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August 17, 2018

Crazy Rich Asians Screened at USC Opening Night

By Phenia Hovsepyan

On Wednesday, August 16th, the USC School of Cinematic Arts (SCA) held a screening of Crazy Rich Asians in Eileen Norris Cinema Theater, in association with the USC Asian Pacific American Student Assembly (APASA), USC Asian Pacific Alumni Association (APAA), USC Asian Pacific Cinema Association (APCA), and Warner Bros. Pictures. This very special event kicked off SCA’s Fall 2018 Outside the Box [Office] screening series. The screening was followed by a question and answer session with alum/filmmaker Jon M. Chu, and alum/Chairman and CEO of Warner Bros. Entertainment, Kevin Tsujihara. Moderated by Alex Ago, the Director of Programing and Special Projects at SCA, the highly anticipated event was packed to capacity with students, alumni, and faculty eager to see the film. 

It was the nation-wide theatrical release day for Crazy Rich Asians, and the director and studio chair who made the movie spent the evening with SCA. Director Jon Chu, who’s previous credits include Step Up 3D (2010) and Now You See Me 2 (2016) graduated from the Film and Television Production Division in 2003. “It is so good to be back home at USC! I remember taking classes [in Norris Cinema Theater.] I would always sit in the back,” Chu told the audience as he took the stage after the screening. Chu was accompanied by 1986 alumnus Kevin Tsujihara, the first Asian American to head a major motion picture studio. Tsujihara, who is also a member of the USC School of Cinematic Arts Board of Councilors, joked with Chu that, “I was here a few years before you, I don’t even think this building was here!” 

The movie, which tells a timeless story of two people from different social classes falling in love despite family opposition, is the first film in over two decades with an all-Asian cast. Written for the screen by Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim, Crazy Rich Asians is based on the bestselling novel by Kevin Kwan. This modern romantic comedy follows the journey of Chinese-American economics professor Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) of New York City, and her journey to Singapore to meet her boyfriend’s family. It is there that Rachael discovers that the Nick Young (Henry Golding) she is in love with is heir to the fortune of Singapore’s wealthiest family, and that his mother, Eleanor Young (Michelle Yeoh), has a very different idea in mind for what kind of woman is suitable for her son. 

However, behind the backdrop of breathtaking aerial views, extraordinary couture gowns, and exquisite cuisine, is a film about cultural awareness that has captured the attention of movie-goers and critics alike. “Jon did an amazing job of making sure you are hungry and want to go to Singapore after seeing this movie,” Tsujihara noted. “I wanted to do the thing that scared me the most, which was deal with my cultural identity,” said Chu. 

Chu shared during the Q&A that, “We worked on the script for six months before we brought it to studios. Kevin (Tsujihara) does not get enough credit for being so open to the idea, and for trusting us to spend as much time and money on casting as we did. He understood that it needed to be done because the system had not provided a forum for Asian actors to be seen.”

Tsujihara said that, “The challenge for us was that it was hard to compare this movie to anything else, because the best comparison was The Joy Luck Club, which was made 25 years ago. I saw it more as a comparison to Sex and the City, because the story transcended where it was taking place, it transcended being about Asians.” Tsujihara went on to add that, “We would not be here talking about this movie if [Chu] did not do such a great job of making this story relatable. Everybody has these feelings and experiences in life.” 

Moderator Alex Ago commented that Crazy Rich Asians had become an incredibly anticipated summer movie, and asked the two men what it was like to realize just how wide the audience appeal truly was. Chu shared that in the beginning it was hard to convince diverse audiences to test screen an all-Asian movie, but, “After the test screening, all ages, all ethnicities, and both genders enjoyed the movie at the highest levels. We realized that the movie was the best commercial for the movie! The big marketing strategy was to just show the movie to as many people as we can, and it will speak for itself.” Tsujihara agreed, adding that, “Jon and the movie were the best ambassadors for the movie.” For Jon Chu, the over-arching support for Crazy Rich Asians is testament that, “The power of cinema is still in existence! Look at how our movie has caught fire in popular culture right now. There is an event to it opening in theaters!” Chu went on to explain the influence a cinematic debut has over the larger conversation about Asian identity, stating it shows that, “Asian leads and an all-Asian cast is worth leaving your house, gathering your friends and family, taking the time, fighting traffic, getting parking, standing in line for food, getting into a room, turning off your phone, and saying ‘tell me your story.’ That has value. These people and their story are worth time and energy. To me that was the message in all of this.”

