Jon M. Chu Discusses Cultural Identity And CRAZY RICH ASIANS
Crazy Rich Asians is out this week. Get your tickets here!
When Jon M. Chu directed Step Up 2: The Streets, he was not only tackling his first feature, but exploring a world of dance - and dancers - that was by his own admission largely foreign to him. Six films and ten years later, he’s at the helm of Crazy Rich Asians, the adaptation of a best-seller whose subject matter might seem more familiar to the Palo Alto-born son of Chinese immigrants, but sent him on a journey of self-discovery that even he did not anticipate.
The movie focuses on a young Asian-American woman named Rachel (Constance Wu) who travels to Singapore with her native boyfriend Nick (Henry Golding), the heir to a business empire that his family, and especially his mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), does not want her to be any part of - whether she wants to or not. But what started as spirited, culture-clash romantic comedy became a remarkable experience that not only forever changed Chu, his cast and his crew, but now seems to be catalyzing a conversation about identity and representation that reverberates in every culture where it plays.
Chu recently spoke with Birth.Movies.Death. about the uniqueness of the project in his already eclectic filmography, which includes two Step Up movies, two toy adaptations (G.I. Joe: Retaliation and Jem), and two different documentaries about pop star Justin Bieber. In addition to talking about the personal journey that this movie prompted for him, he discussed the cultural specificities that were the most important to portray right - and how he worked with the cast and crew to ensure they were, and finally, how making his first movie about the Asian-American experience prompted him to reflect on his own heritage, and recognize the importance of representation as more than “an intellectual idea.”
You’ve rightfully been passionate about every film you’ve made before. But when in this process did it strike you exactly how personal this film would be in comparison to others you’ve made?
Jon M. Chu: Um, because I was scared (laughs). I felt very sensitive about my own cultural identity; the last thing I want to talk about is how I’m Asian in a room where I’m the only Asian. It’s the last thing I want to talk about when I’m talking about filmmaking, because I want to be compared to other filmmakers of all ethnicities. I want to be competing on a level that’s not just as “an Asian filmmaker.” So I knew by jumping into a project like this that it would create conversation immediately, and I would be labeled in that way - but what do I know about it? I’m an all-American kid. I grew up in a Chinese restaurant, but I don’t speak Chinese. I understand it. But among my Chinese friends, I’m the one made fun of because I’m the least Chinese! So what am I going to bring to this - am I going to get something wrong? And then my family is going to hate me, and I’m going to shame them all. So there was a lot at stake emotionally for me. But at that time in my life, I was about to have a daughter, I was 37, and I wanted to know that I could do something that was beyond a franchise movie and I could be as personal as possible. So yeah, it was a challenge.
As a shepherd for a story that would offer a bold, eclectic portrait of Asian and Asian-American culture, what elements were you maybe most careful with to ensure that audiences saw them in a dimensionalized way?
I knew we were in a sort of romantic comedy form, so in a way, the simplicity of a romantic comedy allowed me the room to focus on other things around it. Like the idea of Michelle Yeoh not being a villain; in the book she’s pretty arch, pretty mustache-twirling, so from the very first conversation I had with her, she said, “I’m not going to be a villain for you, Jon, so you have to deal with that (laughs). I’m going to defend my culture as much as your mother would defend it, and you would defend American culture - and let the audience decide.” And I loved that - the surgical ideas to have [Eleanor] in the dumplings scene, where there’s so much to empathize with, and to make her more complicated. All of these little elements of showing the layered ideas that Rachel ultimately was not about winning the guy, and that after the Mahjong scene she could walk away and the movie could end. It was about her own self-worth.
These are the things I held onto, not the ‘crazy rich Asian’ part of it. I loved the book, and I loved the world of the book, but that world didn’t resonate emotionally with me; it’s Rachel Chu going to Asia for the first time. It’s a journey I felt alone in; nobody else felt this, but when I read the book and talked to people about it, I realized that so many people [related to] this idea of these dueling cultural identities where you felt like you had to choose one or the other. And yet, we didn’t choose; we kind of pick from different parts of each, and create our own remixed version of this. So that’s what I focused on, to really make sure that it was not just a farce, not just a comedy, not just a romantic comedy, but it had some bite to this thing that I felt like I needed to say and the book was a vehicle to say it through.
When you were deciding on the aesthetic of the movie, what did you draw from? Did you find yourself pulling from your own influences - Hollywood films - or from Asian cinema as you created the palette of Crazy Rich Asians?
I was taking from old musicals like How to Marry a Millionaire - old Hollywood films, and I love the idea that we could have been in those movies, but we weren’t. We had the same style and swag. So to be able to nod to that in our score, our costumes, was really nice, but it didn’t come out of nowhere; that was something I witnessed when someone shared with me this old Chinese song “Wo Yao Ni,” which is in the movie when they go eat in Singapore. And it was this fun, great song and my mom, when I played it for her, she went, “oh my gosh! This is what we used to dance to in China!” She knew all of the words, and said, “we used to jitterbug to this.” And there’s a video online and it’s so cool - the people in it look like the Rat Pack, they’re so awesome. And the more research I did, the more I saw. So I wanted to show this off and combine it with modern songs that were translated into Chinese, so this sort of combination of the past and the present could be there. I also took reference from modern rom-coms, because we had so many nods to them anyway that we wanted to do that - the montages, “Material Girl,” all of these things. So it was sort of accessible in 18 different ways, and the only thing different in your mind was that they were Asian and you had never seen that before. So hopefully you forgot that they were Asians five minutes into this movie, and were just enjoying a movie that had such new takes on this stuff that you were just enjoying it on a pure visceral level, as well as emotional.
