In the Heights director Jon M. Chu on Crazy Rich Asians sequel, cultural identity and his Chinese heritage
- Chinese-American director’s mother is from Taiwan, and he was treated like an outsider there – hence Crazy Rich Asians’ exploration of identity appealed to him
- When he began directing In the Heights, Chu was also an ‘outsider’ to the Latino community in New York, before being embraced by them
When director Jon M. Chu first went to see a production of In the Heights, he was blown away. At the time, he was in New York shooting 2010’s Step Up 3D – the follow-up to his dance-fuelled debut Step Up 2: The Streets – and one of his dancers was performing in the show.
Chu was intrigued by the story set in the Washington Heights borough in upper Manhattan. “I got a ticket to see it,” he recalls, “and I remember watching it and crying my eyes out.”
Written by Lin-Manuel Miranda – before he went on to create the worldwide phenomenon Hamilton – In the Heights may focus on a largely Latino population, its multi-generational story telling of working-class dreamers, but it immediately struck a chord with Chu.
“I’m from a family of immigrants that came over from China and Taiwan, and it was just at a time [in my life] where I was like, ‘This is the story of America that needs to be told.’”
While he was born and raised in California, Chu’s mother, Ruth, came from Taiwan, while his father, Lawrence, was born in Sichuan, southwest China. “My parents came here, didn’t even know the language, they started a Chinese restaurant,” he explains.
Together they own Chef Chu’s, a popular restaurant in Los Altos frequented by celebrities, which has now been open for over 50 years. Chu, meanwhile, made it to Hollywood. “Which is crazy … I didn’t have any connections,” he says.
“I was trying to find something that dealt with my cultural identity crisis. As you get older, you have to face it,” he says.
He found the perfect vessel to explore it in Kevin Kwan’s Singapore-set novel. “I love the idea of an Asian-American going to Asia for the first time. I remember that feeling of, like, ‘Oh, this feels weird … everybody looks like me. So do I belong here? They’re treating me like their son or their cousin.’”
When he first travelled to Taiwan, he recalls being called a gweilo (a common Chinese term for foreigners that literally means ‘ghost man’). “So they also see me as an outsider. But I loved the exploration of that.”
Similarly, when he took on In the Heights, Chu was an “outsider” to the community there, but he was embraced. “They say ‘Heights in your heart.’ And it really is, it gets in your heart, because they welcome you, they treat you like family, for good or for bad. They yell at you as well if you’re in their way.”
Luckily, he also had Miranda and even Miranda’s father, Luis, as guides, “continually communicating” to him what living in the Heights meant.
No question, Chu took it to heart – crafting a vibrant, joyous screen musical that is likely to have people dancing in the aisles this summer. Cast with a mix of newcomers, Broadway veterans and stars-in-waiting, at its centre is Anthony Ramos, who featured in the original cast of Hamilton and played Lady Gaga’s wide-eyed friend in A Star Is Born .
He stars as Usnavi, the film’s narrator and the owner of a bodega (grocery) store who, like so many in the story, dreams of a better life.
“He is the whole reason this movie is what it’s become,” says Chu. “He can only speak truth and honesty in his acting. And he raised everybody’s game. It’s amazing that someone can sing and act as well as him. But it all comes from the same source of truthfulness.”
Moreover, he feels the Brooklyn-raised actor, who is of Puerto Rican descent, both understands Miranda’s world and those of his compatriots. “He’s speaking for a generation that deserves a voice right now.”
Alongside Ramos, the cast includes Mexican actress Melissa Barrera as Vanessa, the would-be fashion designer that Usnavi longs for, debutant Leslie Grace as Stanford student Nina and, as her love interest, Straight Outta Compton’s Corey Hawkins as cabstand worker Benny.
Chu put his cast through rigorous dance training, though it was all worth it. The dance numbers – considerably expanded from the show – are electric. Take the song 96,000, reimagined as a Busby Berkeley-style routine with 500 extras all perfectly choreographed in a local outdoor swimming pool.
Chu, who grew up watching musicals on television and stage, is fired up by the chance to deliver a full-blown musical. “It’s a huge honour to be able to play in that genre,” he says.
It’s a world he seemingly intends to stay in for a while longer. He’s currently plotting an adaptation of the Wizard of Oz-inspired musical Wicked. “It spoke to me, as an outsider, as someone who dreamt of meeting the wizard one day in Hollywood,” he says.
He’s also developing The Great Chinese Art Heist, adapted from a GQ article about the theft of Chinese antiquities from museums across Europe – another chance to explore cultural identity. “It really posed a lot of questions that I don’t even know the answer to,” he adds.
Then, of course, there’s the question of Crazy Rich Asians follow-ups. Two sequels, based on Kwan’s books China Rich Girlfriend and Rich People Problems, are in development, with the plan to shoot them back to back.
“We’re taking our time with those two! We’re trying to make sure that it’s right. You know, everyone’s doing their own thing right now, too. So when we get it right – if we get it right – then that will be the time that we will all come back together.”
Rightly, Chu doesn’t want to disappoint the fans. “I think it would be worse to make something that doesn’t live up to everybody’s time and effort.
“But I’m itching to get back together with everybody. I mean, they literally created their own lane, all these actors – way bigger than the movie. “
He feels the same for the young stars of In the Heights, and also hopes the film will act as a soothing balm after the coronavirus pandemic. Thematically, Miranda’s musical celebrates and embraces the power of community.
“Nobody wants to be alone,” Chu says. He believes the film’s message is the perfect allegory for the world situation right now. “Whether it’s frontline workers, family members or doctors coming up with the vaccine … everyone has to work together.”
In the Heights opens the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival on June 9. It then opens in US cinemas on June 11, and in Hong Kong cinemas on June 17.
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