I watch more than 100 movies every year, easily, and I have never before experienced this on a big screen, writes Wenlei Ma of news.com.au.

When I was younger, I loved to argue, which led to people asking why I didn't become a lawyer.

I'd tell them I hated legal studies in high school. But what I left out of that answer is the other part, the part where my dad said to me years earlier, that it would be hard for an Asian woman in Australia to be a successful lawyer. That stuck with me.

It wasn't a case of bad parenting — he never told me not to do something I wanted to and I was far too obstinate to listen even if he had. And I would never have had the discipline to make it through law school — when lawyers talk now, I start slipping into a microsleep.

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Crazy Rich Asians, featuring Constance Wu, gives a sense of being seen and heard. Photo / AP
Crazy Rich Asians, featuring Constance Wu, gives a sense of being seen and heard. Photo / AP

What it was, and still is for many migrant families, is that sense of never quite belonging to the culture you live in, of never being comfortable enough to stick your head up and make yourself a target.

That has as much to do with how you see yourself as how others see you.

Growing up in Australia, I didn't see myself on screen very often — it pretty much started and ended with Lee Lin Chin.

If you don't see yourself represented in popular culture, you feel invalidated, consciously or subconsciously, and that's regardless of whether a customer says to your face, "Asians are so cheap," when you wouldn't give her a free coat hanger (true story) — she's getting pissy demanding a free coat hanger but sure, I'm the cheap one.

Desperate to fit in, to "assimilate" like so many other migrant kids, I set out to suppress my cultural background, never self-selecting as different, hoping no one will notice I wasn't "one of them". I was actually proud of being bad at maths because it meant I defied a stereotype.

That's why Crazy Rich Asians is such a landmark movie for people like me — it gives us a sense of being seen, of being heard, of being mattered.

The multitude of Asian faces in a Hollywood movie isn't something I've ever seen in a film before on a big screen in Australia, not since The Joy Luck Club, and 25 years is a long time to wait.

Same, same but different

Starring Constance Wu, Michelle Yeoh and Henry Golding, the movie tells the story of Rachel Chu, an Asian-American woman who visits Singapore with her boyfriend, who happens to come from one of the richest families on the glitzy island.

The existence of a Hollywood-funded high-profile movie starring a cast of actors with Asian heritage, telling the story of an Asian-American immigrant is so significant. Ever since its American release, the internet has been swamped with personal stories of viewers crying in the theatre out of happiness, of feeling emboldened to reclaim their heritage.

"A lot of us internalise not being represented and we render ourselves invisible," Constance Wu says over the phone from LA where the actor has resumed production on her sitcom, Fresh Off The Boat.

Constance Wu says it is important to stress the difference between Asian experiences and the experiences of the Asian diaspora across the world.
Constance Wu says it is important to stress the difference between Asian experiences and the experiences of the Asian diaspora across the world.

"But by centring a major Hollywood movie around this experience, it sends the message that your story is worth telling, you're not there to support everybody else's story, you can have your own.

"I hope Asian-Americans and Asian-Australians, wherever, start to really take some pride and ownership of their stories because they're great stories."

Wu says it is important to stress the difference between Asian experiences and the experiences of the Asian diaspora across the world.

"I've had many people tell me, 'My whole life, people assumed my culture was like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and it's not,'" Wu says. "Not that there's anything wrong with Chinese culture but it feels a little off when someone is telling you what your identity should be and it doesn't fit.

"That's why it's such a relief to find a story that does sort of reflect your experience. Rachel is very American but she has Chinese roots and it's the struggle between both of those elements which forms her identity."

Even though the book the film is based on is more preoccupied with designer labels, flash cars and shiny baubles, the movie cleverly focuses on Rachel's journey and the relationships she has with boyfriend Nick (Golding), friend Peik Lin (Awkwafina), Nick's mother Eleanor (Yeoh) and her own mother Kerry (Tan Kheng Hua). The narrative choice grounds what could've been a fanciful tale, and makes it relatable.

Even though the book is more preoccupied with designer labels, flash cars and shiny baubles, the movie cleverly focuses on Rachel's journey.
Even though the book is more preoccupied with designer labels, flash cars and shiny baubles, the movie cleverly focuses on Rachel's journey.

