When ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ topped the US box office in August it represented a pivotal moment in cinema history. According to the film’s stars and director, it’s more than just a summer blockbuster, it’s become a “movement” against the Hollywood establishment and marks a huge leap for representation on screen.
The romcom, which is based on author Kevin Kwan’s bestselling novel of the same name, is the first major studio film in over 25-years to feature an all-Asian cast.
When Nick suggests the couple should visit Singapore to meet his parents, Rachel discovers his family are extraordinarily wealthy and she’s immediately thrown into the world of the Singaporean elite, many of whom are jealous of her relationship with Nick. Much hilarity ensues.
However, the film had a lot more riding on it than providing laughs and becoming a commercial success; it’s being hailed as one of the most important films for diversity in Hollywood in decades.
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Box office analyst Paul Dergarabedian told The Hollywood Reporter: “I don’t think any movie wants to have to carry the weight on its shoulders in terms of, ‘If this movie doesn’t work, is this a big stumbling block for this kind of film?’”
But work it has, raking in $35.3million in its first five days on release. Not bad considering the film’s budget was $30m.
Now with the success of ‘Crazy Rich Asians’, Hollywood has been forced to rethink much of the outdated criteria of what gets considered in order to get a film greenlighted. The landscape has changed in the last twelve months.
“I think studios are learning that the biggest risks can reap the biggest rewards. To have that biggest punch, you want that wide theatrical release where everyone is talking about it,” adds Paul.
Director Jon M. Chu believes it is “a sign that things are changing”, adding that “it’s a reflection of the audience speaking back to the studios that have for so long just done whatever they want.”
Jon, together with author Kevin Kwan, turned down huge amounts of money from Netflix and the guarantee of a trilogy in favour of Hollywood studio Warner Bros and a full theatrical release.
The pair didn’t want a film that could just be scrolled past, they wanted the movie experience and they wanted to show Hollywood that diversity sells.
Jon went out of his way to make sure he directed the film. The first-generation Asian-American presented a pitch that included family photos and his personal experience of growing up as a minority in America.
“It’s a movie that speaks to my identity as an Asian and that struggle of figuring out who I am and where I belong, and it deals with what my family went through,” he said.
One of the film’s stars Ken Jeong, who plays Goh Wye Mun, believes it’s so much more than a movie. “You know, I firmly believe in it. It’s not a movie, it’s a movement, so it’s an honor,” he said.
And there needed to be a movement: only five percent of speaking parts in film and television in the US were played by Asian actors in all of 2014, according to a study by USC.
“Whitewashing” or “yellowface”, the practice of casting a white person to play non-white character roles, has been a staple of Hollywood film production for decades.
This led to Jon promising that the film would feature an entirely Asian cast.
In order to fill the 70 or so speaking roles in the film he posted a video on YouTube asking for aspiring Asian actors to share audition tapes online in order to be considered for a part in the film.
Eventually, this was how he found the lead actor to play Nick after struggling to find anyone through the usual casting methods.
The original search took in drama schools and talent agencies in the US and UK and they all said the same thing: they didn’t have any Asian actors who had experience of playing a lead role before, ever.
In order to find their leading man - relatively unknown British-Malaysian presenter Henry Golding - they had to search across the globe.
After receiving a tip-off about a Singapore-based TV host who had done some work with the BBC, Jon made contact and Henry sent him a clip of his acting, assuming it would be for a small role.
A 17-hour trip to LA later, and Henry landed the job of a lifetime as the lead actor in a multi-million dollar Hollywood film.
It was a little bit easier for Jon to find the lead woman, Constance Wu, who plays Rachel in the film. Although not a megastar, the American actress has enjoyed a hugely successful acting career and is currently appearing in ‘Fresh Off The Boat’. She was Jon’s preferred option from the outset.
Constance was in the middle of filming the latest season of the US sitcom when shooting on ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ was meant to begin. However, she emailed Jon and said: “I know there are some logistical things that are in our way, but I keep thinking about the book... I think it’s a very important story to tell. I think we can tell it together.”
She added: “Whoever you cast and whatever you do with this movie, I am going to be the first in line. I will be your biggest cheerleader. But I just want to let you know why this means so much to me and that if you wait for me, I will put 110 percent of my heart into this.”
After sharing the message with the film’s producers, they agreed to delay filming a massive five months, just so they could secure Constance as Rachel in the film.
The acting community were among the first people to champion the importance of representation in film, but it’s taken years to convince the money men how important diversity is - and that it doesn’t stand in the way of getting bums on seats.
Now it has been proved. A sequel to ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ is already in the works, and ‘Get Out 2’ is also being considered by director Jordan Peele.
The follow up to ‘Black Panther 2’ has also been confirmed, but Marvel isn’t the only superhero company working to be more diverse. Rivals DC has stated it’s upcoming projects are going to be more representative of society - both in front of and behind the camera.
“I think the crew, equally importantly, should be as diverse. The representation at every level, I think it needs to be adhered to.”
The huge success of ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ in the US is good news for us Brits too - the initial November UK release date has been brought forward to September 14, so not long for us to wait - and a very good sign for the future.
Jon M. Chu hopes the film’s success, together with the popularity of the likes of ‘Black Panther and ‘Get Out’, marks a sea change for representation on the big screen.
“This is a fairy tale that can inspire a lot of young people and tell them we are on the same level, and that we could have been in all of those classic movies, we just weren’t given the opportunity,” he said.
Watch the trailer for ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ below...