Crazy Rich Asians is a love story on multiple levels. On its surface, it's about the love between Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) and Nick Young (Henry Golding), two very attractive thirty-something NYU professors. But it's also a story about love of family: Nick's mother's love for him, and for the family she married into and for which she is prepared to sacrifice everything (perhaps even her personal happiness.) And it's about a love of Asian culture, which, like all cultures, can be an embrace or a prison, depending.
Director Jon M. Chu, whose parents immigrated from Taiwan and China, says everyone involved in the film knew the stakes were high—it was the first romantic comedy in years featuring two Asian principals and an almost completely Asian cast. They knew the burden of representation would be staggering.
But they decided to go big or go home: "Everyone had to agree that this wasn't just a romantic comedy we were doing," Chu told me, while he oversaw cuts in his editing room. The cast and crew also decided "that it was very important that the culture was a part of the story itself, part of the characters themselves."
So the exploration of tension between Nick and his mother Eleanor (played by the sublime Michelle Yeoh) is based in a culture clash. Nick is the scion of one of the biggest, wealthiest real estate developers in Singapore, and he will, eventually, return as expected, to run the family's huge conglomerate and take his place as the head of Singapore society.
But for now, he's a regular guy who travels by public transportation, cleans his own modest apartment and has a frequent-user card to Jamba Juice. He's in love with Rachel, who has been raised by a single mom and who comes from a truly modest background. When they travel to Singapore so Nick can be in his best friend's wedding, she discovers he's rich — or, in the words of writer Kevin Kwan, on whose book the movie is based — crazy rich.
"It's amazing to see what the economic boom of the past thirty years has done to Asia," Kwan says, "and how profoundly it's affected the rest of the population." That wealth inspired him to write Crazy Rich Asians. "I felt that no one was telling the story of contemporary Asia, the Asia I know, the Asia I see when I travel there."
Shared ethnicity doesn't mean shared culture
Eleanor Young is mistress of Tyersall Park, a colonial-era mansion set on wide green lawns and protected by high gates. Eleanor's coolness when meeting Rachel is not so much about the latter's lack of money, but because she knows that marrying into her family comes with a lifetime of responsibility and obligation. And as an American-Born Chinese, Rachel has been brought up with differently. That doesn't make Eleanor a monster, Yeoh insists; it makes her protective of the family.
"(Rachel's) from a society where you are taught to be independent, to take care of yourself first, and everything else comes after that," Yeoh explains. "I think that she was really trying to make Rachel understand that unless she was willing to be really self-sacrificing, that it would be very difficult on her. Even though she was Asian, she was not brought up in Asia."
And that's one of the central tensions in the movie: sharing the same ethnicity doesn't mean you share the same culture. Some of Nick's friends, born in Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong and other places, consider Rachel more American than Chinese. They think her open friendliness, J Crew wardrobe and transparency about her working class background definitely eliminates her as The One for Singapore's golden heir apparent. And the fact that Nick chose Rachel, rather than one of them, makes her a target for barely-disguised shade and bullying.
Romantic lead Henry Golding can sympathize with being told he's less-than. When he was announced as Nick after a months-long search of hundreds of good-looking Asian and Asian-American men, there was some immediate backlash on Twitter.
Golding is undeniably handsome, with an easy charm. He's also biracial. His mom is from an indigenous Malaysian tribe and his father is English, and parts of the Twitter-verse were feeling some kind of way about a hapa guy getting this plum role. Golding, who is known in Singapore as the host of a travel show, says people with biracial identities are having their own moment, so the movie's timing is interesting.
He's also quick to point out, "I was born in Asia. I grew up in Asia. I've lived in so many Asian cultures." And, he says, "I'm definitely more Asian than a lot of people who have never been to Asia but by blood and by race say 'I deserve to be Asian.' I've worked really hard to be Asian, and I think I'm Asian enough."
The pressure of making a place for one's self, whether it's in two different countries, as with Nick, or in two different cultures, as with his own, says Golding, is ever-present.