Director Jon M. Chu tells me: "Rachel's journey felt very personal — an Asian-American going to Asia for the first time, and that could be anyone going to their 'homeland' for the first time, has this experience of going there and being seduced by scenes of food and people who look and talk like you.

"They welcome you as their family but they see you as different, you're not a part of them. Then you come home with these two different identities and you feel the pressure to choose. That, for me, was the movie. It wasn't about crazy rich Asians, it was Rachel's journey, coming to grips with her own self-worth."

Like Wu, Chu is an American-born second-generation immigrant whose parents hail from Asia, his from China and Taiwan, hers from Taiwan. Previously, he's worked on movies that haven't dealt with his heritage, most notably two Step Up films and Now You See Me 2.

A sense of community

For Chu and many of the cast, it was the first time they had been on a set full of people who looked like them.

Along with local Singaporean and Malaysian actors, its main cast came from all over the world: Golding, Gemma Chan, Jing Lusi and Sonoya Mizuno from the UK, Wu, Awkwafina, Ken Jeong, Jimmy O. Yang, Nico Santos and Lisa Lu from the US and even Ronny Chieng, Chris Pang and Remy Hii from Australia.

From left, Michelle Yeoh, Ken Jeong, Henry Golding, Awkwafina and Constance Wu speak about creating Crazy Rich Asians. Photo / AP
From left, Michelle Yeoh, Ken Jeong, Henry Golding, Awkwafina and Constance Wu speak about creating Crazy Rich Asians. Photo / AP

"We all implicitly understood each other," Wu says. "You could just mention one thing about an audition and what kind of character they described and none of us had to explain the rest of the story because everyone on the movie got it, they've experienced it.

"Community is important because it makes you fearless, because you have a groundswell of support."

For Melbourne-born Chris Pang, the cast became family.

"We were instantly bonded together by the background of our history growing up," he tells me. "As an Asian growing up outside of Asia we all share the same experience. We all share this desire to change the landscape and be part of a conversation. It's a responsibility and if you've got the power to change it, you should."

For Chu, working with Asians from all over the world also facilitated a kind of dialogue that enhanced the script as he was filming.

"We listened to each other. We took time and didn't just bypass something because we didn't understand it — it was a safe spot to talk about those things.

"With Constance, there was a line in the book about how her character Rachel says she didn't date Asian guys. It's funny in the book and there's a context to it. But in the movie, it's a throwaway one-liner, and it was in the script and she called me and said, 'I don't feel comfortable about this joke.'

"I said it was just a joke and it's beloved in the book and fans will be upset if we cut it. And then I read it and was, 'Oh, you're right.' And that's the kind of conversation you can have when you have people involved who can call it out."

Money, money, money, moneeeeey

Of course, with a movie like Crazy Rich Asians with the kind of hype, marketing and expectations it has, it's not going to be without controversy. By being visible as a vehicle for Asian representation in the West, it's come under criticism for not being diverse enough of the pan-Asian experience, a continent that stretches from East Timor and Indonesia in the south to Pakistan in the west to Mongolia in the north.

When the film premiered in Singapore, local critics slammed it for not being inclusive of all Singaporeans, especially the non-ethnic Chinese who make up almost a quarter of the population there.

That the movie is somehow expected to represent billions of people is unrealistic, but it also demonstrates how much Asian audiences in the West were crying out for this movie. When one movie finally comes along, everyone wants it to be part of their experience and is inevitably let down when it isn't.

Crazy Rich Asians explores the lavish lifestyle of Singapore's super rich.
Crazy Rich Asians explores the lavish lifestyle of Singapore's super rich.

The commercial success of Crazy Rich Asians is proof movies don't have to anchored by the same old crew to make money. When it opened number one in the US, it became the first rom-com in three years to make more than US$20 million ($30 million) that first weekend.

It's already raked in US$76 million ($114 million) at the American box office over two weeks. Most significantly, its second week was almost as successful as its first, tallying only a 6 per cent drop in takings. For comparison, blockbusters typically drop more than 50 per cent on the second weekend.

