By Jessica Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
The anticipation leading up to the release of Crazy Rich Asians, based on the popular novel by Kevin Kwan, has been intense. The movie will be the first in Hollywood history to feature an all-Asian cast, and therefore an all-Asian storyline. It has been lauded as the next The Joy Luck Club, which accomplished a similar feat 25 years ago, but this time, there is no consolation white boyfriend played by Andrew McCarthy. The film promises to follow Kwan’s story of Rachel Chu, the Chinese American teacher whose boyfriend, Nick Young, invites her to meet his family in Singapore. Unbeknownst to Rachel, Nick’s family is one of the richest in Asia, and Nick is one of Asia’s most eligible bachelors. Competition for his hand — and his money — is fierce, and Nick’s mother, grandmother, cousins, and former girlfriends have a thing or two to say about this new prospect. As the book and the film’s creators like to say, Rachel might as well have a target on her back. The movie is sure to have all the glamor, bling, and humor that made the book a success. The movie will also have an important social factor as it sets a landmark in minority representation.
The movie’s director Jon Chu (Now You See Me 2) and its lead actor, Henry Golding, came to the Emerald City on July 31 and Aug. 1 to promote the film, and answered questions from the media on top of the Space Needle, in true Crazy Rich Asian style. Both gentlemen also participated in a “Facebook Live” interview, where they were joined by lead actress Constance Wu (Fresh Off the Boat), during which Chu stated, “This is not just a movie, but a movement…And the movement was way beyond the movie already.”
Getting the word out that Hollywood, and the world, has to stop sidelining non-white culture and non-white actors and citizens, was so important to Chu, Kwan, and everyone involved in the film, including the producers, that they turned down a lucrative deal with Netflix that promised to shoot Kwan’s entire trilogy, for a deal with Warner Brothers that would ensure the movie went to theaters.
“We knew, deep down, as tempting as the money was, and all that stuff was,” Chu explained, “it was just for this movie in particular, to tell the audience that it’s worth your time to leave your house, to pay whatever money to get a ticket, to deal with parking and crowds and to sit in a dark room and say, ‘Tell us a great story.’ That sends a big message. That we’re worth it. That this kind of story, these kind of leads, these kind of stories are absolutely worth your time and energy.”
Putting together the film was an anomaly — nothing quite like it has ever happened before.
Just gathering the cast was a joy and a challenge. It occurred to Chu that Asian and Asian American actors didn’t usually work together in Hollywood and that he had a unique opportunity to create a family, not just for the movie, but for the entire experience. Big names were brought in — the indomitable Michelle Yeoh to play Nick’s mother, Eleanor — as well as up-and-coming comedians Jimmy O. Yang as Bernard Tai, playboy extraordinaire; Awkwafina as Rachel’s bestie, Peik Lin; and Nico Santos as Oliver Tai, just to name a few. Wu, who plays Rachel, was one of those involved in advocating for equality during the Twitter uproar on whitewashing, and she is familiar to many due to her TV presence. Golding, in the role of Nick, describes himself as “a greenhorn.”
Golding, who was working as a presenter and travel host at the time, did not consider himself an actor when auditions began for the film. He described the experience (in the perfect Crazy Rich Asians style British accent), “I had so many friends who were like, this is such a big deal!
They’re gonna be finding authentic voices. They’re gonna be coming to Singapore. Coming to Malaysia. To find these characters. And I was so excited for everyone! I was like, oh my God, that’s gonna be amazing! I was legitimately like, ‘This is gonna be brilliant – for somebody.’ I was never…it never, ever came into my head that it would be me.” Golding couldn’t believe that Chu would take a chance on someone new, yet Chu felt Golding was perfect for the role.
“The character Nick Young is something that really resonates with your personality,” Golding remembers Chu telling him. Golding actually left his honeymoon to audition. Chu told him, “It’ll be worth your time.” It takes dedication to support a movement.
Casting Golding as the leading man is a movement in itself, and the film’s publicity has been working overtime to present Golding as not just the newest Asian male lead — but the newest Hollywood male lead, period.
“I’m ready for the industry,” Golding stated. “I’m ready for my team and myself to aim big, and be a leading man, not only in sort of Asian movies, but movies in general…I think it’s time to forego that ‘oh you have to have blonde hair, blue eyes to be the superhero, to be the hero in any type of movie.”
Chu could not agree more. “He is the exact prototype for a leading man, especially of the classic Hollywood movies like Cary Grant…A perfect gentleman in that way, but modern — I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The common denominator for everyone participating in the film — and in a large part of what will be the film’s audience — is the shared Asian and Asian American experience. Working together, the cast discovered that “everyone has faced adversity due to their ethnicity,” said Golding. And, he continued, “There is strength in numbers.”
Chu explained that all of them were very conscientious during the making of the film to take care with what and who they were representing.
“There were lines that would come up that we had to debate whether that was appropriate to say, was that appropriate [in terms of] how we’re painting Asian men? [Of] how we’re painting Asian women? How we’re painting older generations? Other cultures? Because they were representations of people behind the camera and in front of the camera, we gave each other time and energy to understand each other and find the best solution for those things.”
The film takes place in the very elite world of the super-rich in Hong Kong and Singapore, yet there is something in the story and its characters that everyone can relate to. Like Kwan’s book, the plot revolves around themes of love, family, and identity. Most people have struggled to figure out who they are amidst competing influences. Most people have a friend they can count on for anything. Or, as Golding and Chu pointed out, most people have gone through some kind of trial with their significant other’s parents.
“We built it for everybody,” Chu insisted. And of course, many people have experienced prejudice and, in the case of the world of Kwan’s story, the very particular types of prejudice that happen within a particular group. Rachel, being Chinese American, and having roots in mainland China, experiences prejudice from the high society types in Singapore that feel she is in a category beneath them. In the live Facebook interview, Chu, who grew up in Los Angeles, explained a similar type of experience when he, like Rachel, first went to Asia. “They treated me like their son. They treated me like their cousin. Then they called me ‘white devil.’”
A great deal of that complexity comes out in Kwan’s story, which the author has admitted is based on real people that he grew up with and around.
When asked if the movie will appeal to both males and females, Golding affirmed, “You don’t have to be Asian, you don’t have to be female to go watch romcoms (romantic comedies), you can go for the love of being whisked away to another world…You can have a bloody ball with these amazingly funny comedians that Jon put together. So it is for everybody.”
More than that, we can go to support a trailblazing movie, its cast, producers, and writer, so that Hollywood will get the message that these kind of films work, that all ethnicities and cultures should have equal representation and that a movie such as this shouldn’t be a one-off every 25 years. The cast and crew of Crazy Rich Asians have done their part, tirelessly working to create and promote the film. Now it’s the community’s turn.
“Please go see this movie,” Chu asked on Facebook. “Commerce speaks a lot, especially in Hollywood. Please spread the word for us.” And on top of the Space Needle, with our beautiful, diverse city in the background, Chu voiced a shared dream.
“We hope that this moment is so taken for granted that in 10 years, our kids are like, ‘Wait, that’s a big deal?’ Then we’ve done our job.”
Crazy Rich Asians is rated PG-13 and opens in theaters on Aug.ust 15th. Advance viewings are available in some locations.
Jessica Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.