Jon M. Chu knows there’s a lot riding on the success of Crazy Rich Asians.
Though the 38-year-old filmmaker is himself a proven commodity, having helmed the box-office hits Step Up 2, Step Up 3D, GI Joe: Retaliation and Now You See Me 2, with the latter two films grossing a combined $710.6 million, this one’s a horse of a different color: the first studio movie since 1993’s The Joy Luck Club featuring an all-Asian cast.
“This is a fairy tale that can inspire a lot of young people and tell them we are on the same level, and that we could have been in all of those classic movies, we just weren’t given the opportunity,” he tells The Daily Beast.
It is to Asians what Black Panther is to the black community: a beacon of representation, as well as a big, shiny middle finger to all those in Hollywood who say it can’t—or shouldn’t— be done. And Chu, the child of two Chinese immigrants, didn’t buckle under the considerable pressure, delivering a wonderfully entertaining romantic comedy with broad appeal.
Based on the bestselling 2013 novel by Kevin Kwan, Crazy Rich Asians tells the story of Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), an NYU economics professor from a working-class Chinese-American family who’s faced with the daunting task of meeting her boyfriend Nick Young’s (newcomer Henry Golding) in-laws in Singapore. Little does she know that the Young family is filthy rich, and its matriarch, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), will do everything in her power to protect its legacy.
The Daily Beast spoke with director Jon M. Chu about his groundbreaking film and so much more.
As a half-Asian, I must admit I was more than a bit skeptical going into Crazy Rich Asians. There’s a lot riding on this film for “the culture.” How did you deal with having the weight of an entire people on your shoulders?
The good thing is, with being Asian pressure is something I’m very used to growing up. [Laughs] Parents, school, all sorts of pressures all over the place. But that was the most fun part of it: I like pressure. I also know that it’s just one movie—I can only have one perspective, one specific point of view, one set of characters—so I had to ultimately know that the best thing I could do was make a great movie. My main job was to make something entertaining and relatable to myself, to my family, and something that represented us and said all that I wanted to say.
There’s something poetic about Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians coming out in the same year.
I think it’s a sign that things are changing, and it’s a reflection of the audience speaking back to the studios that have for so long just done whatever they want. This is a conversation we’re having now, and this year was a big answer to the wave of reactions several years ago to #OscarsSoWhite, to #WhitewashedOUT, to all these different things. And now it was up to us—filmmakers, executives, everyone in the right positions—to react and give it a response. I’m very proud to be one of the people on the front lines to be able to do that.
What I don’t understand about Hollywood’s general reluctance to cast Asians in mainstream fare is it doesn’t even make financial sense. The majority of box office revenue for big studio films isn’t coming from America—it’s coming from Asia. And their method for courting that audience is to slip an Asian actor into a blockbuster, giving them sixth or seventh billing. Why not the lead? It’s very troubling and reeks of racial bias.
Absolutely. And again, just putting one person in a little part in the movie from China, that’s just a checked box—it’s not representation. That doesn’t mean anything to me. Representation means having characters with layers, showing them as human beings, so we can relate or have mixed emotions for that character. The China market is also very different than the market here in America. I love Chinese movies. Stephen Chow is one of my favorite filmmakers, and so groundbreaking. But when you talk about Asian-Americans, Asians of the UK, Asians of Australia and this contemporary generation, this contemporary story of us now, that hasn’t been told a lot. And the fact that we get to do it in a romantic comedy where there’s romance, where you get to see Asian actors kiss and be in love, this is a fairy tale that can inspire a lot of young people and tell them we are on the same level, and that we could have been in all of those classic movies, we just weren’t given the opportunity.
You mentioned romance and being able to see Asian actors kiss and be in love, and growing up as a half-Asian kid, you’d never see the Asian guy get the girl. There were movies with Chow Yun-fat and Jet Li throughout the ‘90s and early ‘00s, like Romeo Must Die, where it seems like the Asian guy should be the romantic lead, and there’s considerable romantic chemistry with the female lead, but there’s no kiss. They’re neutered to a degree.
