Dual Cultural Identity: A conversation with film director, Jon M. Chu

Advancing Justice | AAJC
Feb 27 · 10 min read

The celebrated wins by a number of people of color in the film industry at the 2019 Oscars show some progress but in these days following the Oscars, the Asian American community is discussing the continued struggle for identity, diversity, and opportunity that remains in Hollywood. As many question the Oscar snub of the summer blockbuster, Crazy Rich Asians, Advancing Justice | AAJC Guest Contributor, Cary Chow of ESPN’s The Undefeated and NBC sportscaster, chats with its director, Jon M. Chu, about the movement behind his film, its unique filmmaking process, and what he learned about his own identity when making this movie.

Note: Parts of this interview were used previously for ‘The Undefeated’ stories on media portrays of Asian men and what took Hollywood so long to make a film with an all-Asian cast.

Cary Chow: You’ve talked about how this film is a movement. Why is “Crazy Rich Asians” more than just a movie?

Jon M. Chu: I was awakened by the online push, by people speaking out. I was affected by that. I’ve been in Hollywood making movies, doing my own things. Reading articles and seeing people, Constance Wu specifically, talking about being whitewashed out and all these things, it really angered me. And also made me suddenly [think], what’s wrong with Hollywood? Then realizing, ‘Oh [expletive], I’m a part of Hollywood and what am I doing to contribute to anything in cinema?’ I’m getting older, I’ve been in this business now a few years. What am I doing? And I have an opportunity to do this! I’ve earned this right to do this. So I went on a search for a great story and found “Crazy Rich Asians,” which is fun and fluffy, but at the center of it, that really attracted me to it was an Asian American going to Asia for the first time, which anyone can relate to. Any ethnicity going to their homeland and having this kind of dual cultural identity that feels like they have to make a choice is something I always felt very alone in, and then realized that’s actually not the case. Everyone’s gonna have to make choices for this next generation of what we want to pass on, but it could be both. And I found peace in that through this whole process. Meeting all the actors, the writers, debating things — which I’ve never done before. I was always so scared to talk about my own cultural identity, so this was a freeing thing for me and I think it’s the wave of people who spoke up. I’m a residual effect of that. I hope our movie helps push that conversation further.

Chow: I can truly relate. At SportsCenter, I was the first Chinese-American anchor to ever host the show. It happened in 2013! But I feel you about how there are times in meetings when I wasn’t vocal about bringing up something about my culture because I wasn’t part of the majority, I was the lone minority. You mention having those debates. What were some of those debates you had?

Chu: One of the best things about having representation in front of and behind the camera is that you can have safe zones for all these debates, because we don’t have all the answers. There’s no need to pretend that there’s one person who does. We were at the very beginning stages of figuring out what we want. So, debates like how do we cast, what ethnicities can we cast? Can you have a Japanese person playing a Korean person? Maybe some parts yes, other parts no. There are gender things we debated. There’s one scene that’s very popular in the book where Rachel Chu talks about why she doesn’t date Asian men until she met Nick Young. It’s a funny bit, we put it in the script. When we put it in the script, Constance was like, ‘Hey, on second thought, I just read this and think it’s very wrong. We’re propping up Asian men and at the same time we’re cutting them with this. Without context, which the book has, it’s even more so. As we’re looking at it, we can bring in the writers, bring in the producers, bring in myself, bring in the studio, and come to the conclusion that we shouldn’t have this in our movie. That takes time. That takes money to stop things to discuss that. Takes effort and takes people to listen instead of rushing through it. That’s the power of a collaborative representation. It’s not just having one Asian in a role.

Chow: Regarding the Asian man in mainstream media, you know how desexualized and emasculated we are portrayed. What I loved about this movie, and I’ve told numerous crew involved, was that you took a stick of dynamite to that [expletive]! Pardon my language. There’s a scene early in this movie when there’s a shower scene that’s lingering a little longer than normal, and I was all about it! I kept thinking — I know exactly what they’re doing and I love it.

Chu: [laughs] We shifted the gaze from the male gaze to the female gaze! One, credit to Kevin, he wrote it that way too. We knew we wanted to do that. Beauty is sort of set by the media. When someone like Leonardo DiCaprio has a very specific look, before him, was that look really desired? No. Then all of a sudden Leonardo DiCaprio becomes the guy and anyone at any high school that kind of looks like Leo DiCaprio becomes popular. Anyone who kind of looks like Kim Kardashian is suddenly so beautiful. It redefines what beauty is. So it’s our [media’s] responsibility to expand that idea and show these amazing Asian men in the light and prop them up, so they can be as stylish, as fit, as gentlemanly, as old classic Hollywood movie star or modern action star. [It’s] important because it defines and it literally affects people who are in high school, people in grade school, people in college, because people see that as beauty.

Chow: That last sentiment lingers for me because when we were growing up, there weren’t many Asians in media. There was Long Duk Dong. How did those media portrayals affect you growing up?

Chu: I was always taught to keep my head to the ground and keep working and be better, and not let those things [negative media portrayals] affect me. That’s not easy when you’re growing up trying to define your own masculinity, trying to find out what it means to be a man to yourself, when everyone’s telling you you’re not. It’s almost like you can’t comprehend it until after you’ve been through it and look back. You don’t know why you feel like you want to hide your Asianness because you think people will look at you weird, or you don’t know why you’re so scared to meet your girlfriend’s parents because they have no idea that you’re Asian but when they look at you, you’re going to see it in their eyes immediately. Those things are painful to think about. Even right now I’m feeling emotional talking about it. But you don’t know how that feels until it happens. So, this is like a cathartic feel… [choking up].

