The Connection Between 'The Joy Luck Club' And 'Crazy Rich Asians' NPR's Jennifer Ludden talks with Janet Yang, executive producer of the 1993 movie The Joy Luck Club. It has been credited for paving the way for the new film Crazy Rich Asians.
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The Connection Between 'The Joy Luck Club' And 'Crazy Rich Asians'

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The Connection Between 'The Joy Luck Club' And 'Crazy Rich Asians'

The Connection Between 'The Joy Luck Club' And 'Crazy Rich Asians'

The Connection Between 'The Joy Luck Club' And 'Crazy Rich Asians'

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NPR's Jennifer Ludden talks with Janet Yang, executive producer of the 1993 movie The Joy Luck Club. It has been credited for paving the way for the new film Crazy Rich Asians.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, HOST:

A major Hollywood studio releases a film with an all-Asian cast. No, we don't mean that buzzy new movie "Crazy Rich Asians." We're talking about the last film to fit that bill - "The Joy Luck Club." And here's what some people consider the real crazy part - that was 25 years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE JOY LUCK CLUB")

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR: Hollywood Pictures presents the story of four extraordinary women who left their homeland behind.

LISA LU: (As An-Mei) I was raised the Chinese way.

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR: ...To build a future for their daughters in America.

LUDDEN: "The Joy Luck Club," directed by Wayne Wang, was based on the bestselling novel by Amy Tan. Janet Yang was one of the executive producers of the film and joins us now. Welcome.

JANET YANG: Hi, how are you?

LUDDEN: I'm great. "The Joy Luck Club" has been credited for really paving the way for "Crazy Rich Asians," but of course, that was 25 years ago. How do you feel about this moment?

YANG: Well, I feel so gratified in a way. It is - there's a little kind of sadness that it took this long to get here. I think we had hopes back then that it would start - if not a whole movement, at least we would see a flourishing of other Asian, Asian-American projects. And that clearly didn't happen in a big way - but never too late. And I do feel very, very gratified. The whole "Crazy Rich Asians" casting crew have been so generous in talking about how this movie inspired them.

LUDDEN: Let's talk about the making of "The Joy Luck Club." So early '90s, you were a film producer with Oliver Stone's company. How did you convince executives then - because it was still taking a chance, as I understand it, to take a - to do a film about Chinese women?

YANG: It was definitely taking a big chance. There was nothing to point to that said, oh, because of this, there's this. And that's often how people think. And it broke a lot of other rules. It had a lot of flashbacks. There was subtitling and so many different stories that were not directly connected. And how do you bring this all together?

But the selling point was the script, and it was just an amazingly moving script. And if you put aside the biases about it being an all-Asian cast and the other factors that I mentioned, it was hard not to be moved. Many other studio executives - in fact, all the other studios that we approached could not put aside those concerns. But it took somebody who was willing to take a leap of faith.

LUDDEN: For all the studios who said no to "Joy Luck Club," what were their concerns?

YANG: You know, in some cases, it was very blunt. I know Chris Lee, who was working at TriStar at the time, remembers, specifically, when he was trying to push for the movie, they said, oh, but there are no Americans in the movie. And he said, oh, they are Americans. They just don't look like you. And then that executive said, oh, you know what I mean. So there was a perception that Americans - and that especially Americans in movies - had to be white. And that, by the way, is a perception that prevailed largely until - and bless them - the African-American community stood up more. So they helped pave the way for us for sure.

LUDDEN: And did those attitudes carry over when you were marketing the film - right? Wasn't there some issue about how they wanted to present the film to the public in selling it?

YANG: Yes, I do remember Wayne, who has the most lovely personality. I do remember he lost his temper one day in a marketing meeting. We were going there to look at posters that they were going to consider for marketing "Joy Luck Club." And each and every one somehow managed to avoid showing full-on an Asian face. One was, as I recall, a woodcut. So it was very abstract and angular. Another showed the backs of women.

They clearly were nervous about showing an Asian face in, you know, a larger-than-life image. And it was ironic because we thought, well, they went and greenlit this movie. We just shot the whole thing. They say they love the movie, and now they're afraid to sell it.

LUDDEN: Do you feel that "Crazy Rich Asians," you know, might carry a similar burden to your movie today in terms of like its representation of Asian Americans?

YANG: I think they're very conscious. And I think the choice to make the movie with Warner Brothers over Netflix, which was offering a lot more money, was a very, very conscious, deliberate choice because they wanted this to be loud. And they felt now is the time. So much has changed in the last several years, starting with I think, again, the African-American movement. A couple of years ago, a group of us protested the 2016 Oscar telecast jokes aimed at Asians.

And for me, I visibly saw a change in the landscape because press started reporting about whitewashing. Somehow, we felt like there was a gathering of people - a community that was building one after another. And then we had "Fresh Off The Boat." So it's been this stone collecting moss. And hopefully, you know, it changed the game. And we perhaps - perhaps - have just leaped to another plateau.

LUDDEN: I take it you've seen "Crazy Rich Asians."

YANG: Four times.

LUDDEN: Sounds like you're giving it two thumbs up.

YANG: Can I give it 10 thumbs up?

LUDDEN: You can.

YANG: I guess they only have two.

LUDDEN: (Laughter) Janet Yang, executive producer of the 1993 film "The Joy Luck Club." Thank you so much.

YANG: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOONLIT SAILOR'S "WEEKDAY ESCAPE")

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