John M Chu said his progress in making stories about his cultural identity came “naturally” in his career.
While reflecting on his time in filmmaking on ABC News’ “Nightline” and “Good Morning America,” the director who hit 2018’s hit “Crazy Rich Asians” discusses the film’s cultural significance, and his path toward directing films that focus on his movie. Own experiences, what is needed to continue to drive Asian representation on screen and more.
Prior to Crazy Rich Asians, Chu was known for directing a slew of films including “GI Joe: Retaliation”, “Step Up 2” and “Now You See Me 2”. Before signing on to direct the film adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s best-selling 2013 novel, which would become a box office sensation, Cho said he was at a point in his life where he was “trying to find my identity as an artist and what I wanted to say on this planet” .
“The things that mattered the most to me were my family,” he said. “The things that meant the most to me, that I knew the most about, were my own journey to conceal my cultural identity, and also to come face to face with that.”
Chu said he felt the industry was also undergoing a transformation with the emergence of the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, and he felt the lack of Asian representation in cinema was being invoked more broadly.
“I said yes. Why doesn’t this happen? Then I realized, ‘Oh, wait. I’m literally in this business,” he said. “And as a director, I can choose who I want. And why don’t I choose that? Why don’t I at least try to make a change?”
He said enormous pressure came while taking on the project, for himself and everyone involved, but making the film was a “healing” for him.
“There’s no other word for, ‘Because you don’t realize how scarred you actually are until you start — you go out to the community and you start building a new institution,'” he explained. Existing.”
Cho said he could never have anticipated the reaction that came with the movie, but that wasn’t the point for him.
“I was doing this entirely for me,” he said. “There’s no way I can predict that people will show up, that their parents will show up, that the grandparents of people who haven’t been to the movies in years will show up.”
“I had no idea, you know, that romantic comedy, whose death was announced in theaters — would come back roaring because of this cast, because of the messages we’ve been saying,” he continued.
What Chu learned from making crazy rich Asians
Chu said the comedy proved to him that “you can’t hide things.”
“Our job as artists is – we may not be able to change the world, but you can show more of who we are,” he said. “It’s not about talking or acting differently to get others to accept you. It’s about inviting them to understand who you are, your family, and your traditions.”
“And when they see that, there is a lot in common between the way we want to take care of each other, and how we long for society, no matter who you are, and where you are in the world,” he continued.
While the film received a lot of positive feedback, criticism for its portrayal of South Asian characters surfaced after its release.
Acknowledging that he is “still figuring it out” and the movie “isn’t a perfect movie by any means,” Chu said, “I think if we want to change the narrative, we have to act the way we want to be heard from among other people who don’t understand how we are not.” – We feel unheard. So we’re all learning.”
This learning, he said, involves asking questions such as whether it is permissible for a Chinese person to play a Japanese character.
“Caucasians can play all kinds of people,” he said. “Are we allowed to do that too? Are we going to limit ourselves? That’s a debate I’m not the one to answer that.” “Our community is the answer to that. But at least we’re at the table now to be the people who decide that. And the only way to determine that is to get more and more projects. Not 10, not 20, not 100–thousands of projects.”
“Then we will all find out, as a society, how we want to be represented,” he added.
Chu says he looks forward to what he learned from doing “Crazy Rich Asians” as he continues to work on creating comprehensive stories, such as the 2021 musical “In the Heights.”
“To get in there and explore a community, and you really have it in that community, be a host—say, ‘Here are the lessons I learned in Crazy Rich Asians.’” Tell me how to do it. And let’s work together to create this piece together or together.’ – This was a learning experience for me, but it was so powerful to say, “Oh, our communities can come together to do this,” he said.
On the continuation of work in the industry
Chu says he doesn’t see it as his “responsibility” to keep making inclusive stories; He sees it as his “truth”.
“I see it as a reason for it. I see that, if I was here, why should I do anything else?” It is to explain. “I think that every person when you take on the job that you know you’re supposed to do is fortunate to do it, when you realize that every generation has a moment to meet and that’s my goal — I think that’s so fulfilling. It’s just how honest I can be.”
The work in building representation now, he said, is in navigating and exploring the nuances of stories told about different cultures.
“The easy part is opening the door and breaking it,” he said.
Now, he said, he’s having the hard part working on “all the nuances.”
“Asians are not one thing, we are 30 different things. We are 100 different things. How are we going to decode that between each other first, and then share that with the world?” He said.
Looking into his future, Chu said that the most important story he must tell now is to his children.
“What is the world for my children? How do I want them to enter the world? Will they be pessimistic, will they be skeptical, will they be optimistic?” He said. “And I do not know the answer.”
“Every day, I frame the world in a different way, but now I realize this is my real job,” he added. “Movies are great. That’s for me – that’s the selfish thing for me. But I build this world for them. And I hope they have everything they want for them to create the way they want to create.”