It was a sweltering night in Singapore and the production of Crazy Rich Asians was in the last leg of filming.
Director Jon M. Chu was sweating buckets and it’s not entirely because of the humid weather.
Chu, who has worked on big budget Hollywood sequels like G.I. Joe: Retaliation and Now You See Me 2, said Crazy Rich Asians presented a whole new set of challenges for him.
“Sometimes dressing people up for a wedding takes a lot more effort than filming ninjas on a mountain,” Chu shared briefly on the set of Crazy Rich Asians, before rushing back to finish another scene.
Members of the media were observing the filming of an emotionally-charged moment featuring Rachel (Constance Wu, TV’s Fresh Off The Boat) screaming into the night. In the scene with her were Tan Sri Michelle Yeoh and veteran actress Lisa Lu.
Some context: The ladies were all dressed to the nines for a high society wedding. At a later interview, Wu did not want to talk about how she prepared for that screaming scene.
“It’s just actor stuff. If I have to tell you, it would be like I’m telling you how to fix a car, it’s just boring,” Wu, 36, said with a laugh. Mind you, she had to do that scene over and over again just to get it right.
The truth is, there is nothing boring about what her character Rachel goes through in Crazy Rich Asians.
For the love of money
Rachel is an Asian-American economics professor living in New York with her charming boyfriend Nicholas Young (Henry Golding). One day, Nicholas invites her back to his country, Singapore, to attend his best friend’s wedding.
It is only then that she finds out that her boyfriend is from a wealthy and well-connected family. Just how wealthy is this guy? Think crazy rich.
Based on the book by Kevin Kwan, Crazy Rich Asians is said to be inspired by real families and wealthy personalities in Asia. Kwan goes into specific details on what the rich do when they have too much money. From buying a hotel just to get rid of a snobby manager to hiring the Vienna Boys’ Choir for a wedding, nothing is off-limits for the ultra-wealthy characters in the book.
However, Kwan won’t divulge who these actual crazy rich Asians are.
“Nicholas is from this old money family. Wealth is passed through generations. He is very acutely aware that he is the heir to the riches that his family holds,” Golding, 31, said about his character.
It’s one thing to be rich but to be dating someone who is not from the same exclusive social circle? Oh, the madness.
Yeoh, 56, steps in as Eleanor, Nicholas’ mother and respected (think feared) matriach of the Young family. Eleanor makes it clear that she does not approve of Rachel. To be fair, she’s just like most mothers with an only child who is set to inherit the family fortunes; tiger mum becomes (over)protective.
So, Eleanor hatches a plan to sabotage the relationship between Rachel and Nicholas.
“Eleanor would do anything for her son. She would die for him. And the thing is, she’s not afraid to tell him all that,” Yeoh laughed while explaining her character’s motivation.
But that’s not the craziest thing about Crazy Rich Asians. The fact that Hollywood is making a contemporary romantic comedy featuring Asians in leading roles is something unheard of.
Wu noted: “We’ve never had a studio movie with an all-Asian cast that was not a period piece.”
Rich in diversity
The last high-profile Hollywood film with an all-Asian cast was The Joy Luck Club released in 1993. Wu lamented that Asians don’t often get to be seen in a Hollywood film with a modern setting.
“Like, why don’t we see Asians using cellphones? It’s a way to include Asians in the current conversation by showing them in a contemporary context. We are here. Our stories matter and that to me is really groundbreaking,” she said.
Other Hollywood cast members in Crazy Rich Asians include Ken Jeong (The Hangover), Awkwafina (Ocean’s 8), Gemma Chan (Transformers: The Last Knight) and Sonoya Mizuno (La La Land).
From this region, expect to see the likes of Ronny Chieng, Pierre Png, Carmen Soo, Tan Keng Hua and Fiona Xie on screen. Hollywood newbie Golding described filming for Crazy Rich Asians as “insane” (his pun, not ours). Producer Nina Jacobson said they were looking for someone like Cary Grant to play Nicholas.
“There’s a sense of class and elegance to Nicholas. At the same time, he’s also down to earth. It was hard to find all those things.”
“Henry did amazingly well on his screen test and he had all those qualities that we were looking for,” Jacobson explained why the studio went with a newcomer.
While Golding has made Malaysia proud, his casting also stirred some controversy. There were those who noted how Golding was not “Asian enough” for the role seeing that he is part European.
Instead of dwelling on the backlash, Golding said he is proud to represent a part of South-East Asia that is mostly unknown to his Western counterparts.
“We have such a melting pot of identities in South-East Asia and that is something to be proud of. It’s really important that we make this film. We’re breaking boundaries and that is the most important takeaway,” he said.
Value for money
Despite its very specific setting, Jacobson believes Crazy Rich Asians has stories that will resonate globally.
“We have a great universal story for anyone who has been rejected by their in-laws or people who have their foot in two different cultures,” she said.
She also identified with Rachel as someone who is fascinated by a strange yet familiar new world.
“When I first read the book, I couldn’t put it down. The expectations on Nick from his family was relatable. The story felt fresh and new. It took me to somewhere that I wanted to go,” Jacobson said.
Will Nicholas’ love for Rachel triumph over his family money?
Yeoh said you can’t live on love alone: “When you’re in love, you say you don’t need money or you don’t need anything (else). When love cools down and reality sets in, then what? Love is not bread and butter. You have to be sensible.”
Yeoh saw Crazy Rich Asians as more than just a story about unimaginable wealth.
“It’s also about the responsibilities of a family. Many people depend on them (Nicholas’ family) for their livelihood. It’s not just about them getting rich, it’s also about the community.
“It’s good to have money but it’s what you do with it that really counts,” she concluded.
And that token of wisdom is priceless.