By Noma Faingold
The hard-to-categorize comedy “The Valet,” which was released May 20 on Hulu, is director Richard Wong’s first studio movie. Wong is a Richmond District resident.
He had worked as a director or cinematographer on independent projects before, but as his first studio project, this one was a different experience. Wong called the red-carpet premiere and participating in a press junket “fun,” but even more satisfying was that the bigger budget allowed him to “make the movie I really wanted to make.”
Wong, who signed onto “The Valet” at the beginning of 2021, said he hired the best crew and cast available. He also had a comfortable shooting schedule and ample time in post-production.
“Filmmaking is a privilege,” Wong said. “It was great being part of a studio experience, to be able to do it at a pace that’s not frantic. It was a luxury.”
The shoot in Atlanta and Los Angeles was a dream for Wong.
“I’m all about that collaborative spirit. I found the most talented people around. The way I like to work is having creative minds come together, coming up with ideas and we build on those ideas,” he said. “My job as director is to find these minds that fit the movie and then get the most out of those minds.”
Wong, 45, who last directed the 2019 indie comedy “Come as You Are,” was approached by producer Ben Odell to be the cinematographer on “The Valet,” a remake of a 2006 French film that had been in development for at least eight years with star and co-producer Eugenio Derbez attached. Wong had previously worked with Odell as the director of photography on “Spare Parts,” a 2015 film Odell produced. Wong quickly convinced Odell to think of him more as a director by sending him a link to “Come as You Are,” which Odell loved.
When Wong read the script to “The Valet,” he immediately saw his own Chinese American family’s story in what Derbez, one of the biggest stars in Mexico and among the Latin community, has called “a love letter to Latinos and working-class immigrants.”
The main character, Antonio (played by Derbez), reminds Wong of his father, Kenneth Wong, who worked as a dental lab technician making false teeth.
“My dad had a hard-working, good-natured standard immigrant mentality,” Wong said. “Like Antonio, he’s invisible. Growing up in my family, it was all about the next generation.”
The synopsis of “The Valet” reads a bit like a rom com: An unassuming valet, Antonio, provides cover to a movie star, Olivia (Samara Weaving), who is having an affair with married businessman Vincent Royce (Max Greenfield). But the story doesn’t go where audiences might expect.
“I don’t even consider it a romantic comedy,” Wong said.
Instead, “The Valet” is about unexpected human connection, as well as how some people (such as those in the service industry, the working class and immigrants) in society are invisible. It is also about how people are pre-judged, including Weaving’s character, who is revealed to be a not-so-superficial, lonely person. The tone of the movie never comes off as preachy or heavy handed, yet tender messages are lovingly woven throughout.
“The movie has more meaning than people might initially realize,” Wong said. “Comedy is the best way to smuggle the theme of the day. The theme of connectivity was in every decision that was made. The movie tries to bring the world a little closer.”
Even how the mix of Latin and Korean culture was authentically depicted in Koreatown of Los Angeles was important to Wong, who lived in the area for seven years.
“The melding of two cultures was in the script,” Wong said. “But we made sure the neighborhood was well represented.”
Two of several scenes specifically show the contrast in neighborhoods, as Antonio rides his bike from his job in upscale L.A. to the humbler surroundings where he lives. Later in the film, he finds himself awkwardly riding to a Hollywood premiere in a limousine. Soon he is comforted when he passes colorful displays from outdoor vendors and family-owned shops in his community.
Wong grew up in the Richmond District and continues to live there with his wife of 10 years, Irene Chan, and eight-year-old daughter, Avery. He doesn’t plan on moving out of the neighborhood as long as his parents (now divorced) live there. His favorite place in the whole world is Golden Gate Park. He frequently goes to Stow Lake with Avery.
“We have a very specific routine. We go up the mountain and then we look for baby ducks,” said Wong. “We never get sick of it.”
Wong doesn’t yet know what his next project will be, but a lot of interest continues to come his way.
“If I were offered a movie tomorrow, I probably wouldn’t do it. I was hardly home for more than a year,” he said. “I would prefer to be home for a while and be with my wife and daughter. I need that.”
“The Valet,” directed by Richard Wong and starring Eugenio Derbez and Samara Weaving, is now streaming on Hulu.