Kevin Kwan is struggling to find the right words.* It’s been nearly 24 hours since the author saw a rough cut of Crazy Rich Asians, the film adaptation of his best-selling book, and he’s still not sure how to describe the sensation of seeing his characters in a movie for the very first time. “I mean, my heart definitely skipped a beat,” he says. “To see the story unfold, just how I imagined it, was…” He trails off. “I’m being fabulously inarticulate, but everything that’s happened has been amazing. I feel like every few months I have to pinch myself.”
That periodic pinching has been going on for more than four years. Kwan’s debut novel, loosely based on his own childhood memories of Singapore, was snapped up by The Hunger Games producer Nina Jacobson shortly after hitting shelves in 2013. It’s not hard to see why: The real-life, jaw-dropping opulence of Asia’s über-rich practically begs to be splashed on the big screen. In the book, Kwan details outrageous luxuries, from climate-controlled closets packed with next season’s couture pieces (why, of course!) to yachts equipped with swimming pools (yes, more than one!) and even to private planes with state-of-the-art yoga studios and heated floors (why not?!). His subjects aren’t just crazy rich; they’re filthy, unspeakably, hilariously rich.†
But the craziest part of Warner Bros.’ Crazy Rich Asians isn’t the fact that its decadence makes Versailles look like a Red Roof Inn; it’s that it boasts an all-Asian cast. Few Hollywood films have featured exclusively Asian principal casts since The Joy Luck Club more than two decades ago — a fact Michelle Yeoh, an Asian superstar with just a handful of lead roles in Hollywood productions, understands well. “It’s been too long since there’s been an all-Asian cast,” says the Malaysia-born actress, who stars as the film’s intimidating matriarch. “I’ve been very lucky to have worked on one before [2005’s Memoirs of a Geisha], but they’re too few and far between.”
And while campaigns against the industry’s habit of “whitewashing” — i.e., casting white actors in ethnically Asian roles — have grown in recent years, the practice itself hasn’t ended. During one early meeting with one potential producer who wanted to adapt the novel, Kwan says he was even asked to reimagine his protagonist as a white woman. “I was like, ‘Well, you’ve missed the point completely,'” he recalls. “I said, ‘No, thank you.'”
* Unusual for a guy who sprinkles footnotes (like this one!) in his books.
† As a character says in the novel, “These people are richer than God.”
Directed by Jon M. Chu (Now You See Me 2), Crazy Rich Asians follows Rachel Chu (Fresh Off the Boat‘s Constance Wu), an NYU economics professor who heads to Singapore with her boyfriend, Nick Young (newcomer Henry Golding), for what she thinks will be an ordinary visit to meet his family and attend his best friend’s wedding, only to discover that — alamak!* — he’s the multizillionaire son of one of the most affluent families in Asia and that the wedding they’re headed to is the social event of the year. “She’s put into a world that is completely different from her own,” Wu says. Think Anne Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada. “She’s challenged by this world and actually recenters herself in her own identity based on her experiences.”
Not that the social circles of the 1 percent of the 1 percent make it easy for Rachel to get there. Nick’s mother, Eleanor (Yeoh), has zero — nope, make that negative — interest in welcoming Rachel into the high-society fold, but Yeoh says Eleanor only wants to protect her family’s legacy. “She sees this very gullible, very feisty young woman who thinks she can just step in and change the whole system, and that’s not going to work,” she explains. “Eleanor had to fight to be a Young. It didn’t come handed to her on a silver platter. I think when she looks at Rachel, she’s like, ‘You are totally wrong for this, because you don’t even have a concept of what you’re coming into.'”
She really doesn’t. Between a bachelorette party filled with billionaire bullies, shopping sprees without credit-card limits, and a wedding to end all weddings, Rachel gets put through the Singapore slinger. And technically, it’s all Nick’s fault. He has hidden much of his background from his American friends as a way to find his own identity. “He’s not ashamed of his wealth,” Golding says, “but he doesn’t want the wealth he has in Singapore to define his character.” Even to his girlfriend. “He definitely could have given her a heads-up,” Golding admits. “In his defense, he didn’t want to scare her!”
* A Malay slang term meaning “Oh dear” or “Oh my God,” lah.
For all its soapy madness, Crazy Rich Asians tells a fairly classic cinematic love story — of a romance impeded by family and tradition. But it’s a tale calligraphed with the specificity of the Asian immigrant experience. What does it feel like to look foreign in a place where you belong, and then to look like you belong in a place where you are a stranger? Rachel, an American-born Chinese, has difficulty understanding the customs Nick’s family has followed for generations. “This is about a girl going somewhere that’s foreign to her, to really find out who she is,” Wu explains. “It’s just such a beautiful story, to show an Asian-American immigrant going back to Asia and finding the things that overlap and connect us all, things like family, things like love.”
