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Is “Crazy Rich Asians” the Film Asian Americans Have Been Waiting For?

I want to be excited about the film adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s book, Crazy Rich Asians.

I want to see this as a victory for Asian Americans in Hollywood films, Asians in leading roles, and audiences who refused to sit idly by and let major studios whitewash stories.

I really want this – this movie, this time in American filmmaking – to be a turning point for Asian American representation. I fantasize about telling youngsters, in the year 2047, what it was like “before Crazy Rich Asians”. I like to imagine that they won’t believe me, and will thoughtlessly turn their attention back to the movie their watching – starring Hollywood’s latest heart-throb who just happens to be Asian. (I also imagine that all movies are beamed directly into our brains via some sort of creepy retinal scanning device…but that’s for another article.)

And really, I do think that Crazy Rich Asians can be all of those things. I am excited that the movie is getting made, and that Warner Bros. is promising an all-Asian cast. If you had told teenage Louise that there was going to be a non-period film about Chinese people, with handsome, sexy, savvy lead Asian actors and actresses in it, I’d have like, totally freaked out.

Don’t get me wrong, I am excited, I am hopeful, and I absolutely think that making this movie is important. Frankly, it’s about damn time.

As a first generation Chinese American who has spent her life worshipping at the altar of film and television, this feels like it could be the “FINALLY” Asian Americans working in the film industry having been fighting for: fair representation.

No ninjas, sagely gurus, dragon ladies, nerds, or whatever other boring stereotypical character boxes Asians get put into, but real Asian people in an engaging story that is not “foreign” to a typical American movie-goer.

While Asian Americans have steadily begun gaining representation on television with shows like Fresh Off the Boat, Master of None, The Mindy Project, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., The Walking Dead, Hawaii 5-0, and Elementary to name a few, casting Asians in leading roles, in major films still seems to unnerve Hollywood.

When it comes to movies, I’ve become a tad weary of celebrating all the small wins, when the major victory of having Asian actors star in and carry a studio film seems forever elusive. Asian American actors have been in a holding pattern now for some time: getting eccentric characters, pivotal characters, memorable characters, non-stereotypical characters, fan-favorite characters – but all supporting characters.

No matter how “cool” a supporting character is, they will always be just that, secondary; in service to the hero who makes or breaks the film. If Asians are only seen as “in service to” a white savior hero, that is how American society will continue to see Asians, how Asians will see themselves.

I cannot speak for all Asian Americans, but growing up in America in the ’80s and ’90s, I came to accept that Asians in film were either embarrassing, unrelatable, or forgettable. Margaret Cho’s tragically mishandled sitcom All-American Girl felt thrillingly audacious to me; The Joy Luck Club in its brave, mournful generational storytelling felt almost punk rock. Asians being defiantly Asian in front of a mainstream US audience?

As my dad might say in Cantonese slang, “Yau mo gau chor?!” or “Have you made a mistake?”

For a while it did seem like Hollywood felt like it had made mistakes in casting Asians. During their week of examining Asian representation in film and television, Entertainment Weekly asked actor Ming-Na Wen (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., The Joy Luck Club) about Asian Americans being at a “crossroads” in the industry and what it was like “as an Asian actor starting out”. Wen said:

I feel so disheartened sometimes when these questions are still being asked 30 years later. For me, when I started in the business, there was this whole thing about non-traditional casting, about wanting to broaden their horizons, and I must have come into the business at the right time, been in the right place, because there was such interest in hiring someone of ethnicity. I don’t know why the momentum of that fell by the wayside, or if it was just the flavor of the year or the flavor of the month. I know I benefited from it.

What happened between All-American Girl, The Joy Luck Club, Mulan (of which two live-action films are currently being developed) and the 2010s? Yes, there were some highs (the Harold and Kumar movies, pun intended) and lows (Memoirs of a Geisha) in the interim, but a decided lack of the momentum Wen mentioned. What happened?

I could run myself ragged, speculating until I was pale enough for Hollywood to cast me in a role intended for Emma Stone, but I believe what it comes down to is Hollywood’s fear of losing money on unproven Asian talent, thus never casting Asian talent allowing them to get “proven”, thus never allowing American audiences to be exposed to Asians as leads, THUS never creating any bankable Asian stars. Round and round we circle the drain.

The way I see it, there are two victims in this: Asians (obviously), and movie-going Americans.

Hollywood has told American audiences, both implicitly and explicitly, that there are no Asian actors capable of being Hollywood “movie stars” – can’t cast who’s not there!

American audiences have basically been taught that wanting representation of Asians in film is a fool’s errand. We should be grateful when Hollywood has SOMEHOW found an Asian actor to put in a major release in a decent supporting role; that tokenism is the same as diversity; that casting Asians is somehow tricky.

Which brings me back to my fears about the Crazy Rich Asians movie.

Will American audiences see the movie as the beginning of a new era of Asians and Asian Americans as movie stars? Will this movie FINALLY be the one that breaks the so called, “bamboo ceiling”? Will “Asian stories” finally be seen as universal?

Or will Crazy Rich Asians merely be seen as a triumph of “tricky” casting, with the studio and producers resting on their laurels? Will doors continue to open for Asian actors, or will the movie be remembered as a “once in a lifetime” opportunity?