A novel way to find enough Asian actors
To make an all-Asian movie requires a lot of Asian actors. Jon Chu says he told Warner Bros. from the beginning he'd need to cast a wide net, and they anted up. After putting out a callout on YouTube, he got a ton of video auditions. Then he hired casting directors in several countries to see some of the actors who auditioned. Some of those people ended up in the movie (although they were for small parts; except for Golding, who'd not acted before, most of the roles went to professional actors.)
"And," Chu says with satisfaction, "now we have a database of hundreds and hundreds of English-speaking Asian actors available to Hollywood." So there should be no reason to cast anyone who isn't truly Asian as Asian on-screen.
The expectations for this movie are overwhelming, and not everyone is happy at the buzz around it. E. J. David is Filipino, and teaches cross-cultural psychology at the University of Alaska, Anchorage. When he posted a tweet in April that pointed out the movie was populated with one kind of Asian—South East Asians--it went viral.
There were a lot of negative responses, many people felt he shouldn't be critical of this rare moment of representation. David says he gets that: most people were so starved for representation they didn't want to ding the film. But David, who writes about Filipino identity, says it's important to note some uncomfortable realities: the wealth on display in Crazy Rich Asians, he tweeted, "is based on the exploitation of brown Asian labor. In Singapore, where the movie happens, 56% of domestic workers are Filippino and 32% are Indonesians. The movie erases them."
David doesn't buy the popular positioning of Crazy Rich Asians as the first all-Asian cast since The Joy Luck Club. "I'm not a movie buff by any means, and I'm not an Asian-American movie watchdog at all, but I don't think that's true." For instance, he says, what about The Namesake, starring Kal Penn and directed by Mira Nair? It looks at many of the same issues raised in Crazy Rich Asians—obligation to family, respect for culture—but with South Asian characters.
"So what is it," David asks. "Brown Asians don't count? That's pretty offensive."
Jon Chu says this single movie cannot be everything to everybody. He hopes if Crazy Rich Asians succeeds, other movies featuring more types of Asians will follow. But for now, he's made this movie for this reason: "I'm making it for my own, 12 year-old self, and my (infant) daughter, and the generation that's coming."
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
"Crazy Rich Asians" is a movie about life and love among the super wealthy in Southeast Asia, and the movie opens today. Actress Awkwafina is in a breakout role as the heroine's best friend, and she explains...
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AWKWAFINA: (As Peik Lin Goh) These people aren't just rich, OK? They're crazy rich.
GREENE: Now, for an industry that has not only underrepresented Asian and Asian-American characters and has cast white actors in Asian roles, this movie is a really big deal. Karen Grigsby Bates from our Code Switch team has more.
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: As "Crazy Rich Asians" begins, Nick Young, played by newcomer Henry Golding, has been seeing Rachel Chu - "Fresh Off The Boat's" Constance Wu - for a year. They're both attractive, 30-something professors at NYU. When the couple flies to Singapore over spring break so Nick can attend his best friend's wedding, by habit, Rachel heads to the back of the plane. No, Nick gently tells her, our seats are here in first class. Turns out his family owns part of the airline. Rachel is taken aback.
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CONSTANCE WU: (As Rachel Chu) So your family is like rich?
HENRY GOLDING: (As Nick Young) We're comfortable.
WU: (As Rachel Chu) That is exactly what a super-rich person would say.
BATES: Rachel thought Nick was like her - normal. She's trying to get her head around the fact that she's seriously dating a guy who's more "Downton Abbey" than downtown loft.
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WU: (As Rachel Chu) It's not a big deal, obviously. I just think it's kind of weird that I had no idea. I mean, you have a Jamba Juice card.
BATES: Hey, rich people love a bargain. Several months ago, film director Jon M. Chu took time out from editing the film to explain that Rachel has a very specific role.
JON M. CHU: Rachel is our way, from our perspective, an outsider coming into Singapore and not knowing this place and then slowly peeling away the layers of like, oh, this is rich. Oh, no, this is even more rich. Oh, no, this is really, really - this is crazy rich. And that journey through our movie, I think, is really fun.
BATES: When it's not terrifying. Nick takes Rachel to a party at his parents' palatial estate, and she tries to make polite small talk with Nick's coolly proper mother, Eleanor, played by Michelle Yeoh. She's surprised to discover Nick's mother is not just a rich man's pampered wife.