It was that story, of Rachel’s reverse culture shock, that persuaded Chu to adapt the novel for the screen. The director signed on in May 2016 after presenting Jacobson and her producing partner Brad Simpson with family photos showing how much the material resonated with him.* Rachel’s experience, Chu explains, echoes that of most Asian-Americans who have to grapple with dual identities. “Rachel, a first-generation Asian-American, is something that I and a lot of my friends are,” he says. “When balancing these two worlds as I got older, I went through times of asking, ‘Which one am I more?'”
So more than a year ago, when Chu promised fans on Twitter he’d fill “EVERY SINGLE ROLE”† with an Asian actor, he meant it.
The director scrutinized audition tape after audition tape to ensure an exclusively Asian cast, combing nearly a thousand submissions while jotting down names and notes in a giant spreadsheet that grew into something like an Asian IMDb. “I think we now have the deepest database of Asian actors that speak English in the world,” Chu says. “It was worth it. The best thing we ever did on this movie was cast this cast.”
In fact, he’s now able to make a whole new promise. “Any other studios that want to know who the best of the best [Asian actors] are, just call me! I will show it to you for free!” he says. “I wish I could’ve cast 300 more people. There are at least 25 [potential] mega stars I saw that we couldn’t put in this movie.”
* Plus, he’s referenced in the book as a relative of Rachel’s. It’s fate!
† Yep, in all caps, and hashtagged #itstime.
Out of those tapes, Chu assembled the talent he needed to play the colorful characters surrounding Rachel, Nick, and Eleanor: There’s Astrid (Gemma Chan), Nick’s super-stylish cousin; Goh Peik Lin (rapper Nora Lum, a.k.a. Awkwafina), Rachel’s Singapore-based college friend; Goh Wye Mun (Ken Jeong), Peik Lin’s flashy father with a taste for gilded everything*; Araminta Lee (Sonoya Mizuno), model and bride-to-be in Singapore’s might-as-well-be-royal wedding; Colin Khoo (Chris Pang), Nick’s childhood best friend and Araminta’s groom; Alistair Cheng (Remy Hii), Nick’s cousin who’s committing social suicide by dating a gold-digging soap opera star; Charlie Wu (Harry Shum Jr.), Astrid’s heartbroken ex; and more.
For much of the cast, the abundance of Asian actors meant seeing more than one Asian face on set, sometimes for the first time in their careers. “It really influenced the energy of the whole shoot,” Mizuno says. “It was such a pleasure to feel like I wasn’t there for a tokenistic reason.” Adds Awkwafina: “I was looking at all my castmates, and I realized that every single one of them had, in their career, been that Asian, that one Asian in the cast. That does set you apart. In this movie, that dynamic doesn’t exist, and that’s profound.”
Profound, yes, and more than a little gratifying. “It was a party,” Jeong marvels. “I felt like I was a butterfly on the wall of something incredibly special.” With that, though, comes pressure. And as the director behind the first American studio film in years to have an all-Asian cast, Chu feels the importance of delivering a hit. “There’s the feeling that if you don’t make a great movie,” he says, “then all of this is for nothing.”
* Jeong calls him “a well-intentioned Mr. Chow.” You know, from The Hangover.
All those intangible hopes — that perhaps the film will rejuvenate the rom-com genre, that maybe it’ll break ground for Asian movie stars — may rest ultimately on the film’s box office fortunes, but that’s an impossible burden. This is not Crazy Rich Asians Who Will Solve All of Hollywood’s Representation Problems. “We have to be realistic about the fact that this is one movie, and one movie can’t be all things to all people,” Chan says. “I hope it opens the door for other movies, that it will lead to more confidence in having more films being made. And I think that’s all we can hope for.” Wu agrees: “We need many stories. We need another rom-com that’s totally different from Crazy Rich Asians. There just needs to be more.”
Good thing, then, that Rachel’s first adventure is just the tip of the diamond-encrusted iceberg. Kwan turned Crazy Rich Asians into a trilogy. That could mean a franchise, but Chu’s in no hurry to pull the trigger on a sequel. At least not yet. “Would we love to do more? Absolutely,” the director says. “But it’s always up to the audience.” Kwan, however, is all-in: “We’ve only told the first part of the story, and everyone’s always been committed from the very beginning to making the trilogy. We want to repeat what happened with The Hunger Games or with Harry Potter or with all these series. We’re going to tell a complete story. That’s the goal.”
Crazy Rich Asians hits theaters August 15.