Exactly. And it bleeds into culture. I was watching a really great TED talk where this guy showed a black-and-white pattern, and asked the audience what they saw. They said “butterfly.” He then dissolved an image behind it and it was actually a snake, and it was the pattern on a snakeskin. And then he made the image disappear and asked what they saw, and they said, “Oh, I see a snake.” You can’t unsee, because we judge through reference points we’ve used in the past, and when you see Asians as romantic leads, and you see them dressed well, being like you, having layers, and aren’t just ancient in some other time and alien to us, suddenly they become human beings and you can’t unsee that. And more stories from more people will hopefully broaden that idea of who we are.
I remember watching Pacific Rim—and this came out just five years ago—where there’s considerable sexual tension between Charlie Hunnam and Rinko Kikuchi throughout the film, and at the end they’re alone on a boat and the camera pulls away and they just… hug. And you’re left thinking, if this woman was white they’d be kissing. Why this strange gulf?
Yes. And when you don’t have people behind the camera—executives, writers, directors—to push these ideas through, it’s so easy not to go down territory you’re not comfortable with, or show something you haven’t seen in cinema. So that’s why it’s so important for there to be representation on all sides of the camera—to have the discussions, to fight the fight. It doesn’t mean we’re telling filmmakers what to do, since that’s the last thing I’d want to do, but to have them have the opportunity to do what they want to do.
What was it like growing up as an aspiring filmmaker and not seeing many faces that looked like yours onscreen?
It feels like you have to choose. When I was young—and I didn’t know it at the time, but looking back—I felt like I had to choose between those friends and these friends, and I had to choose between being looked at as the only Asian guy in the group or mixing in and never having to talk about that, which seems like the easiest point of entry, which is what I did. But at the same time, there is a sense of—not shame, but you get scared of what your friends are going to think of your family when they come over for dinner, or what you smell like, or what the car smells like, all these little details. As a filmmaker, you don’t know who you are as an artist until you face these things, and Crazy Rich Asians is the first film where I had to face something that I never talked about or never wanted to deal with, because it came with things that I didn’t know the answer to. I still may not know the exact answer to them, but I’ve learned a ton through this experience about myself and my cultural identity.
I remember an early quote from Judd Apatow where, when someone asked him why he casts schlubby guys in his movies, he said that he wanted to make films so guys who looked like him could get laid. And with Crazy Rich Asians, there’s a hunky Asian lead in this film and quite a few ab shots in the early going. It felt like you were actively trying to push back against all the pernicious stereotypes about Asian men—stereotypes that have been allowed to persist due to a lack of representation.
Oh, for sure. I know a lot of good-looking Asian men that are leading men, but that category doesn’t exist in media. It’s starting to happen but it’s not fully there yet, particularly in the public’s point of view. So to show off our men was definitely part of it. But I also think masculinity is changing, too. The idea of what is masculine has always been a definition constructed by the group that’s been presenting us films. So what is masculinity and what makes a man these days is being reconfigured, and we want to be part of that conversation.
I’d read that Constance Wu pushed you to change a line in the script where her character, Rachel Chu, boasts about how you should never date Asian men.
With that one in particular, there’s a whole section in the book where her and Peik Lin are talking about all the Asian men she’s dated in the past and why she did it, and it’s funny. We get it: you could do that about anyone going on a bunch of bad dates. The problem was that in the book you have context, so you can really fill that out; in the movie, it’s like a hit-and-run where you have to say it and get out. I thought it was still funny and initially kept it in the script because I still had the context of the book, so I just didn’t see it until she brought it up, and then realized that that was very problematic for us and not something that we wanted to do in this film.
How’s it been for you trying to cast Asian actors in your films? In the Step Up films, you have Harry Shum Jr. in there, but from an outsider’s perspective, it seems like you were trying to cast an Asian actor in your film and the best the studio would give you was sixth or seventh billing.
I think it was on both sides—it wasn’t just the studios, it was within me, too. I tried to fit it in as best I could, but I never pushed it. When you are young coming into this business, you’re told how the business works, and you feel very lucky to be here and want to stick around, so you believe the data and you believe the conversations you’re having where they say “you can’t have that kind of lead because they don’t travel here” or “people will think it’s not for them.” I mean, I still hear that. But now it’s a debate. Now we’re in the room and we’re less scared to bring it up. And for me personally, I felt like I was part of the problem for not using my power to have better representation. I settled with what they would give me instead of demanding what I felt it should be. And part of that is about self-love and being proud of who I am, and I think this experience allowed me to meet the most talented, great, intelligent, beautiful, sharp, sarcastic, funniest people out there, and it makes me so proud to be Asian that all this other shit that’s gone into my head goes away. Because I know that I’m not alone in this.
