It was the year Bill Clinton became President of the United States. The likes of Google and Facebook did not exist. And Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club hit cinemas globally.
Fast forward to the present, and it’s been nearly 25 years since Hollywood has released an all-Asian leading cast film.
For the brains behind the international best-seller author Kevin Kwan, the pressure of bringing his creation to the silver screen was extremely purposeful.
‘I did a deal that was outside a conventional studio system. Many, many studios and people came to me, wanting to just auction the film; but I think if I had done that it would still be a project sitting on a shelf somewhere.’
Kwan decided to partner with Nina Jacobson, the producer behind The Hunger Games movies. Together, the pair found screenwriters Adele Lim (One Tree Hill and Private Practice) and Pete Chiarelli (The Proposal and Now You See Me 2) to write the screenplay, and Jon M. Chu (Step Up 2 and Justin Bieber: Never Say Never) was chosen to direct.
Next came the ‘international dream team’ of actors, which includes Constance Wu (Fresh off the Boat), Michelle Yeoh (Star Trek: Discovery) and Ken Jeong (The Hangover).
‘I said from the very beginning that I wanted to cast the very best Asian talent from around the world. We were really determined to do this movie right, and cast it right, and really break the stereotypes to create new archetypes.’
‘This is the first movie where you’ll see Asians playing themselves. There’s no backstory necessary; they just are. They are what you see them as: it’s what you know, it’s what I know, it’s what we see all over the world -- not just in Asia, but in Australia, and the US -- we see vibrant, sophisticated Asians who confound the stereotypes. And I’m hoping that’s the case with the movie, that people who aren’t Asian can come away from it, forgetting the character’s race, and see a great movie with a great storyline and two damn attractive people in a love story – but it’s not an Asian love story.’
All great love stories need their leading man, and this proved to be one of the greatest challenges in producing the film.
‘What we quickly realised when we were casting Nicholas Young’s character (Crazy Rich Asian’s leading man) was that there were very few Asian men that would fit the bill. This is the problem in Hollywood: who’s the Asian equivalent of Chris Hemsworth or Ryan Gosling? There were none.’
‘There are some talented Asian actors from China, from Hong Kong, who are really siloed within their culture, and didn’t speak English to the level of perfection that we needed for them to embody the role of Nicholas Young: an Oxford graduate from Singapore, who speaks perfect, clean English.’
‘Hollywood has done such a job of NOT showcasing Asian talent, I think, that the only ones who have survived are the character actors that are able to fit the stereotypes. So, to find a super attractive, charming, English speaking, sophisticated, Asian leading man became a near-impossible task, because any sophisticated, English speaking, good looking, smart Asian man between the ages of 25 and 35, they’re working at Goldman Sachs. They’re not being actors, because it’s not an industry that exists for them. There’s no demand for a modern day, Asian Cary Grant.’
Thankfully, they eventually found their Nicholas Young in Henry Golding, a Malaysian actor who also grew up in England before relocating to Singapore in 2008.
Kwan knows he can only be ‘hands-on’ with the film for so long, the rest will be up to the audience to decide.
‘I think it’s really important that Asian audiences come out and support it. If they want more of this stuff, if they want more opportunities in the business, they need to come and support the projects in a way that they haven’t before. In the US, the African American community is really active and supportive of their filmmakers. But historically, you haven’t seen that for Asian filmmakers.’
‘For first generation Asian Americans, to assimilate, they had to nullify their Asian-ness. In many ways they didn’t want to see Asian projects, they didn’t want to be super supportive because they were trying to fit in with the majority. But I think we’ve turned a corner, and there’s a new generation that is ready to say, “I’m confident in being American, and Asian American, and I can really go out there and support whoever the hell I want and be proud of my Asian-ness, instead of trying to hide it.”’
‘It would be amazing if Crazy Rich Asians does well enough that the studio immediately greenlights the next book, China Rich Girlfriend. We’ll see. What we’ve done is we’ve created a great movie, and now it’s up to the audience.’
Find out more about Kevin Kwan in part one of our interview here.