Written by Vera Ting
With a box office estimate of $218.9 million worldwide, Crazy Rich Asians has become the highest grossing romantic comedy in a decade. Here’s why that matters.
When stripped to its most basic plot—an average girl in love with a man must deal with the obstacles of her potential in-laws and a vicious ex-girlfriend before the couple can secure their love—the movie does not add anything new to the genre. What makes it such a refreshing movie in a genre that’s been overshadowed by superhero and action movies in the past decade is the new perspective and nuances added by its cultural background. As a film about Asian-Americans and Asians, it adds new dimensions to its story by looking at the conflicts between diasporic people and their homeland counterparts. Rachel Chu, the film’s main protagonist, is a diasporic tourist in her visit to Asia, and her struggle to identify between the two cultures she is from is a familiar one to many people who come from an immigrant family and are born in a different country from their families’ culture. Although it is a familiar struggle for many, it is a relatively rare one covered in popular media, especially so in the case of Asian-Americans. While the film deals with the more common trope of class struggles, its strongest points lie in its ability to specialize that struggle with underlying ideas such as filial piety (a virtue of respect for one’s parents that is still upheld in most Asian cultures today), definitions of masculinity, and transnational identity.
This diasporic-homeland conflict seen in the film is a relatable transnational issue that has found its way to expressing itself on a local level. Stan Lou, Director of Talk Story Events at the 1882 Foundation, an organization that focuses on bringing public awareness of the history and continuing significance of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, commented on the film:
“The issue of identity became my most rewarding facet of the movie. It never diluted the essence of the culture that is ingrained in the Chinese and Chinese American souls. It never shied away or apologized for that because it’s who we are. Each of the main characters was true to character. Rachel had to continually struggle with her duality as a modern American woman and as a good Chinese daughter. Nick had the same struggle although a native Chinese influenced by his life in America with Rachel. Finally, matriarch Eleanor had deep Chinese culture developed from her eventful life that put her at odds with Nick and Rachel. The question of identity exists both in the non-APA [Asian Pacific American] world and within the APA world. These struggles are well known in the APA community and most likely resonate sympathetically with non-APAs.”
Lou facilitated a community event The 1882 Foundation held discussing the movie on October 28 in DC Chinatown. It can be seen on the organization’s Facebook page.
In an interview over the phone with Eric Cheng, a board member of the Organization of Chinese Americans Westchester and Hudson Valley Chapter and a first generation immigrant from Hong Kong, Cheng told me about how the film posed as a positive development in representation for Asian American communities. Its inclusion made it feel unlike the films Cheng had grown up watching in which the Asian person was usually just a best friend or simple stereotype of some form. Cheng mentioned how his entire family loved the film, especially his twelve-year-old daughter, whom he felt had a positive role model in the film’s protagonist Rachel Chu. The film stayed true to its representation, and Cheng commented that it did a good job in showing the inherent conflict between ideologies of Asian Americans and their mainland Asian counterparts. In Asian culture, there is a bigger emphasis on listening to parents and elders.
“It’s more constricted,” Cheng said, “whereas, in America, it is more about making your own choices.”
As I discussed what possible cultural impact the film might have had on a local scale with Cheng, he brought up another important note. Westchester, the chapter of the organization he was part of, is unique because of its affluence. While there is certainly more enthusiasm in the community, perhaps one could find a difference in impact between Westchester and Asian communities within the city.
As I watched the film, I remember my favorite parts just being the ones in which they behaved like average Asian people. None of the glitz and glamour sold me as much as the scenes of night markets and making dumplings together did. The film does a great job at being unapologetically Asian in nature, not feeling the need to explain too many things that might be ‘foreign’ to the audience. My initial feeling of apprehension when I started watching the film should be noted though. There was a sense of almost unfamiliarity with what I was seeing on the screen, despite seeing more familiarities to my life than I see in most of the movies I’ve seen throughout my life. Perhaps this feeling can be attributed to the lack of expectation I had for a movie to be so representative of Asian culture, or to do it so much justice in its representation. This again raises the question of why certain cultures that obviously exist and identify with films about their own culture are not marketed to in Hollywood? Why are they instead made to feel distanced from the sight of familiarities to their own lives on the rare occasions that they are depicted?
For a movie that stands so alone at the moment in this new and developing market, Crazy Rich Asians has its problematic parts. Instead of criticizing the movie for what it’s already done though, it feels warranted to suggest that the movie’s mistakes raise awareness on important discussions that need to be had and points that future films can learn from.
Some of the main criticisms the film received were in its casting choices and representation of the cultures depicted. Several actors in the film, including leading man Henry Golding, Sonoya Mizuno, and Ken Jeong, played Chinese Singaporean characters despite not being of that descent themselves. Golding received the most flack for being of biracial, Malaysian Iban and English, descent. Jamie Chung, a Korean American actress, furthered these casting controversies when she was turned down for a role for not being ethnically Chinese, and criticizing director Jon M. Chu’s decision to cast Golding. Just as one should not ignore Goldings Asian descent simply because he is part English, one cannot discount the progress the movie has made by not completely whitewashing its cast in spite of its shortcomings.
Another issue many saw the film as having was in its lack of comprehensive representation of Singapore’s population by focusing on Chinese Singaporean characters. As Singapore’s second and third largest ethnic groups are Malays and Indians it seems odd not to see more representation of them within the movie’s setting. This points out another problem Hollywood has had in mainly focusing on only East Asian cultures if it ever focuses on Asians at all. However, it is also important to note that the film is based on Kevin Kwan’s bestseller of the same title and that the intention of this story is to focus on Chinese Singaporeans. The complaint of lack of representation is a good indication though of people’s awareness of the issue, and hopefully this will bring about movies of more diverse cultural backgrounds in the future.
Despite all its shortcomings, Crazy Rich Asians is a film of significant success that shows a potential increase in not just Asian-American representation, but in general an increase in representation of people of color in popular media. Progress can already be seen by the popularity surrounding another film with an Asian-American female lead in the Netflix Original film, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. Asian-American actress and rapper Awkwafina, who appeared in both Crazy Rich Asians and the summer blockbuster Ocean’s 8 earlier this year, hosted an episode of Saturday Night Live this season in October. She created a significant moment in the show’s history by being the second Asian woman who has ever hosted. In her opening monologue, she honored Lucy Liu, who hosted 18 years ago and is the only other Asian woman ever to do so.
Crazy Rich Asians joins a string of recent films—including Black Panther, The Big Sick, and Coco—in falsifying the myth that people of color “don’t sell” in Hollywood with its reminder that there are audiences that identify with these different cultures and that it shouldn’t have to be so special and rare to see such movies. With a rise in the fame of the entire Crazy Rich Asians cast and the general success of recent movies that have featured new cultural backgrounds, this could be a sign of the increase in diversity and representation in popular media.