'Crazy Rich Asians': Love, Loyalty And Lots Of Money : Code Switch The best-selling novel about Southeast Asia's super wealthy is now a movie. Jon Chu is the director. The movie's themes of identity, class and family are universal.
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'Crazy Rich Asians': Love, Loyalty And Lots Of Money

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'Crazy Rich Asians': Love, Loyalty And Lots Of Money

'Crazy Rich Asians': Love, Loyalty And Lots Of Money

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

"Crazy Rich Asians" is a movie about life and love among the super wealthy in Southeast Asia, and the movie opens today. Actress Awkwafina is in a breakout role as the heroine's best friend, and she explains...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CRAZY RICH ASIANS")

AWKWAFINA: (As Peik Lin Goh) These people aren't just rich, OK? They're crazy rich.

GREENE: Now, for an industry that has not only underrepresented Asian and Asian-American characters and has cast white actors in Asian roles, this movie is a really big deal. Karen Grigsby Bates from our Code Switch team has more.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: As "Crazy Rich Asians" begins, Nick Young, played by newcomer Henry Golding, has been seeing Rachel Chu - "Fresh Off The Boat's" Constance Wu - for a year. They're both attractive, 30-something professors at NYU. When the couple flies to Singapore over spring break so Nick can attend his best friend's wedding, by habit, Rachel heads to the back of the plane. No, Nick gently tells her, our seats are here in first class. Turns out his family owns part of the airline. Rachel is taken aback.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CRAZY RICH ASIANS")

CONSTANCE WU: (As Rachel Chu) So your family is like rich?

HENRY GOLDING: (As Nick Young) We're comfortable.

WU: (As Rachel Chu) That is exactly what a super-rich person would say.

BATES: Rachel thought Nick was like her - normal. She's trying to get her head around the fact that she's seriously dating a guy who's more "Downton Abbey" than downtown loft.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CRAZY RICH ASIANS")

WU: (As Rachel Chu) It's not a big deal, obviously. I just think it's kind of weird that I had no idea. I mean, you have a Jamba Juice card.

BATES: Hey, rich people love a bargain. Several months ago, film director Jon M. Chu took time out from editing the film to explain that Rachel has a very specific role.

JON M. CHU: Rachel is our way, from our perspective, an outsider coming into Singapore and not knowing this place and then slowly peeling away the layers of like, oh, this is rich. Oh, no, this is even more rich. Oh, no, this is really, really - this is crazy rich. And that journey through our movie, I think, is really fun.

BATES: When it's not terrifying. Nick takes Rachel to a party at his parents' palatial estate, and she tries to make polite small talk with Nick's coolly proper mother, Eleanor, played by Michelle Yeoh. She's surprised to discover Nick's mother is not just a rich man's pampered wife.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CRAZY RICH ASIANS")

WU: (As Rachel Chu) Oh, I didn't know you were a lawyer.

MICHELLE YEOH: (As Eleanor Young) I withdrew from university when we got married. I chose to help my husband run a business and to raise a family. For me, it was a privilege. But for you, you may think it's old-fashioned. But all this doesn't just happen. It's because we know to put family first.

BATES: Michelle Yeoh, famous for her role in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," says Eleanor is not an evil would-be mother-in-law. She's someone who has been through the grueling process of trying to fit into her husband's family. Yeoh says Eleanor knows Rachel will have a tough time if she becomes part of this clan.

YEOH: It's not because she thinks that she's not worthy of a son or she's come from poor families, nothing like that. I think she understands that, you know, she comes from a society where you are taught to be independent. You are taught to take care of yourself first, and then everything comes after that.

BATES: And therein lies one of the central tensions in the movie. Just because you share the same ethnicity doesn't mean you share the same culture. The old-world ideas of filial piety, of sacrificing individual wants and aspirations for the family's collective need is a theme in "Crazy Rich Asians." Director John Chu says everyone involved in the film was on a mission.

CHU: Everyone had to agree that this wasn't just a romantic comedy that we're doing, that it was very important that the culture was part of the story itself, part of the characters themselves.

BATES: Chu knew he wanted a mostly Asian cast, and he knew he had to look beyond the U.S. There simply weren't enough actors otherwise. So he put out an open casting call on YouTube and got thousands of auditioners.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHU: Hey, everybody. I'm Jon M. Chu, the director of Warner Brothers' upcoming film, "Crazy Rich Asians," based off...

BATES: And auditioners got callbacks.

CHU: We had a casting director here in Vancouver, in New York, in London, in Australia, in Singapore, in Malaysia. I mean, these were all people who have to be on the clock, on the ground. All that costs money for not just a month, for months.

BATES: Romantic lead Henry Golding was known in Singapore as the host of a travel show, but he'd never acted before. No one objected to that, but early on, there was a little social media uproar about casting someone who was half Malaysian, half English. John Chu says Golding might not have been completely Asian, but he was 100 percent Nick.

CHU: In a weird way, it almost felt like, you don't cast him, what are you saying?

BATES: Golding has heard the arguments about who's truly Asian and says this to the skeptics.

GOLDING: Who are you to say that I'm less Asian than you? I grew up in Asia. I was born in Asia. I've lived so many different Asian cultures. I'm definitely more Asian than a lot of people who have never been to Asia. But by blood and by race, they instantly say, I deserve to be Asian. I've worked really hard to be Asian, and I think I'm Asian enough.

BATES: E.J. David (ph) teaches cross cultural psychology at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He's Filipino and has a problem with how some have described "Crazy Rich Asians" as the first primarily-Asian cast since 1993's "Joy Luck Club."

E.J. DAVID: I don't agree with that interpretation because it's not true.

BATES: David cites the critically-acclaimed 2006 film "The Namesake" based on Jhumpa Lahiri's best-selling novel starring Kal Penn. "The Namesake" looks at many of the same issues raised in "Crazy Rich Asians" - obligation to family, respect for culture, fitting in but with South Asian characters. Yet, David says, it's rarely mentioned as an Asian movie.

DAVID: So what is it, brown Asians don't count? You know, that's pretty offensive.

BATES: The fact is Asians are not a monolith. "Crazy Rich Asians" shows that there are all kinds of Asians spread throughout the globe - Taiwanese who are also Australian, Malaysians who are also British, Indonesians who are from China and more. Director John Chu says he spent his childhood longing to see someone who looked like him on screen. He hopes this film will be that for others.

CHU: I'm making it for my own 12-year-old self and my daughter and this generation that's coming.

BATES: And Henry Golding hopes it will be understood beyond his community.

GOLDING: It's a story about Asians, but for me, it's the universality of the story in general. You could be Latino, you could be black, you could be Caucasian, you can be from Africa and realize that, like, the story transcends that of race. It's about love.

BATES: And let's face it - is about love among the 0.001 percent because they have hearts too. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAKENOBU'S "CHE")

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