When I was talking about the film afterward I was comparing it a bit to Sex and the City - there’s definitely an aspirational, wish-fulfillment element to its characters and story. For better or worse, that seems to be a part of many of the earliest stories that are shared in the mainstream about marginalized people and cultures. How much did you feel compelled to lean into that, and how much could you create more understated or nuanced portrayals of some of these characters?
I think some of them I could, and some of them I could not. I tried to hire actors that were authentic in who they were so it wouldn’t feel false to me. I hired Ronny Chieng, whose comedy is based off of being the tone-deaf angry guy jackass, and he would feel authentic and real. Having Jimmy O. Yang play Bernard Tai, the party guy; I felt like he could run with it and have fun with that role. Awkwafina as the best friend, who instead of just being the best friend, could add lightning to it and it’s the same role, but she speaks the truth and she’s like Jiminy Cricket to our Rachel. She says the things that the audiences wants to say, but is maybe too scared to say it - calling bullshit on things, making fun of things, ogling things.
To me, hiring the right people gave me a lot of permission to do stuff and find things that I couldn’t necessarily bring myself. And ultimately it always came down to, “did this feel like a real moment between real human beings?” Because we were in such an eccentric world, Rachel Nick, Astrid and Eleanor had to be extremely grounded in their connection to the emotional honesty of it.
There’s a wonderfully sophisticated intersection of ethnicity and class at the heart of Rachel’s estrangement from Nick’s family. What have you found was or is the most relatable part of this whole adventure to folks who maybe wouldn’t immediately be able to identify with what she goes through?
I’m getting a lot of [feedback about] the idea of culture and family. I think a lot of cultures, not just Asian culture, put family first, and use food as a way to say “I love you.” I get a lot of people coming to me, saying “I struggled with what to sacrifice for my family, all of my life - I sacrificed my life, all of my dreams, my hopes, my profession, love, I sacrificed all of these things.” To see that a character on screen was going through the same struggle made them feel less alone. That’s something I also felt. I’m also getting a lot of, “oh, I have a crazy mother-in-law!” But the main thing that I get the most of is people crying afterwards because they saw themselves on the screen. And not marginalized, but in its fullest flavor - like a Baskin-Robbins of Asian types that you could choose from, and you didn’t have to rely on just one [character] as he comic relief or whatever. You could be funny, you could be romantic, you could be the hero, you could be the villain, you could be all of these different types of things. You could be fashionable; like you said, there’s aspiration - how often do we aspire to be Asian people on the big screen that anyone would want to be? My friend the other day said, “it’s been cool to be Asian for the last two weeks!” in the same way I felt cool when Rufio was on the screen [in Hook] when we played in our back yard, and I got to be Rufio because that’s who they would look at. So that sense of pride is Number One, and the Number One surprise as well! I was down on Sawtelle at Tasty Noodle House, and they had a poster of the movie with a sign that says if you bring in a ticket stub, you get a free drink. That’s not Warner Brothers going to that company and saying “do this,” that was the guy in the back who just wants to support us - and that is amazing to me. I literally cry every four hours, it’s so emotional.
I watched your presentation at CinemaCon this year, aside from being deeply envious of your suit, I was struck by the observation that there hadn’t really been a movie that focused both on the Asian and Asian-American experience. How tough was it to juggle those perspectives in terms of your own upbringing, much less the demands of the story?
It wasn’t tough in terms of the plotting. But it was tough in terms of what was I trying to say with Rachel Chu - like, what was I judging about her? What was I not judging? Because that is my own journey, and because I was also going through it while making this movie, it’s hard to know the answers. So I think the collaboration of working with her, working with Michelle, and working with actors from all around the world - Asians from the U.K., from Australia, all have gone through their own personal experiences, so we got to talk a lot about it on set. A lot of inspiration came from our conversations, and so I think that was the process that I had to track the most, that I had to go through in order to find the answers. I couldn’t just draw it out. And then the book had good, solid bones, so we could use the bones, but the meat, that was a self-exploration among all of us.
You seem to be in an incredibly healthy place with everything leading up to this. What has been the biggest lesson you’ve learned, as a filmmaker or a person, as a consequence of making Crazy Rich Asians?
One, how important casting is, and my own casting. Casting for a director is as important as writing - they’re your cowriters, and they are the people who are going to lift this material. I spent more time casting on this than any project I’ve ever done, watched more tape, and I fought for the things I wanted more than on anything else. But I think they on their shoulders are delivering this movie and connecting with that audience. I also think representation to me was an intellectual idea, pride was an intellectual idea, but through this experience, I felt for real what it means to be proud. I’m witnessing how important representation is. My oldest brother is like 6’2”, the cool guy who never has any emotion, and everyone loves him - he’s the party guy. He watched the movie and when Henry Golding comes out in a white suit, he literally starts to bawl, and he was like, “Jon, you have no idea what this means for an Asian man who has never gotten to see himself like this, and to be told, ‘that’s not what beauty is’.” And to see this guy walk out confidently and beautifully, and to know that others are going to see this, I didn’t understand for him how deep it went. And this is happening countless times. So I have a new appreciation for representation and how important these kinds of stories are. It’s not just a movie. It’s not just a story. It’s literally a painting of who you think you are, and your own self-worth, and I think that’s an important thing to have in film - and I can contribute to that! Not just to do sequels and make a lot of money, but I can actually do something that no other filmmaker can deliver because of my experience - and I think that’s important to remember.