Asian-American filmmakers discuss the doors ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ opened
Sundance Film Festival
When: Through Feb. 3
Where: Park City, Salt Lake City, Sundance Resort
Last summer, John Chu’s “Crazy Rich Asians” was the first feature film with a majority Asian-American cast to hit paydirt.
The cross-cultural romantic comedy grossed nearly $175 million in the United States alone, according to boxofficemojo.com.
Richie Mehta, a longtime filmmaker, considers the film’s breakthrough part of a cultural eruption that started in 2008 with the runaway success of“Slumdog Millionaire,” which took the box office by storm and brought home an Oscar.
“Twenty minutes into that film, I was in awe, because it was a Hindi language film that everyone in the audience was completely entranced by,” he said. “This was one of the first tremors.”
The impact that “Crazy Rich Asians” may have on the future of Asian-Americans both in front of and behind the camera was the topic of “Broad Cast News: How ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ Changes the Game for Asian Talent,” a Sundance Film Festival panel held Wednesday at the Filmmaker’s Lodge in partnership with the Asian Society, an advocacy nonprofit.
Panelists included Mehta (“DelhiCrime Story”), writers, directors and producers Lulu Wang (“The Farewell”) and Justin Chon (“Ms. Purple”), and producer Anita Gou (“The Farewell” and “Honey Boy”).
The panel was moderated by Janet Yang, of Janet Yang Productions.
Yang said this year’s festival is a “game changer” in her eyes because more projects helmed by Asian-American.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, “Late Night,” penned by Mindy Kaling (and directed by Indian Canadian Nisha Ganatra), was a hit with audiences and broke a festival record when Amazon acquired it for $13 million. Wang’s “The Farewell,” starring Awkwafina, was purchased by A24 for $7 million; New Line bought Gurinder Chadha’s “Blinded by the Light” for $15 million while Netflix brought home Mehta’s “Delhi Crime Story” for an undisclosed amount.
“I’ve been coming to Sundance for three decades and I find that to be a good marker to time,” Yang said. “We are now fully, seemingly, in the mainstream. Who would have thought Asian faces would be accepted by non-Asian people.”
All the panelists’ films were produced before the theatrical release of “Crazy Rich Asians” last August and the filmmakers are excited about the shift in the overall cultural paradigm.
Wang said the success of “Crazy Rich Asians” validated her financiers, actors and crew.
“The Farewell” is a fish-out-of-water story of a Chinese-American (Awkwafina) who returns to her family’s native China, where she’s no longer connected to the culture.
Although an American film, most of the dialogue in “The Farewell” is spoken in subtitled Mandarin. It came with a personal touch.
“It’s based on something that happened in real life,” she said. “In 2013, my grandma was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer, and given only three months to live … In China, doctors tell family members the diagnosis, but don’t tell the patient.”
Things only got more complicated from there, Wang said.
“So since we all live abroad, we needed an excuse for all of us to see her in a way so she wouldn’t get suspicious as to why we all rushed home,” she said. “So they forced my cousin to get married to his girlfriend as a way for us to all see her and to celebrate the marriage of her only grandson.”
The obvious path was to make a comedy for a Chinese audience, Wang said.
“But I wanted to make an American film,” she said. “I wanted to make this as an American film, because I’m American. This story is in my voice, and I think it’s an American story.”
Gou said backing “The Farewell” was a “no-brainer.”
“I told Lulu that this is a film that I had dreamed of making and doing as a fan of movies and filmmakers,” she said. “I’ve been to film school; my parents ran a production studio in Taiwan. So the projects that I choose to support stems from there, and I think there needs to be a certain point of view that’s unwavering and different and that is underrepresented in some way. I thought it would be daring to make an American independent film that was 70 percent Mandarin.”
Chon, whose “Ms.Purple” was inspired by his relationship with his sister, said he is looking forward of seeing how the success of “Crazy Rich Asians” will affect his future projects.
“My philosophy has been very bootstrap, DIY method of filmmaking that came out of necessity,” he said. “I’m excited because now filmmakers like myself may actually be able to make a case that it would be monetarily make sense.”
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