On Crazy Rich Asians and Asian American Representation

Crazy Rich Asians came into theatres with no small amount of hype. It is the first film since The Joy Luck Club in 1993 to feature a predominantly Asian cast in a modern setting, and has carried with it hopes of boosting interest in Asian-American led media in a way that The Joy Luck Club failed to do. But there was a pressing concern behind the excitement as well. What if the movie, for all its cultural support and significance, wasn’t actually that good?

Fortunately, Crazy Rich Asians is a solid romantic comedy that has exceeded all expectations. It benefits from unexpected subtlety and strong female characters, and it plays upon its minority cast to incorporate new takes on themes and archetypes that audiences might have otherwise found cliché. In the film, economics professor Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) travels to Singapore with her longtime boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding) to meet his family, who unbeknownst to Rachel, are crazy rich. Once there, she finds herself embroiled in complicated family politics, and must confront a potential mother-in-law who thinks Rachel is unworthy of her son. The charm in Crazy Rich Asians lies in it being more than just a rom-com. The film touches upon themes of self-made money versus old money, being Chinese versus being Chinese-American, and personal happiness versus doing what is best for the family. Nick’s mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), who could have easily been written as a two-dimensional villain, is made unexpectedly sympathetic through her desire to protect her family, to which she fears Rachel poses a threat.

This nuanced storytelling has resonated with broad audiences, if box office numbers are anything to go by. As of September 5th, Crazy Rich Asians has grossed over 121 million dollars domestically on a 30 million dollar budget. It has topped the North American box office for the third week in a row, displaying remarkable staying power comparable to other bigger releases this year such as Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War. Rotten Tomatoes’ critics consensus states, “With a terrific cast and a surfeit of visual razzle dazzle, Crazy Rich Asians takes a satisfying step forward for screen representation while deftly drawing inspiration from the classic - and still effective - rom-com formula.” Asian moviegoers, who comprised only 8 percent of moviegoers last year, accounted for 40 percent of the audience during the opening weekend of Crazy Rich Asians, supporting the notion that people of minority groups will consistently show up to see themselves represented in theatres.

So what does this mean for the short term future of Asian representation in cinema? A sequel to Crazy Rich Asians is confirmed to be in development, and a solid list of other Asian-led projects have been announced to be in development as well. The most notable among these is the upcoming live-action adaptation of Disney’s Mulan, which is currently planned to release in 2020. This shift towards diversity looks promising, and if these releases generate enough revenue, it should bolster demand for more Asian actors, writers, and directors in the filmmaking business.

Circling back to Mulan as an example, however, distinction needs to be made between having Asian actors and having Asian-American actors. This upcoming live-action film is poised to be the next big cinematic event for Asian-American audiences throughout the U.S., and yet many of the cast have been pulled from a list of established mainland Chinese movie stars, most likely as part of the broader mission in Hollywood to appeal to massive Chinese audiences. In the same way that Korean dramas and anime don’t qualify as Asian representation in the United States, seeking talented stars overseas in place of rising American-born actors and actresses subtly undermines the movement for Asian-American representation as a whole. For rising Asian-American stars to have to compete with big names in foreign countries complicates the goal of increased representation, even if on the outset it means more Asian faces will show up on screen. It’s an issue that touches on troubling undertones. Asian people born in the United States and people born in Asia are not the same, as this decision might imply. Instead, they come from very different backgrounds and experiences, even if these things are similar in some aspects. Therefore, representation looks very different for these two groups, not to mention for the plethora of cultural identities within these two categories. More importantly, it weighs the competitive playing field even further against Asian-Americans by turning them against a group that doesn’t necessarily need to see more of themselves on the big screen. Chinese people have all the representation they could want back home. Chinese-Americans, not so much.

Unsurprisingly, the scarcity of meaningful onscreen roles, and the idea that Asian-Americans have to deal with added competition for them, is closely tied to the criticism that has been leveraged at Crazy Rich Asians. Crazy Rich Asians has had to deal with an unfair level of expectations because of the limited representation of Asians in the media. Critics complain that it focuses too much on ethnic Chinese instead of other Asian ethnicities, lambast the film’s marketing campaign for advertising itself as being representative of the entire Asian experience, or alternatively criticize the decision to cast actors who aren’t ethnically Chinese to play characters that are supposed to be Chinese. These critiques are well-founded, as outlined above, and yet they seem to ignore the fact that Crazy Rich Asians isn’t the end-all for Asian representation on the big screen. No film should be expected to comprehensively explore the cultural nuances of an entire continent’s worth of people. Instead, if the movie continues to sell, and the abovementioned films are also successful, Crazy Rich Asians should be just the first in a long list of films to come, each representing different facets of the broad and diverse Asian experience. Hollywood hesitates to pursue new projects if it isn’t certain they will generate money, but if audiences consistently turn up for movies with Asian leads in them, the film industry will take notice and move to capitalize on this clear demand. Big changes rarely happen all at once. More often than not, change occurs through small steps, each one building off the foundation laid by their predecessors.

The resounding success of Crazy Rich Asians bodes well for the short-term future of Asian representation, having disproven the antiquated concept that films with Asian leads don’t sell. Crazy Rich Asians has had to take the brunt of larger criticisms that would never have been directed at a film that didn’t depict underrepresented minorities. This discourse is still valid, however, and indicates that there are many other cultural groups whose stories are still waiting to be told. The upcoming Asian-led films, if successful, should take the next step towards the long-term goal of giving them a presence in media, and in doing so give entertaining and fresh takes on familiar stories.

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