The cast of Crazy Rich Asians are, as Jon Chu jokes, “The Avengers of Asian actors!” Chu told the audience that for years he had been collecting names of people who he wanted to be in his movie, and that, “One of the best things about being the first one in town to do this is that you get the best. These people were beginners who should have been in movies already, and having them presented together is a powerful force on the screen.” With great passion and enthusiasm, Chu said the movie-going public has been missing out on the talent of these actors. “They are as funny, as smart, as fierce, as dramatic, as much a hero and a villain, as any actor that can be on that screen and worth your money.” To cheers and applause from the audience, Chu added, “That is the power of this movie!” As the conversation about representation of Asians in Hollywood continued, Tsujihara said, “We need to continue to push for the same diversity in front and behind the camera that exists in this room and in our audience. It is mine and the studio’s duty to make sure that continues to happen. We have to continue to take risks and we have to continue to do things that are bold, or else you aren’t going to get movies like this.”

As the evening with Jon Chu and Kevin Tsujihara opened up to questions from the audience, themes of diversity in both the casting of Asian actors and the telling of stories of the Asian experience were further touched upon. Chu said the problem with representation of Asians is that, “Everyone thinks that it is just one thing, but it really is so many different countries and people coming together.” As for the role Crazy Rich Asians has to play in changing this stagnation in Hollywood, Chu added that, “This is one story of very particular characters already written in a novel. I hope it can open the door for other stories and other filmmakers, because you cannot un-see what you have seen: Once you see that Asians can be all types and all styles and all walks of life, you will see Asian people differently.” Chu shared his own personal experience of identification and struggle, and how he used it to connect with heroine Rachel Chu's experiences. “What I related most to in the book was not all the fancy stuff, but the Asian American going to Asia for the first time,” Chu said. It was this part of the Asian-American experience which made him focus the adaptation's storyline on Rachel's trip to meet the in-laws. “This idea of going to your homeland and not knowing what to expect but feeling this warmth, only to realize you are not quite a part of that world either and then feeling like you have to choose is very real to me,” Chu said. 

Towards the end of the discussion, Jon Chu was asked to reflect on the work he had put into Crazy Rich Asians, and what it meant to be the director of such a groundbreaking film: “I never saw this as groundbreaking work. I only knew that I wanted to see on the screen or what I wanted to tell in my own life, and I was lucky enough that the book had elements I could draw from while I used my own family and experience. I knew that it would mean things to me and my friends and family; I did not expect it to mean so much to other people.”  He went on to explain that, “I did not expect to feel this emotion. I did not expect to cry every four hours this week!”

Chu also had some advice for aspiring filmmakers in the room, telling them to, “Focus on the work and on the authenticity of what you are trying to say. I feel like if you have something truthful to say, you are most likely not alone. We feel alone, we feel out of place, we feel like we are trying to find a way, we all want to know where we are going and what our purpose is, and in that way we are all united.”

For Kevin Tsujihara, the screening of Crazy Rich Asians at USC was a uniquely interesting event because he was bringing a story of personal cultural significance to his alma mater on the first day of welcome week for new Trojans. “Today is such a weird day for me. We are opening our movie, and my wife and I just moved our son in to Birnkrant (USC Residential College),” Tsujihara said. Sounding like a proud Trojan parent, Tsujihara said that what he wants his son to do with this next chapter of life is, “To dream. To try the things you want to try and do the things you want to do with your life.” Tsujihara also reflected on his own childhood, saying, “My mother was a proud Asian mother, and the thing my parents instilled in me is the possibility of doing anything, and I think that is what I would tell anyone: You will only set your own limits in life, and it is up to you to push through. It is hard, and there are insecurities that exist in every one of us. Some of us hide it better, others don’t, but I think we really put our own limits for ourselves and it is incumbent upon ourselves to push through them and dream big!” 

Crazy Rich Asians is now playing in theaters nationwide. As the screening at USC came to a close, Alex Ago mentioned that there are more books in the best-selling series, and both Chu and Tsujihara joked that this may not be the last time we see them at Norris Theater! 

Above from left to right: Kevin Tsujihara, Jon Chu, Alex Ago.