New Asian rom-com changes the game
August 17, 2018 | 91° | Check Traffic

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New Asian rom-com changes the game

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS

    The cast and crew of “Crazy Rich Asians” arrive at the film’s premiere at the TCL Chinese Theatre on Aug. 7 in Los Angeles.

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It’s been 25 years since a major Hollywood studio released an English-language film with a primarily Asian cast. The last was Wayne Wang’s adaptation of the generational tear-jerker “The Joy Luck Club,” which was released in 1993.

But that dry spell is about to end with the release of the opulent romantic comedy “Crazy Rich Asians” on Wednesday. The film is based on Kevin Kwan’s best-selling book about a Chinese-American woman who gets a culture shock when she meets her boyfriend’s wealthy family in Singapore.

Veteran producer Nina Jacobson said that when she and her Color Force partner Brad Simpson (“The Hunger Games”) read Kwan’s manuscript, they knew it had to be a movie.

“We just tore through it,” Jacobson said. “It was so specific that it became really universal: Anybody who has ever faced in-laws who felt that they were not worthy of their beloved.”

They knew that the film would likely never survive the studio development process, however, and decided to have a vision, a script and a budget to sell as a package. Ivanhoe Pictures’ John Penotti signed on; Warner Bros. would ultimately partner with them to release the film.

“Hollywood has done a bit of a disservice by not taking us into these worlds,” Simpson said. “There is a hunger for not just token representation but to really dive into the world of different ethnicities and races.”

Meanwhile, Jon M. Chu, who would eventually sign on to direct, transporting audiences to an unbelievable world of wealth, privilege and tradition — part Edith Wharton, part “Gossip Girl” — had already been hearing about this new book from family members.

Ultimately, Chu said, the book spoke to the uniqueness of the Asian-American experience.

“I think a lot of Asian-Americans go through the same journey … I relate to having that dual cultural identity of being full-on all-American, all-California boy, but having a Chinese side to me,” Chu said. “I remember going to Asia for the first time and there’s a very specific emotion that you feel that’s like, ‘Oh, this feels like home but it’s not my home, and these people don’t see me as being part of this.’ Then when you’re home, you start to notice people may not see you as part of that either.”

“Fresh Off the Boat” star Constance Wu was chosen to play the lead, Rachel. They found an unknown to play her boyfriend, Nick, in Henry Golding, a handsome and charismatic TV host who had the perfect English accent to play the London-schooled heir, and cast Michelle Yeoh to be his disapproving mother, Eleanor.

THE FILM having a female Asian-American lead and a majority pan-Asian cast is significant. A USC Study found that 37 of the top 100 films from 2017 featured no Asian-American speaking characters, despite Asians making up 5.6 percent of the U.S. population.

“Since I’ve graduated from drama school I never got to play the lead,” Wu said. “The fact that Asian-Americans never get to center the narrative means that their parts are always going to be not as whole and fleshed-out.”

That made it an emotional experience for many on the set.

“Everyone had gone through the process of what it’s like to be an Asian-American in Hollywood or around the world,” Chu said. “You could see the difference between someone like Michelle Yeoh, who literally said, ‘I’m the majority where I’m from, so I don’t understand the plight that you guys are going through.’ It was very shocking for her to see how it affected these young actors, how people would just cry on the set and how happy they were that they got to do this.”

Wu, who is an outspoken advocate for Asian representation on social media, said the film is significant for differentiating the Asian experience and the Asian-American experience.

“You show that our culture is more than just skin-deep,” Wu said. “You show our similarities and how we’re different.”

Warner Bros. has been enthusiastically promoting the movie for months.

“I hope people go see it, because I think we have a great movie and if they go see it, it changes things,” Chu said. “I guarantee four new stories of Asian-Americans will be greenlit in two weeks if it comes out and does well. That’s what’s on the line.”

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