Director Jon M. Chu thought he was done with crying over Crazy Rich Asians.
In an interview with The Root, Chu divulged that he and the movie’s cast and crew “cried almost every day on set.” The history-making film is only one of a handful of Hollywood films to boast an all-Asian cast, and is the first major romantic comedy to ever do so. As focused as everyone was on the task at hand—making a great movie—it was hard to escape the significance of what they were doing.
“When we [watched] a scene, we’d get this feeling of, ‘Why haven’t I ever seen this before?’ Why isn’t it so obvious? And also never been done? Like a romantic comedy lead of Asian, American Asian, British Asian all these people, it feels so natural,” Chu said. Watching it all manifest onscreen, “it becomes a very emotional, cathartic.”
For much of the past year, Chu, who previously directed Now You See Me 2 and Step Up: All In, has been working on editing the film. He thought he was done plowing through those feelings of catharsis—as he describes it, “a weighted cry.” But a flurry of screenings in the lead-up to Crazy Rich Asians’ nationwide release has the Palo Alto native and son of Chinese restaurant owners reliving the experience.
“When you’re showing it again, and you see people—you forget other people have not been on that journey with you,” he said. “And you see that brings it all back up again. It’s been a magical week, actually.”
To say anticipation runs high for Crazy Rich Asians is an understatement. The movie boasts talent from across the Asian diaspora (Chu, who held open casting calls for the film, told the New York Times he wanted to cast the Avengers of Asian actors), and with a 95 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes, early audiences clearly like what they’ve seen from the movie.
The love story, based on Kevin Kwan’s 2013 bestselling novel of the same name, centers on Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) and Nick Young (Henry Golding), both professors at New York University. Rachel, however, is unaware of her low-key and unassuming partner’s wealthy background, until she joins him on a visit to Singapore to attend his best friend’s wedding. There, she’s confronted by opulence—and a less-than-welcoming potential mother-in-law (played by the legendary Michelle Yeoh).
For Golding, a newcomer who previously hosted BBC News’ Travel Show, the leading-man role places him on the precipice of Hollywood stardom. Golding is undoubtedly Hollywood heart-throb material; the abs on abs, the chiseled jaw, the baritone that is equal parts soothing, equal parts “where did my pannies go?” The magnitude of his history-making turn was just starting to sink in for Golding last weekend, as he was waiting for his family and best friend to join him for the movie’s premiere.
“The trappings which come with Hollywood sort of fame is pretty strange. It’s something I haven’t experienced before so I don’t know how it’s all going to be,” Golding told The Root. “Life has definitely changed, I know that for sure.”
In the lead-up to the film’s release, Chu and the Crazy Rich Asians cast have embraced the film’s responsibility—and the high stakes. Chu recently told the Hollywood Reporter, “We can sugarcoat it all we want, but the moment you bring up an Asian-led movie, there’s one example to point to, and that’ll be us. To be on the biggest stage with the biggest stakes, that’s what we asked for.”
Crazy Rich Asians faces a crazy amount of pressure—the kind that only seems to fall on underrepresented stories and the people who tell them. One of the mostly flatly unfair expectations foisted on Crazy Rich Asians is that it represent more of the Asian diaspora—a demographic so broad and diverse that many Asian Americans report having difficulty identifying with the term. Others have criticized the film for not showing more of Singapore’s diversity (the country boasts a large Malay and Indian population that is largely unseen in the film). Still others have asked if the movie (and its cast members) are “Asian enough.” Frankly, it’s the sort of dialogue that arises every time a mainstream movie centers people of color; films that are so few and far between they are left to shoulder undue burdens of representation (Asian American writers have parsed their feelings around the film—and its burden of representation—with great nuance and care).
While Chu is certainly aware of the movie’s historic importance, he makes clear that his film is not supposed to be emblematic of the Asian American experience. In fact, talking about the film, from cleaning up the script to letting the actors “off the leash,” Chu frequently refers to the film’s specificity.
“This is only one movie. This is only one perspective, this is only one set of characters,” Chu said, adding “We knew the universality would come from the specificity.”
So Chu dives with gusto into the world of Singaporean elites—the combination of futuristic superstructures alongside street markets filled with families of different ethnicities coming together for a meal.
“It’s the warmth and the family traditions, the idea that ‘family first,’ and sacrifice for your family was the center of this,” Chu observed. It becomes part of the central tension of the whole film—how Nick and Rachel navigate disparate values and influences as they sort out who they are in and outside of their relationship.
For Golding, the movie is special for how it explores these themes—the sort you find in many other mainstream romantic comedies.
“It represents so many people, not just Asians,” Golding said. “It represents those who struggle bringing their partner home, or vice versa. Struggle with love. Struggle with overbearing parents or mothers-in-laws or crazy uncles and cousins.”
In rom-coms, likeability, relatability and charisma are the currency that lead actors bank on; that Asians—frequently viewed in American media as perpetual foreigners—could command roles that require mostly non-Asian audiences to relate to and identify with them, is no small thing. In fact, many are also curious whether Crazy Rich Asians could revive the romantic comedy genre—all but abandoned by major studios—as a whole (you know, no pressure). It’s true Crazy Rich Asians is no Black Panther: it’s decidedly less political than the Marvel film in terms of its content and its themes (it’s also a strange comparison—between an escapist rom-com and a superhero from an African utopia— that only exists because they’re two POC-driven films). But given the context of Hollywood’s incessant whitewashing of Asian characters and storylines, Crazy Rich Asians’ unabashed embrace of and commitment to an Asian perspective feels inherently meaningful.
“We have so many characters in this movie that can have their own spinoff because they’ve been given the access to be able to express themselves fully in a three-dimensional way, not just to the sidelines character, the tech assistant or the karate expert,” said Golding. “It’s proven that that we can do the job. We just need the chance.”
Both Chu and Golding expressed the hope that the film, rather than capture the Asian American experience, would be part of a larger movement of diverse and underrepresented stories and characters stepping into the limelight.
“It is a necessity for cinema to survive. A medium that I love so much needs new stories and new perspectives to survive to the next generation. And it’s a call to action, to say we must keep doing this,” said Chu.
For him, making the film created a space for Asians and Asian Americans to be themselves and own their specific stories—“the idea that we can be who we are. And in a fun way, not be heavy-handed about it,” he said.
In this way, Crazy Rich Asians, like other POC-led casts before it, acts as a sort of safe space for the cast and crew who made the film, as well as for the audiences who come to soak in its images. For Chu, the experience of making the film was not only about exploring something that always felt too “cringey” and intimate—cultural identity—but about being free. Free to be specific. Free to tell one great story. Free to not hide.
“This movie has changed me more than anything, any movie I’ve done for sure,” said Chu. “Feeling that confidence, to love my unique background and love America and love the people that are here that will see this and understand our journey together. To me it’s a story that is sort of trying to be crushed right now, but is ultimately what America is all about. And I think that is an important thing to have in this world.”