It's been 25 years since a major Hollywood studio released an English-language film with a primarily Asian cast. The last was Wayne Wang's adaptation of the generational tear-jerker "The Joy Luck Club," which was released in 1993.
But that dry spell is about to end with the release of the opulent romantic comedy "Crazy Rich Asians" on Wednesday Aug. 15. The film is based on Kevin Kwan's best-selling book about a Chinese-American woman who gets a culture shock when she meets her boyfriend's wealthy family in Singapore.
Veteran producer Nina Jacobson said that when she and her Color Force partner Brad Simpson ("The Hunger Games") read Kwan's manuscript, they knew it had to be a movie.
"We just tore through it," Jacobson said. "It was so specific that it became really universal: Anybody who has ever faced in-laws who felt that they were not worthy of their beloved."
They knew that the film would likely never survive the studio development process, however, and decided to have a vision, a script and a budget to sell as a package before going to the marketplace. Ivanhoe Pictures' John Penotti signed on to help and Warner Bros. would ultimately join to partner with them to release the film.
"Hollywood has done a bit of a disservice by not taking us into these worlds," Simpson said. "There is a hunger for not just token representation but to really dive into the world of different ethnicities and races."
Meanwhile, Jon M. Chu, who would eventually sign on to direct "Crazy Rich Asians," had already been hearing about this new book from family members. His last name is the same as that of the main character, Rachel Chu, and they're both from Cupertino. There's even a reference to his family in Kwan's book, but ultimately the book spoke to the uniqueness of the Asian-American experience.
"I think a lot of Asian-Americans go through the same journey ... I relate to having that dual cultural identity of being full-on all-American, all-California boy, but having a Chinese side to me," Chu said. "I remember going to Asia for the first time and there's a very specific emotion that you feel that's like, 'Oh, this feels like home but it's not my home and these people don't see me as being part of this.' Then when you're home you start to notice people may not see you as part of that either."
Having known Jacobson and Simpson for years, he knew they would "protect" the film and do it right. He signed on to transport audiences to an unbelievable world of wealth, privilege and tradition — part Edith Wharton, part "Gossip Girl."
Chu brought on Malaysian-born screenwriter Adele Lim to give the script an Asian specificity and set off to assemble his dream cast. The worldwide search had casting directors looking in Canada, New York, Los Angeles, Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, London, Australia, Singapore and Malaysia. All had to be English-speaking — and have the right accents, too.
"Fresh Off the Boat" star Constance Wu was chosen to play the lead, Rachel. They found an unknown to play her boyfriend, Nick, in Henry Golding, a handsome and charismatic TV host who had the perfect English accent to play the London-schooled heir, and cast Michelle Yeoh to be his disapproving mother, Eleanor. But even this hand-picked ensemble caused some consternation on the internet over the specific ethnicities and whether they matched exactly with what the book laid out.
Chu said that there's even a discussion is important.
But just the mere fact of a film having a female Asian-American lead and a majority pan-Asian cast is significant. A USC Study found that 37 of the top 100 films from 2017 featured no Asian-American speaking characters, despite making up 5.6 percent of the U.S. population.
"Since I've graduated from drama school I never get to play the lead," Wu said. "The fact that Asian-Americans never get to center the narrative means that their parts are always going to be not as whole and fleshed-out."
That made it an emotional experience for many on the set.
"Everyone had gone through the process of what it's like to be an Asian-American in Hollywood or around the world," Chu said. "You could see the difference between someone like Michelle Yeoh who literally said, 'I'm the majority where I'm from so I don't understand the plight that you guys are going through.' It was very shocking for her to see how it affected these young actors and how people would just cry on the set and how happy they were that they got to do this."
Jacobson described it as a "joyful sense of purpose that we all shared."
Wu, who is an outspoken advocate for Asian representation on social media, said the film is significant for differentiating the Asian experience and the Asian-American experience.
"You show that our culture is more than just skin-deep," Wu said. "You show our similarities and how we're different."
Warner Bros. has been enthusiastically promoting the movie for months, with early screenings for press and influencers alike, along with a full-force ad campaign.
"I hope people go see it because I think we have a great movie and if they go see it, it changes things," Chu said. "People have to show up. I guarantee four new stories of Asian-Americans will be greenlit in two weeks if it comes out and does well. That's what's on the line and that's what I think is still up in the air."
The film is currently tracking for a strong $18 million opening against a $30 million production budget, although some experts predict it will be even bigger. Tracking can be an imperfect metric for films that don't have direct "comps," or similar films that might suggest how a new film will perform.
"I think we have to take control of our own voice and our own story," Chu said. "And we won't be perfect, this discussion is ongoing the more stuff that gets made, the more discussion we can have about what we want. We just never had the privilege of having that conversation."