The Cinematic Spectacles Of Jon M. Chu

From street dances to ninja battles to an astoundingly opulent wedding, Jon M. Chu builds striking spectacles with motion and color.

Crazy Rich Asians is out now. Get your tickets here!

Crazy Rich Asians, Jon M. Chu’s romantic comedy of class, generations and manners, adapted from Kevin Kwan’s bestselling novel, opens this week. It’s been widely acclaimed, including by BMD’s own Leigh Monson, as funny, sumptuous, swoon-inducing and unequivocally, proudly, Asian and Asian-American. Like Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, it’s a film made by folks Hollywood has chronically underserved first and foremost for an audience Hollywood has underserved. Also like Black Panther, if on a slightly more modest scale, it’s set to make a gargantuan pile of money its opening weekend. Thus, now seems a good time to explore some of Chu’s past work. He’s got an eclectic filmography, to say the least. He debuted with Step Up 2: The Streets, and directed its follow-up Step Up 3D. He worked for Justin Bieber at the height of the Canadian pop star’s fame. For Hasbro, he’s done both the massive G.I. Joe: Retaliation and the passion project/infamous flop Jem and the Holograms. Yet, as different as the various parts of Chu’s body of work are from each other, they share a commonality that points towards one of Crazy Rich Asians’ key selling points as a movie – spectacle. More specifically, spectacle built on the interaction between objects in motion (primarily the human body) and color.

Consider the final dance from Step Up 2:

It’s raining throughout the sequence. On its own, rain can be quite striking. It also provides Chu, the performers and cinematographer Max Malkin with a seriously fun toolkit. The rain emphasizes and amplifies the motions of the dancers (a jacket being spun on the ground to launch water in every direction for instance). It also makes light and color all the more noticeable, from the venue lights to the handheld ones worn by the dancers early in the performance. Even desaturated (ironically) by the storm, the team’s costumes pop, by way of the way their differing fabrics are affected by the rain and by the distinct silhouettes they give each dancer. The end result is a dance that’s incredibly busy visually without ever feeling confused or crowded. It’s energetic and exciting.

Moving on, consider the mountain battle from G.I. Joe: Retaliation:

The stark colors of the mountain upon which heroic ninjas Snake Eyes (Ray Park) and Jinx (Élodie Yung) do battle with the wicked ninja horde of Cobra ensure that both factions stand out, even when filmed at a distance. Even in the midst of a pitched battle, both parties move as elegantly as they can as often as possible. They swoop and swing across the mountain, trying to cut each other’s safety lines. When someone falls, all their skill goes out the window. It’s sudden, alarming and keeps the stakes high. It helps that, while no doubt VFX assisted, a good chunk of the action Chu shoots here is clearly real people doing real stunts. Ninjas are having a sword fight while dangling off the side of a cliff, and while the scene has to do the work of selling Snake Eyes, Jinx and Cobra ninja action figures, it’s simultaneously an effective, even thrilling piece of action filmmaking. It particularly stands out compared to the bafflingly brutal act of terrorism that kicks off Retaliation’s last act, where Cobra Commander wipes London off the map with a giant CGI spike. This is never mentioned again. It feels weird and weightless, where the cliff duel, while smaller in scale, feels genuinely spectacular.

Then there’s Crazy Rich Asians and its world. Nicholas Young (Henry Golding) and his family come from a world of wealth that is not merely astonishing, it is absurd. Bride to be Araminta Lee (Sonoya Mizuno) hosts her bachelorette party on a private island resort. The wedding itself features a ceremony held amidst foliage and water features, with the guests lighting the bride’s path to the altar with lights shaped like flowers. Her gown sparkles. It’s one thing to showcase that level of opulence, especially during an event that has the wealthiest of the wealthy pulling out all of the stops to create something spectacular. It’s another entirely to keep humanity in the center in the midst of such extravagance.

On a storytelling level, that’s part of why the main character Rachel (Constance Wu) is an outsider. She only knows Nick as her fellow professor and serious boyfriend, not as the heir to one of the wealthiest and most powerful families in all of Asia. The pomp and the circumstance are certainly astonishing and impressive to her, but they don’t obscure the very real interpersonal problems the families face for her, like the conflict between Nick and his mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh) over his obligations to his family.

On a filmmaking level, beyond Chu’s personal connection to Rachel’s story, his skill at crafting visual spectacle gives him a leg up in adapting the film. In the midst of the jet-setting and the highest of haute couture, the weddings and the fireworks, there are people. And the spectacles Chu crafts, be they action figures brought to life, dancers going all out or something else, are built on people. They have moments of intimacy, like the moment Briana Evigan’s Andie and Robert Hoffman’s Chase share at the conclusion of Step Up 2’s climactic dance, or Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee) bowing to the tech-wielding medicine woman who saved his life before he engages in a duel with Snake Eyes that leads to the cliff sequence discussed above. They breathe. That’s a handy skill to have when making a film that’s in part about the conflict between image and the true self. Especially when that film’s set in a social situation which pushes that conflict as far as possible.