By Shirley Li
August 15, 2018 at 09:18 PM EDT

Warning: The following contains spoilers for Crazy Rich Asians. Read at your own risk!

Crazy Rich Asians may end with a lavish engagement party, but it isn’t exactly a love story. Sure, its protagonists, Rachel (Constance Wu) and Nick (Henry Golding), have their love challenged by the circumstances around them, but in the end, the film tells a story of respect — a respect earned between two women from two different backgrounds.

Just look at the climax: Instead of a proposal (or any other rom-com trope), it takes place during a game of mahjong played by Rachel and Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), Nick’s steely mother. In it, they finally speak candidly about why Rachel isn’t welcome into the Young family, but Rachel helps Eleanor understand that the two of them are more alike than she thinks. Eleanor has given up plenty to make sure Nick would lead a happy life — such as leaving law school to focus on family — but Rachel would do just as much for him.

“For me, what this movie really is at its heart, in every single part of it, is about quiet sacrifices that women make to protect the men they love,” Wu tells EW. “At the end, it’s Eleanor realizing that even though she and Rachel are from different countries, continents, and upbringings, they both have made sacrifices to protect the men they love, and I think that garners a type of respect that transcends wealth and background.

“I didn’t want to make this just a cute rom-com,” she adds. “It had to be rooted in something that was deeply important.… I think if you really think about it thematically, Nick and Rachel’s love pretty much stays the same the whole time; their dynamic is not the one that’s interesting, that changes.”

Warner Bros.

Instead, it’s the dynamic between Rachel and Eleanor that evolves. The pivotal scene — and the film’s choice to focus more on Rachel and Eleanor’s arc than on Rachel and Nick’s — didn’t originate from Kevin Kwan’s 2013 best-seller; rather, it came from director Jon M. Chu and the cast’s desire to delve into the cultural differences between being Asian and Asian-American. Is one approach to life better than the other? Should you find happiness by pursuing your individual passions, or by working toward building and supporting your community? Is one set of values better than the other?

“I think that was just an interesting debate that we would have on set all the time, and that I would have with my parents,” Chu says. “Even when I first read the book, I knew I wanted to bring more of that up to the surface for the movie.”

Warner Bros. Pictures

Plus, both actresses wanted to make changes to the way their characters were portrayed in Kwan’s novel. On the page, Eleanor refuses to accept Rachel no matter what, even traveling to China to avoid meeting her when she first arrives in Singapore. By the start of the sequel, she’s no longer speaking to her son. Yeoh, though, made it clear she didn’t want to play a “mustache-twirly plotter,” Chu recalls. “When we first approached Michelle about it, she said, ‘I just want you to know that I read the book, and if you want me to play the villain, I’m the wrong person. I refuse to play a truly cartoony villain.’”

Wu, too, didn’t want Rachel to never confront the woman shunning her from Nick’s family, so the mahjong scene provided the perfect opportunity for Rachel to show her grit. “She finally realizes that the way to value yourself isn’t with money and isn’t with a hot boyfriend,” Wu says. “It’s by having the courage to walk away from something you really love so that that person can have a better life. That’s true love, that’s true sacrifice.”

Ultimately, the women come to terms with each other’s views, and the ring Nick uses to propose again to Rachel is Eleanor’s — a subtle message from Eleanor to Rachel that she understood Rachel’s point. The film concludes with a glance (below) from Eleanor to Rachel that Chu says took take after take to get right. “We had, like, 18 different versions of [the look] that Michelle gave her,” he says. “[We had] one where she smiles at her, one where she doesn’t, one where she’s not even there. We just debated it over and over again.”

Warner Bros.

As for Wu, selling her mahjong skills took as much, if not more, effort. “I had never played before, honestly,” she admits. “They got me a mahjong coach for the movie, so I learned. Personally I’m not great at it — I’m generally not great at those kinds of games.” She laughs. “But it was fun to learn.”

Crazy Rich Asians is now in theaters.

Crazy Rich Asians

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • Jon M. Chu