But strong word-of-mouth has carried Crazy Rich Asians and while Asian-Americans made up almost 40 per cent of its first weekend audiences, non-Asian viewers were packing it out by week two.

The movie's studio Warner Bros (Crazy Rich Asians is distributed in Australia by Roadshow) has already greenlit a sequel, presumably to be based on the second book of Kevin Kwan's trilogy.

Commercial viability is often cited as the reason why Hollywood won't gamble big on movies that don't have caucasian stars, though Black Panther with its US$1.3 billion global box office has certainly blown a hole in that argument.

"Crazy Rich Asians is another example of diversity being a commercial success," Pang says. "There have been so many examples recently and it paints a clear picture that audiences want something new. They don't want the same thing over and over again.

"There are communities out there that want to be included and represented. There's a hunger there and if you're not paying attention to that hole in the market, then that's a bad financial decision."

Best known for playing Lee in Tomorrow When The War Began and as Arban in Marco Polo, Pang moved from Melbourne to LA five years ago because he didn't think a career as an actor in Australia would be sustainable.

"Australia has stepped up its diversity game since I've been gone and all these shows have come out. There are a lot more opportunities now than when I left but there's still a long way to go."

Here, while the ABC and SBS have launched a slew of projects starring Asian faces including Benjamin Law's The Family Law, Ronny Chieng: International Student and Anh Do's Anh's Brush With Fame, you'd still be hard-pressed to find Australians of Asian heritage on commercial free-to-air TV outside of MasterChef or other talent-based reality TV shows.

A 2016 Screen Australia report into diversity on screen found that people with non-European backgrounds (namely Asian and Middle Eastern Australians) made up only 7 per cent of characters on Australian drama series, compared to 17 per cent of the actual population.

Pang is capitalising on the momentum created by Crazy Rich Asians and producing his own film, Empty By Design, which has just finished filming in Manila.

"It's my way of taking the next step. I don't want to rely on other people to come up with the next project."

'Turning steps into sweeping strides

The reactions to Crazy Rich Asians have left the cast and their director pretty emotional.

"It's very moving to be part of something that means something to people," Wu says. "I can't even believe it. I feel so lucky."

Lots of actors say they feel lucky to be involved with something but for Wu, when she says she's feeling emotional, it's genuine, there's a hint of her voice breaking over the phone. It's personal — she has real skin in the game.

Constance Wu called out a throwaway one-liner, enhancing the script. Photo / AP
Constance Wu called out a throwaway one-liner, enhancing the script. Photo / AP

And that's why this movie is resonating so deeply. Because it touches at our very sense of self.

"Cultural identity is a difficult task to come to terms with whatever your nationality or background is," Pang says. "It just makes it that much harder when you never see your own image. It gives you a complex and I know all my friends and peers have dealt with that in some way or other.

"When you're growing up, you don't know what's right or wrong, you just know what is, and that you don't see yourself represented so you feel like you don't measure up, you feel lesser and that should never be something people feel, it's outside of your control and it's unfair."

Overwhelmingly, those involved in the making of Crazy Rich Asians and those who have seen it feel a sense of hope — hope that it's changing, that more stories like this will make it to screens both big and small.

Yeoh, who has worked on both sides of the Pacific in her native Malaysia, in big-budget Western movies including Tomorrow Never Dies and on TV as a starship captain in Star Trek: Discovery, tells me: "This is one of big early steps and I hope the steps will turn into sweeping strides.

"I think in the past, we didn't speak out because we thought, 'OK, to integrate into society, let's just keep our heads down and do the right thing' and people have had enough of not being proud of their heritage, not being able to share it.

"We have learnt to embrace our differences and our cultures and that's what Crazy Rich Asians is touching on. Tradition and culture is important to each person, whether they're Asian or African-American or of Latin descent or whatever it is. That will always be a part of your identity and you should be proud of it."

Chu is already set to direct the sequel and with the glow of commercial success attached to this project, there's no going back.

"We're here. Our stories are going to be heard," Chu says. "All the world's eyes on us and it's a rare opportunity to make a statement like this, for people to show up and make their voices known."