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WU: (As Rachel Chu) Oh, I didn't know you were a lawyer.
MICHELLE YEOH: (As Eleanor Young) I withdrew from university when we got married. I chose to help my husband run a business and to raise a family. For me, it was a privilege. But for you, you may think it's old-fashioned. But all this doesn't just happen. It's because we know to put family first.
BATES: Michelle Yeoh, famous for her role in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," says Eleanor is not an evil would-be mother-in-law. She's someone who has been through the grueling process of trying to fit into her husband's family. Yeoh says Eleanor knows Rachel will have a tough time if she becomes part of this clan.
YEOH: It's not because she thinks that she's not worthy of a son or she's come from poor families, nothing like that. I think she understands that, you know, she comes from a society where you are taught to be independent. You are taught to take care of yourself first, and then everything comes after that.
BATES: And therein lies one of the central tensions in the movie. Just because you share the same ethnicity doesn't mean you share the same culture. The old-world ideas of filial piety, of sacrificing individual wants and aspirations for the family's collective need is a theme in "Crazy Rich Asians." Director John Chu says everyone involved in the film was on a mission.
CHU: Everyone had to agree that this wasn't just a romantic comedy that we're doing, that it was very important that the culture was part of the story itself, part of the characters themselves.
BATES: Chu knew he wanted a mostly Asian cast, and he knew he had to look beyond the U.S. There simply weren't enough actors otherwise. So he put out an open casting call on YouTube and got thousands of auditioners.
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CHU: Hey, everybody. I'm Jon M. Chu, the director of Warner Brothers' upcoming film, "Crazy Rich Asians," based off...
BATES: And auditioners got callbacks.
CHU: We had a casting director here in Vancouver, in New York, in London, in Australia, in Singapore, in Malaysia. I mean, these were all people who have to be on the clock, on the ground. All that costs money for not just a month, for months.
BATES: Romantic lead Henry Golding was known in Singapore as the host of a travel show, but he'd never acted before. No one objected to that, but early on, there was a little social media uproar about casting someone who was half Malaysian, half English. John Chu says Golding might not have been completely Asian, but he was 100 percent Nick.
CHU: In a weird way, it almost felt like, you don't cast him, what are you saying?
BATES: Golding has heard the arguments about who's truly Asian and says this to the skeptics.
GOLDING: Who are you to say that I'm less Asian than you? I grew up in Asia. I was born in Asia. I've lived so many different Asian cultures. I'm definitely more Asian than a lot of people who have never been to Asia. But by blood and by race, they instantly say, I deserve to be Asian. I've worked really hard to be Asian, and I think I'm Asian enough.
BATES: E.J. David (ph) teaches cross cultural psychology at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He's Filipino and has a problem with how some have described "Crazy Rich Asians" as the first primarily-Asian cast since 1993's "Joy Luck Club."
E.J. DAVID: I don't agree with that interpretation because it's not true.
BATES: David cites the critically-acclaimed 2006 film "The Namesake" based on Jhumpa Lahiri's best-selling novel starring Kal Penn. "The Namesake" looks at many of the same issues raised in "Crazy Rich Asians" - obligation to family, respect for culture, fitting in but with South Asian characters. Yet, David says, it's rarely mentioned as an Asian movie.
DAVID: So what is it, brown Asians don't count? You know, that's pretty offensive.
BATES: The fact is Asians are not a monolith. "Crazy Rich Asians" shows that there are all kinds of Asians spread throughout the globe - Taiwanese who are also Australian, Malaysians who are also British, Indonesians who are from China and more. Director John Chu says he spent his childhood longing to see someone who looked like him on screen. He hopes this film will be that for others.
CHU: I'm making it for my own 12-year-old self and my daughter and this generation that's coming.
BATES: And Henry Golding hopes it will be understood beyond his community.
GOLDING: It's a story about Asians, but for me, it's the universality of the story in general. You could be Latino, you could be black, you could be Caucasian, you can be from Africa and realize that, like, the story transcends that of race. It's about love.
BATES: And let's face it - is about love among the 0.001 percent because they have hearts too. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF TAKENOBU'S "CHE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.