In the months, weeks, and days leading up to the wide release of Crazy Rich Asians, there has been a surge of excitement surrounding the movie, with a flood of tweets praising the romantic comedy, as well conversation marking it as a watershed moment for Asians in cinema. The film is constantly being touted as “The first major studio film with an all-Asian cast focusing on an Asian-American narrative since Joy Luck Club,” and, ultimately, it all rests on the shoulders of one man: the movie’s director, Jon M. Chu. No pressure.
On the industry side of things, there are tons of factors that will dictate the success of this film — mainly box office numbers. But for Chu, whose resume includes Step Up 2, Now You See Me 2, and the upcoming film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical In The Heights, it’s less about getting those numbers…although earning a handsome amount of dough wouldn’t hurt. It was, first and foremost, getting this story to the big screen and opening the door for more opportunities for Asian and Asian-American stories, as well as narratives from under-represented communities.
With the Asian community, as with any other minority group, trying to tell one unifying story on screen is impossible, because contrary to what stereotypes and dated portrayals have shown in film and TV in the past, Asian is not just one all-encompassing race. The experiences of American-born Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Malay, Laotian, Thai, Vietnamese, Cambodians — not to mention the South Asian population, including Indian, Bangladeshis, and Pakistani – all make for nuanced storytelling. Then there are the Asian and Asian immigrant narratives, which opens up a whole new avenue of stories. With Crazy Rich Asians focusing on cultural identity and family through the eyes of Constance Wu’s Rachel Chu, an ABC (American-Born Chinese), the movie is set in Singapore with East Asian characters. Chu is more than aware that this is not the “end all, be all” of contemporary Asian American movies. It’s just a small spark that could light a fire underneath Hollywood’s major studios for more inclusive storytelling that many have been clamoring for since 1993’s Joy Luck Club.
“It’s unfair for one movie to represent all these people,” Chu tells Deadline. “One movie that represents [all] Asians — that’s just ridiculous. However, if this can crack the door a little bit so that other stories can be told, and it spawns a resurgence in these stories getting shown at the highest levels possible — I would love to have this.”
Chu hopes in ten years, a movie like Crazy Rich Asians will be the norm, and people won’t have to fight for different perspectives and visibility in film. “That would be the dream — that we don’t have to talk about a movie just because it’s an all-Asian cast,” said Chu.
Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians is on its way to proving that Asian American-centered studio movies are viable (as if it needed to be proven). As Deadline exclusively reported, Warner Bros. held sneak previews of the movie a week before opening and sold out most of its 354 locations. The film has been buzzworthy since it was announced. Fans of the best-selling Kevin Kwan books on which the movie was based will most likely come to watch the adaptation, and the romantic comedy is on track to go above and beyond its core demo of female audiences, with a five-day opening between $18M-$21M — but those numbers seem to be growing. To make things even richer (see what I did there?), the movie is already garnering early positive reviews and has a 100% fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes.
Contemporary Asian-American narratives have yet to find stable footing in Hollywood. Joy Luck Club moved the needle 25 years ago and there have been many films with a predominantly Asian and Asian-American cast since then — but not from a major studio. Most have been released independently and recently, Andrew Ahn’s Spa Night, as well as Justin Chon’s Gook gained traction with cinephiles while The Big Sick starring Kumail Nanjiani broke ground on the South Asian front by becoming an awards season darling. But it was Justin Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow in 2003 that made one of the biggest impressions when it came to modern-day Asian American filmmaking.
Chu reflected about the time he was at Sundance when Better Luck Tomorrow premiered and Roger Ebert got into a heated debate with an audience member who called the film “empty and amoral” for Asian-Americans, essentially whitesplaining how Asian-Americans should be portrayed on screen.
“It got so heated that they kicked everyone out of the theater and the debate continued in the hallway,” Chu recollected. “It was one of the most magical things to see this debate happen and see the pride in the people who were having the debates.”
It was a very different time for Hollywood in the early ’00s. Social media was nothing but a twinkle in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye, and the audience had no way of speaking to the industry — but the debate between Ebert and the audience member was a version of a Twitter argument but in real life.
“Studios have always been in charge of telling us what the history is, what we should be thinking, what is sexy, [and] what is beautiful,” said Chu. “Suddenly with technology, the audience can talk back and say, ‘This is what we demand. This is what we want to see,’ and the studio has to respond.” Even so, Chu said that studios don’t have an answer, because the system wasn’t built that way.
“I think this is the first several years where now the studio’s responsibility is to answer this call, and us as filmmakers, as writers, as other people who are getting into the business, to write and tell our stories.”
One could say that Crazy Rich Asians is leading a charge of Asian-American film and media — but Chu’s film is not alone. Sony Pictures’ Searching, starring John Cho, opens in theaters at the end of August, and Netflix’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is dropping on Netflix Aug. 17. The last month of summer also includes films with Asian actors playing featured characters, including Miya Cech in The Darkest Minds, as well as Li Bingbing in The Meg. The representation goes in front of and behind the camera for Dog Days, which was written by Japanese-American writers Elissa Matsueda & Erica Oyama and stars Filipina actress Vanessa Hudgens.
With Crazy Rich Asians shifting the industry’s purview when it comes to Asian-American narratives in movies, many have been comparing this moment to Black Panther, a film that broke new ground when it came to black representation in cinema. Many haven’t been too keen when people refer to Crazy Rich Asians as the “Asian Black Panther” — even one of the film’s stars, Jimmy O. Yang, has received flack for saying that. Even so, the comparisons are justified. Crazy Rich Asians will empower the culture like Black Panther; not through a story about a superhero and his legacy, but in its own diasporic way.