It seems unfair to ask so much of one movie, but unfortunately Crazy Rich Asians – in its subject matter and casting – begs these questions. In a way, they are asking for it.

But there is a more far-reaching responsibility that the team behind Crazy Rich Asians (which includes Kwan as an executive producer and John M. Chu as director) may not have asked for. Beyond the ramifications of casting in Hollywood, Crazy Rich Asians carries the burden of being produced and released during the Trump administration.

Anti-Asian hate crimes are on the rise in America. With Trump identifying China as a threat to America, both in trade and in military power, violence toward Asian Americans, especially Chinese Americans, has drastically increased.

With increasing reports of Asian Americans being told to “Go back to China”, having their property vandalized, and growing instances of intent to cause serious physical harm, being Asian American in America is increasingly fraught. 

Hate crimes against Asian Americans have increased so much (“tripled” between 2014 and 2015 in Los Angeles alone) that the nonprofit, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, launched a website days before Trump’s inauguration “to track Anti-Asian hate crimes.”

With a surge in Asian Americans seen as “un-American” in Trump’s America, a romantic comedy such as Crazy Rich Asians could serve to bridge the chasm of “otherness” felt toward Asian Americans.

Film holds a mirror up to the culture from which it’s born. So far, in telling Asian stories, the idea that Asian Americans are “the others” and are not quite “one of us” in America, has been reinforced by Hollywood. 

A person in a largely all-white community may not have any active ill will toward an Asian American, but if they only see Asians portrayed as hollow caricatures or, even worse, not at all, it’s understandable that they might not be able to connect or empathize with Asian people.

It only gets worse if a person actually pays heed to the ignorance and hate spewed forth by the president against Muslims, Mexicans, and Chinese people.

A major studio release like Crazy Rich Asians has an opportunity, even a responsibility, that goes beyond its “rom-com” trappings. While audiences may at first be struck with the novelty of how “Asian” it is, one hopes that its universally relatable story is what audiences walk away with.

It’s a simple enough story. Chinese American economics professor, Rachel Chu (slated to be played by Constance Wu of Fresh Off the Boat), travels with her fiancee, Nick Young, to his hometown of Singapore. While in Singapore, she discovers that Nick is “crazy rich” and is the hot bachelor.

Take out the “Asian” aspect of it, and it’s a classic American rom-com. Handsome, smart, charming man brings his relatable girlfriend home, wackiness ensues. At a base level, if American audiences haven’t “been there”, they recognize it enough to feel comfortable with such a story.

Say what you will about an “important” Asian movie being a romantic comedy – rom-coms are modern American fairytales; they take a fantasy and bring it into real life. You couldn’t choose a more ideal genre to “normalize” Asians in American cinema.

And that is Crazy Rich Asians’ task.

To be out of the ordinary, but not too alien. To transcend “Asianness”, but also wear it’s Asianness defiantly on its sleeve. To be unique and fearless, but not brazen.

To read as “normal” when there is no context for this kind of normal in American media.

And this is why I am excited for Crazy Rich Asians, but I also fear for it.

Perched on its not-yet-formed shoulders is the weight of decades of casting, or the lack of casting, of Asians in American movies. Crazy Rich Asians has been positioned with its face pressed against the “bamboo ceiling” with the implication that it may be the chosen one to break it. For every Asian American who wondered, “Where have all The Joy Luck Clubs gone?”, the movie has us hoping that this movie, at this time will be the one that changes things.

But more than that, what presses back at Crazy Rich Asians from the other side of the ceiling is the question, “Is America ready?”

My deepest fear for Crazy Rich Asians is not that it will be bad or flawed, but that it will be perfect. I fear that Crazy Rich Asians will have flawless casting, excellent acting, and beautiful storytelling, but that America will snub it.

I fear that America will not be able to handle an all Asian cast of appropriately realistic, relatable characters. I fear that anti-Asian hate (of which this movie will of course conjure) will stop people from going to theaters. And because of all this, because of America’s hang-ups, I fear that movie-goers will prove Hollywood right – Asians aren’t bankable movie stars.

This isn’t to say that if Crazy Rich Asians fails it’s because AMERICA IS RACIST. But it’s unavoidable that race could play a hand in its demise.

But there is hope. The fact that this movie is even being made at all, that Warner Bros. is fast-tracking it, is a good sign. The hype, while daunting, is also a welcome change too. It’s some proof that Asian Americans have made enough noise that Hollywood feels to the need to throw some PR muscle into this new “gamble”.

And while those who commit hate crimes are empowered by Trump, even more people are fighting against him, speaking with their wallets. Crazy Rich Asians might benefit from that – come for the activism, stay for the story. There are worse ways to get butts in seats.

It’s a lot to heap on a movie that hasn’t even been fully cast yet, but these are the times we live in. We look to our movies as a reflection of our society, to give us a gauge on how we’re doing. Have we as Americans learned to respect our differences? With a movie like Crazy Rich Asians, we just might get an answer.

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Louise Hung

An American writer living in Japan, Louise is a contributor and researcher for the Order of the Good Death and Ask a Mortician. You can find her on Twitter @LouiseHung1.

One thought on “Is “Crazy Rich Asians” the Film Asian Americans Have Been Waiting For?

  1. Great piece, Louise! I hadn’t heard of this but I’ll be seeing it since you’re excited about it!

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