asians” faces much pressure to do well. Kwan, in an interview last year, called the film “a symbol of hope not just for Asian performers but for Asian communities all over the world.”
That’s heavy weight for a sparkly romantic comedy to bear; Chu, whose next directing project will be the film version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical “In the Heights” (“another one to break a mold — it’s an almost all-Latino cast”) acknowledged that he feels it. “It’s really unfair that pressure has to exist on any movie, let alone this one.” Ultimately, he said, he just tried to make a great movie, one that “tells a story about love. If audiences care about these people and fall in love with them, we’ve done our jobs.”
“Crazy Rich Asians” opens Wed., Aug. 15, in multiple theaters. Rated PG-13 for some suggestive content and language.