‘CRAZY RICH ASIANS’ is a cultural celebration of colorful, richly-written characters

Constance Wu and Henry Golding in CRAZY RICH ASIANS. Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures.

Courtney Howard // Film Critic

It’s taken an astonishing 25 years since the last Hollywood studio has taken a “gamble,” investing in an all Asian ensemble to tell a culturally significant tale. That was the now defunct Hollywood Pictures’ THE JOY LUCK CLUB. Now, another film based on a best-selling novel, is set to take the world by storm: Warner Brothers’ CRAZY RICH ASIANS.

Directed by Jon M. Chu, the story centers on Asian-American economics professor Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), traveling to meet her boyfriend Nick Young’s (Henry Golding) extended family. The catch? He hasn’t told her they’re insanely wealthy and, well, kinda crazy too. It’s a dazzling fish-out-of-water romcom – and possibly the grandest eye-popping delight you’ll witness all year.

Author Kevin Kwan’s sensational book trilogy is a best-seller for a very good reason. Not only does he give readers such richly written characters of which to identify, but also makes the world they inhabited – and the specificity of their cultural exchanges – vibrant, impactful and beguiling. That said, his novel was so packed with sprawling characters and their complexities, that it presented an intriguing challenge to condense all that material into a two hour movie.

At the recent filmmakers press conference in Los Angeles, co-screenwriter Peter Chiarelli stated,

Kevin wrote a book with 2,000 characters and there was a lot to choose from. It was pretty much about picking Rachel, Nick and Eleanor and how everyone would surround that orbit. If they fit in that story, they made that cut. At the very beginning, I remember saying, “Who do the fans love?” So we were sure to get those characters in and give extra time as well.

Co-screenwriter Adele Lim added,

The big thing was how we’d introduce the audience and Rachel to this constellation of crazy, amazing, out there characters. It came to this vortex of [the Young] family house where they meet everybody. Making sure Eleanor had this moment, Jon had this idea that she’s not with the rest of the party. She’s in the center of power in the kitchen – the majesty almost because she’s surrounded by smoke and cooks. You get that dynamic immediately.

Color Force producer Brad Simpson further elucidated,

There were characters that were on the chopping block several times during development. Oliver was in. Oliver was out. There was a version where Peik Lin wasn’t going to be in. What Jon understood was that he put these actors in the right roles so it wasn’t about the amount of screen time. It was about the impression that they make.

One of the fan favorites, Charlie Wu (Harry Shum), was impacted by the trajectory of how the filmmakers modulated and serviced the story arc for Nick’s wealthy cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan). Chu said,

With Astrid, we knew we had to get an actress that could tell the story efficiently and surgically and be really good at what she did. She only has very poignant scenes she had to deliver by the end. We didn’t want any of these women to depend on some man – and the decision had to be their own decision. This is something Adele[Lim] and Nina [Jacobson] talked about a lot – that this isn’t about getting the guy for Rachel or Astrid. It’s about self-worth – knowing that you’re worth everything and you deserve anything you want.

Charlie is also a favorite in the books and we wanted to nod to that. I know Harry Shum very well. I knew that he would be the perfect Charlie. So we just wanted to tease to the audience that there’s more to the audience than what’s here. This is the first part of Astrid’s story.

Color Force producer Nina Jacobson augmented,

We had originally shot more of them together. But what we found when we first started to show the movie to audiences was that, just in terms of screen time, the disillusion of her marriage and the introduction of this wonderful new guy, both got short shrift when you rushed it. So you weren’t getting the strength that it took her to walk away from her marriage, but also the hope that you might feel about a new person and that it wasn’t just a rebound.

The time that we had left, we had to make this choice – even though we had fantastic material of them together. We’ll just tease it a little both at the end and hope that audiences ask for more movies so we can continue to tell the story.

Constance Wu and Gemma Chan in CRAZY RICH ASIANS. Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures.

Perhaps the biggest decision the creatives were forced to make came on the outset: Whether or not they wanted to have Warner Brothers distribute this theatrically, or have Netflix handle the distribution. The producers differed to Chu and Kwan to make the big decision. Chu said,

We had fifteen minutes to make the decision. I love Netflix, by the way. The only thing we knew was that putting it on the big screen meant something – to tell people it is worth your time and energy to leave your house, fight parking, pay for food and say, “Tell me a story.” Subliminally it says, this cast of characters – of all Asian actors – are worth your energy to do that. When you put something in a museum, it trickles down to everything else and says a lot.

Kwan thought that their decision was the right call since the book’s word of mouth success was like a communal experience similar to how the theatrical experience can be.

There’s nothing like that communal experience. My book is so loved inter-generationally. You have grandmothers, who give it to their daughters, who give it to their teenage daughters. This was the first chance we had in 25 years, god dammit. I wanted this to be an experience future generations could look at and say, “We achieved this.” Ultimately, we want to inspire.

One of the most pivotal, important set pieces in the movie is the scene set in a mahjong parlor where Eleanor and Rachel engage in a power play to end all power plays. Turns out, the pair collaborated with the filmmakers to make that sequence hit home. Chu said,

We had like four different versions of the mahjong scene. I remember Michelle [Yeoh] being all, “Oh. I’m not going to let this American girl say this shit to me, so I’m going to say this part of the script.” Then Constance [Wu] was all, “Well, I’m not going to let her run me over.” It was these fireworks – these two, super strong adversaries. Then the look that Rachel’s mother gives Eleanor is this generational ideal. These are all brought on because of the cast.

In a film steeped in cultural nuances, it was important to come at the material with clearly defined points of authenticity. And the only way to do that was to consult more than one Asian. Simpson admitted that the best thing they did as allies was to listen to those in the community.

We’re looking for stories that have specificity. One of the things that makes audiences feel exhausted is that we’re watching the same stories being told with the same characters and people who look the same, over and over again. Our attraction, as producers, are for stories that bring us into worlds we don’t know. We take it very seriously to listen. We had Kevin’s book as our original text, but it wasn’t important just to have one Asian person involved – and I think that’s the mistake people often make when they’re doing something. They’ll hire one person of color and they become the spokesperson. That creates a competition for that role amongst people of color, but also, you don’t get the dialectic.

This proved to be an absolute asset when it came to how concepts surrounding the culture were portrayed. Simpson continued,

Between Adele, Jon and the actors… We had this line in the script, which was in the book, about Rachel not having dated Asian men in the past. It’s complicated in the book, but it’s explained. It was a throwaway line in our script and none of us had questioned it, but it was Constance [Wu] who wrote this really impassioned email to Jon that said, “You’re going to contribute to desexualizing Asian men if you leave this in. It may be fleshed out in the book, but it becomes a line in the movie.” We took that seriously. It’s because there was a conversation going on. That’s the most important thing when you’re representing cultures that aren’t your own.

Though the film speaks to a certain specificity its target demographic will thoroughly understand and see their own stories reflected in, Lim stated that there’s assuredly a universal appeal to it too.

In a way, it is a foreign culture, but when you get right down to it, the fierce family dynamics below it, is something everybody can relate to.

CRAZY RICH ASIANS opens on August 15. Read our review here.

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