Crazy Rich Asians: ‘Eleanor is my mom’, director says of Michelle Yeoh role as Chinese family matriarch in film
Jon Chu called on his Asian American upbringing to make the first Hollywood film in 25 years with an all-Asian cast. Kevin Kwan, who did the same when writing the bestseller the movie is based on, says story of Asian wealth was one that needed telling
As a film student at the University of Southern California, Jon Chu made a short film called Gweilo about an Asian American child – gweilo being Cantonese slang for Westerners. “It was really bad,” Chu says. “But it was a great exercise. I remember needing to get this story out, but wondering how I could do it in a better way.”
Years later, Chu read Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians and suddenly, he says, “all the dots were connected”. And when he had the opportunity to direct the film version, he saw all the ways he could pour his own personal experience – as an all-American son of Chinese immigrants-turned-restaurateurs – into a lavish, sprawling, contemporary story.
Chu says the film is his most personal yet; the director is known for blockbusters like G.I. Joe: Retaliation (2013) and Now You See Me 2 (2016). Being responsible for the first Hollywood film with an all-Asian cast in 25 years – it’s been that long since The Joy Luck Club hit screens – brought with it its own set of concerns.
“All my films are personal to me, but this one has cultural ties,” Chu says, in an interview with the Post. “You don’t want to disappoint your parents and look like an idiot in front of people.”
Given the rousing critical reception the film has so far received, that’s unlikely to happen. Still, Chu considered and re-considered every detail. “We were more conscious of getting things right and asking questions; [we were] more disciplined, double- and triple-checking translation, cultural things, accents,” he says.
“There are very Singapore-specific ways of saying things, but we had a great Singaporean cast, who helped bring that to life. There were so many questions over casting – can you cast a Japanese or Korean [actor] as a Chinese [character]? All those things were up for debate, and there’s no true answer. But it was a great conversation to have.”
Author Kwan lost count of the number of times people asked when his 2013 book would be turned into a film. He says the story not only taps into the public’s fascination with wealth, but with the way an entire continent does rich.
“I think different cultures handle money in different ways. And when you see how the super rich in Asia live, it’s on a scale that’s beyond almost anything,” says the author.
Kwan, who emigrated from Singapore to the US when he was 11, says that during his regular returns home, he would notice how “everyone around me was getting richer and richer, and their lives were getting more ridiculous”.
He adds: “No one was telling this story of contemporary Asia and what it means to be wealthy in this part of the world, when there is more wealth creation here than anywhere else on the planet.”
Chu, for his part, says that some pretty crucial choices had to be made in the translation of the story from book to screen. He chose to focus on the unfolding dynamic between the girlfriend of the heir to a massive fortune (Rachel Chu, played by Constance Wu), and his mother, Eleanor Young (Michelle Yeoh).
“Once we got Michelle, we knew we had the best actor in that role – and it came down to a great battle between those two, and all those emotional conflicts between the two strong female characters,” says Chu. “It became a culture-class conflict, and a head-to-head between them over the man they both loved.”
Chu laughs when he says he can relate to the disapproval cast by Eleanor Young. “Eleanor is my mom,” says Chu, the youngest of five children.
“She would say the same blunt things. She’s very judgmental, but she loves me and would die for any one of us. But she also expects us to treat people a certain way. She sent us to etiquette lessons when we were young, because she never wanted people to look at us and say, ‘Look at that immigrant family’.”
For all the control that Chu’s mother exerted over her brood, Chu says that she, for the most part, was fine with her fifth child choosing to make his way in the field of show business.
“They said I could chase my dreams, and they gave us everything they never had,” says Chu. “We weren’t allowed to work in the restaurant, but we did every type of class: violin, piano, guitar, tennis camps, art, animation. They put it in our heads that it was a good thing to be in the arts.”
“Push came to shove” when he was in high school, Chu recalls. Instead of writing papers, he convinced his teachers to allow him to make movies. One night, his mother came into his room and said, “You’ve conned the school. You need to be studying”.
Unable to sleep, Chu remembers going into her room crying, and saying: “This is what I want to do. It’s not a hobby. You can support me or fight me, but I’m doing it.”
The next day, Chu’s mother showed up with a stack of books on filmmaking. “She said, ‘If you’re going to do it, study it like it’s a real subject’. In the end, they paid for me to get my film degree. If it hadn’t worked out, I don’t know what I’d do.”
Crazy Rich Asians is in US cinemas now, and opens on August 23 in Hong Kong
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