There’s a great quote from Junot Diaz: “If you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.” So I think that plays into what you’re saying—that when you’re younger and don’t see those reflections, it can really fuck with your head and instill fear or self-loathing.
What’s scary about it too is that you don’t know that that’s what it is. It’s not, “I hate myself”—none of that—but it’s inside your brain of what is beautiful and what is not. It’s inside your brain of what is classy and what is not. It’s inside your brain of what smells good and what smells bad. It’s inside your brain of what sounds good and what sounds bad. And those things, because we were taught from the things that we watched where the line is, have left us completely brainwashed so that you’re compelled to hide those things in yourself, or you try to.
I remember seeing Better Luck Tomorrow as a young half-Asian dude, and that seemed like a big watershed moment for Asian representation in cinema. And it also struck me as crazy that it was, given that it was this tiny indie made for a quarter of a million dollars. And there’s a similar narrative surrounding this film—that it’s a “blockbuster,” even though it was made for just $30 million, which is a pretty tiny budget for a big studio movie based on a bestselling novel. These are being painted as way bigger swings than they are, which speaks to the extreme lack of representation when it comes to Asians in mainstream cinema.
And by us creating an “event,” it makes it important and will breed other big event movies of this type. It will, I think, give us permission for others. I think it’s to our advantage that, even though we didn’t have the biggest budget in the world, that signal goes to other companies and tells them that, yes, you can make a big cultural event and you can bet more now. We’ll of course see how the box office goes, but there is a definite need and a want for more.
I’m curious how you even made this work on a budget of $30 million, because it looks like an $80-100 million movie. What sort of trickery did you have to employ here?
That’s good, thank god! First, you get the best crew you can get that are problem-solvers and not people who easily give up. Second, you get people who care about it. Our production designer Nelson Coates, our cinematographer Vanja Cernjul, everyone was throwing down that this has to be gorgeous and elegant and fun, and take us into a world that we haven’t seen before. And I’ve done the $5 million movies and the $150 million movies, so doing little projects growing up and throughout my career, I can pinpoint what I need and discard the things that take extra time.
Maybe it’s because of my own half-Asian bias, but I felt the whole “casting controversy” surrounding Crazy Rich Asians seemed pretty overblown—and like nitpicking.
I mean, Meryl Streep can play any ethnicity and everyone’s like, great. Also, we haven’t had our movies to even have the discussion about what we want and what we don’t want. So for me, I welcome the conversation. It’s freeing to actually be able to have the conversation about what leading men or women we want, what kind of representation we want, who around the world is missing in this conversation so that we can include it next time. But it’s really an unfair place for our movie to be the one and only thing that represents all Asians everywhere. That’s really part of the problem. But we’re part of a bigger movement of newer perspectives from all around the world—Asian or not. And for the Asian storytellers, filmmakers and actors, hopefully this tells them that our time is now.
I thought this film was very much about mothers. And with Michelle Yeoh’s matriarch in particular, it’s rather delicate because you don’t want her character to slide into the “dragon lady” stereotype that is so goddamn prevalent in Hollywood cinema.
Michelle, from literally the first conversation we had, said to me, “If you want me to be the villain, I refuse to do this movie. I can’t go back home if I’m going to be the villain of this movie. I’m going to defend Asian values the truest I can, and you can defend American values as true as you can.” And that’s the point: there’s no enemy in this. We all want love, we all want to be included, we all want community; and yet, we are separated by these exterior things and ideas that we feel can’t coexist, but actually we can. And this generation of kids who have both sides to us, who were raised here and believe in the American dream, can coexist with this idea of sacrifice for the family and community. Every time we did a scene with Michelle, we always made sure that we were speaking truthfully. That’s why we had the dumpling scene, which was not in the book, to show that this family isn’t just coming after this girl from America, but that they love each other, they love their history, and the mother is a protective eagle to their nest who will make sure that nothing will come in to destroy it.