[Media] can show what I see in us and it means so much. All our feelings on people are based on the information that we get. We get information through media. That’s how we define things, so it’s about showing more information. If people have more information they have more context, they’ll see the beauty there. I had a lot of stuff that I didn’t even deal with until shooting this.

Chow: There’s a lot of comparisons for this movie to ‘Black Panther.’ Is this the Asian ‘Black Panther’? Director Ryan Coogler said of directing ‘Black Panther,’ he learned about his own African American identity. It sounds like you learned about your own Asian American identity while shooting this. Is that accurate?

Chu: Totally. I also learned that there’s other people than Asian American, the ones from the UK, from Australia. They all have their own struggles and their own issues. I think I understood that intellectually, I didn’t understand that emotionally. We’re all in one place and sharing these stories and seeing how it feels on set. Yeah, we’re gonna wait for you to get makeup, we’re gonna make sure the lighting is right; we’re not just gonna shove you through for the first time. [That] signals a lot. People were allowed to be free knowing that. I learned a ton just by hanging out with everyone and talking with them. It made me proud. I’m trying to think of when I’ve been literally proud, and I’m proud when my parents are cooking a meal at the restaurant, and it’s beautiful and all this stuff, but proud to be me? The weird mix that we are. It’s something I felt for the first time in making this movie.

Chow: I hear as a director, movies are often like children. You love them all equally for different reasons. Actor Ken Jeong told me the atmosphere of this movie, no disrespect to his other movies, there was something different making this movie. How would you describe the atmosphere making this movie in comparison to others?

Chu: It crept up on me. You never forget your first movie. There’s a very magical thing in the air. Everyone’s giddy. It’s all new. I’m now eight movies in. I’ve done it. But there’s something that happened here that I think when everyone’s allowed to be who they are to the fullest, when we’re having Asian food on set catered and no one’s like, ‘Eww, what’s that smell?’ I was like ‘yes!’ We’re getting Asian food for every meal! There was no insecurity of that. To exist and make a big Hollywood movie that’s getting attention without having the insecurity of asking are we going too far? Is this too Asian? Are we being isolated? None of that conversation happened. We knew we’d find the universality through the specificity. We encouraged it. There was something very beautiful about that. I described it more like an exhale. Like I felt everyone could breathe together and that creates a very strong bond.

Chow: Anyone can enjoy this movie, but if you’re Asian American, you’re going to notice more, like there was a slick reference to ABC [American Born Chinese], but it wasn’t explained. If you got it, you got it. How important was it to touch on all these Asian cultural cornerstones because it seemed like you went through a checklist!

Chu: [laughs] We had a lot of debates as to what to explain and what not to. Ultimately, I said why do we have to explain anything? We had one guy in a friends and family screening who said, ‘I don’t understand why English is their first language?’ It’s like, ‘OMG, this is Singapore. I don’t know how else to say it.’ Then we had to have a discussion with the studio, do we need to explain why everyone speaks English? They’re like ‘no.’ It’s their issue if they don’t know they speak English in Singapore. If we give an excuse, there’s no discussion to be had. I want that guy to say that to his friends and his friends harass him like, ‘What the [expletive] are you talking about?’ He will never make that mistake ever again and anyone in that group will remember that moment. I want that discussion to happen. If we give them an excuse, give him: ‘Oh, he’s educated here, educated there,’ suddenly they’re like: ‘Oh that’s part of the movie, that’s not reality.’ I’m over trying to give excuses for the existence of us. That was a constant debate. How much do we give and how much time? Almost every time we said — no, just let these people live and other people can catch up.

Chow: I know you guys passed on a tremendous offer from Netflix. Why was it so important to be on the big screen, but also, how difficult was it to pass on the instant payday?

Chu: It’s very difficult to make a decision to pass on any payday [laughs]! You imagine all the things you can have! But Kevin and I, from the very beginning, talked about the importance of what this could be and my approach for what I was thinking of trying to do with it. It was always the idea that why haven’t Asian leads in a contemporary Asian American love story [existed] in this form? We’ve seen stuff in independent movies, seen stuff online, but never at the big show — which is the movie theater. There’s a message that’s communicated when big Hollywood studios, and there aren’t very many anymore, say it is worth your time and energy to leave your home, fight for parking, stand in line for food, sit in a crowded room, turn off the lights and say: tell me a story. We are worth your time and energy to do that. There’s a message that permeates all media when a cinema experience does that. There’s a message that is said when big Hollywood studios, big corporations are throwing big marketing dollars to promote something like this. Don’t get me wrong, [Netflix] is a brilliant platform and I watch tons of stuff on there, but for this movie in particular, at this time, it was important to go to the big show. To say: this is in the Smithsonian. This is in the big glass case so that everyone knows it has been approved to go in front of the world and its good business. That was a very important message for us and that was the only way I thought this movie would reach its full potential.

Advancing Justice | AAJC

Working to empower Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to participate in our democracy and fighting for civil and human rights for all.

Advancing Justice | AAJC

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Fighting for civil rights for all and working to empower #AAPIs to participate in our democracy. Follow: @johncyangdc @tao_minnis @meganessaheb @kjbagchi

Advancing Justice | AAJC

Working to empower Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to participate in our democracy and fighting for civil and human rights for all.