Chu said the comparisons are complicated because each culture is on its own different journey, with a similar goal in mind. “Black Panther is a phenomenon — it is all right in its own thing,” he points out. “For us, it’s the first time in [over] 20 years to have a contemporary Asian-American perspective going into Asia. This is probably the first time to have Asian leads from an American studio. So, to me, that was really exciting. So the comparisons were, of course, flattering.”
At the same time, Chu said that there is no need to compare because of the differing journeys. He loves how Crazy Rich Asians isn’t solely focusing on Asian-Americans, but Asian-British, Asian-Australian, and Asian natives. This movement of inclusion brings forth new perspectives and Chu said that it is a movement Hollywood needs so we don’t “get stuck” with the same stories over and over again. This doesn’t pertain only to Americans and Asian-Americans, but stories from around the world.
“In a way, this is a necessity,” he said. “It’s progress, and that is what we are all in on together. It’s about supporting each other in everybody’s journey, to represent it, and tell their stories.”
“It’s time for storytellers to tell the stories that have not had the privilege of being shown to the world, and the audience will be there,” Chu elaborated. “And that’s why it’s important for this movie for the audience to show up.”
Just like Spider-Man, Chu has great power with this movie, which, in turn, comes with great responsibility. It’s only natural with a huge, big-stakes undertaking that someone would have a fair amount of reservations — and Chu isn’t any different. He knows all eyes are on him to deliver the goods. As an Asian- American himself, there is an immediate assumption that he has to do right by the culture or suffer the backlash of the community of skeptics. There’s also box office expectations and the fear that if Crazy Rich Asians doesn’t fly, it will be difficult to make future Asian-American-centric studio films. Although those feelings were ever-present, Chu learned to shake them off and focus on what mattered most: a relatable, authentic story.
“I don’t have all the answers,” he said. “All I knew was I have to tell truth about what I’ve experienced as an Asian American going to Asia for the first time. That journey had to be specific and hopefully resonated with people who are both Asian and non-Asian.”
He continues, “What we found is the more specific we could be, the more relatable it became because everyone could find a point of truth in that. I mean, it’s called Crazy Rich Asians, but it’s really not about crazy rich Asians. It’s about Rachel Chu finding her identity and finding her self-worth through this journey back into her culture. Which, for me as a filmmaker, exploring my cultural identity is the scariest thing.” Chu admitted that he had done a short film as a student about his cultural identity, but has never shared it with anyone because it is so sensitive to him.
Crazy Rich Asians may be a romantic comedy, but the emotional impact of simply making a studio film with an Asian cast resonated with Chu and the actors. “We cried almost every day on set,” he admitted after I told him I was emotionally overwhelmed when watching the movie. “We would be shooting and would be focused on making a great movie, but then there would be moments where we would just look at each other and be like, ‘Oh shit. We’re doing this. This is a Warner Bros. movie.'”
“We spent, more time, more money, to get it right, but this cast embodies this confidence,” Chu said of a cast fronted by Fresh Off the Boat breakout Constance Wu and newcomer Henry Golding. The cast also boasts a roster of spectacular Asian talent, including the regal and slay-worthy Michelle Yeoh as the film’s icy matriarch, the always-hilarious Ken Jeong, the gorgeously talented Gemma Chan, Silicon Valley funnyman Jimmy O. Yang, and destined-to-be-fan-favorites Awkwafina, Nico Santos, and Ronny Chieng — and that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the Asian talent introduced.
“They’ve all gone through the gauntlet, and they all come out the other side proud of what they are, who they are, no matter what style they are…and you can feel this confidence through the screen, and that empowers you to be proud of where you come from and who you are in whatever way you express it,” Chu points out. “That is ultimately what I think of the power of the movie and why it’s resonating.”
The emotional impact and confidence of the film from the cast are guaranteed to spill over into the audience — particularly with Asian-American audiences. Not only because of some the soul-stirring familial moments and a gorgeously affecting wedding scene that will warm even the coldest and darkest of hearts, but because of the visibility the movie has brought for the Asian community. They are finally being seen — which is all they wanted. Chu said he hopes the movie empowers the same way Joy Luck Club did when he first watched it or emit the same excitement he felt when he saw Dante Basco’s Rufio in Hook.
“There’s other people on the big screen that shared our conversations and it bonded our family,” he reflects. “To see other people experience that same feeling it — means the world to me. It’s unlike any movie I’ve ever been a part of. It’s emotional.”
Chu shares one particular moment in the movie when Golding’s Nick steps into a key scene and the reaction it got from his older brother. “[He] is 6’2″ and a good-looking dude,” said Chu. “He cried when Henry came out in that white suit. He’s told me, ‘You have no idea, Jon, how long it’s been, to see someone up there that you’re proud of and is a part of you…and that means everything.”
Fans of the Kwan books know that Crazy Rich Asians is one-third of a Crazy Rich Asians trilogy which also includes China Rich Girlfriend and Rich People Problems. Producer Nina Jacobson is known for shepherding successful franchises such as the Hunger Games trilogy and the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. On the TV side, she serves as producer of Ryan Murphy’s wildly successful American Crime Story anthology, which gives some major cinematic franchise vibes. As the movie readies itself to hit theaters on Aug. 15, all the math leads us to believe that there Crazy Rich Asians cinematic universe film franchise on the horizon.
“I would love that,” Chu said in regards to Crazy sequels. “That would be up to the audience to decide and, of course, I’m down. I’m ready to go the next day to start figuring out how we approach the second book.”
Even so, Chu admits that he and the Crazy team are superstitious and are waiting for audiences to tell them if they should do a second movie. “The intention from the beginning was there’s more story to tell,” he said. “There’s more actors who we want to explore. There’s more people we want to show off — of course, we’d love that.”
Based on the crazy rich trajectory of the romantic comedy, Chu better get ready to show off some more Asian talent for two more movies.