This past month, the long-awaited summer blockbuster, Crazy Rich Asians, finally graced our screens. The movie is a romantic comedy – which isn’t particularly interesting since Hollywood is littered with romantic comedies. What made the movie so highly anticipated was the fact that a major studio was throwing its weight behind an all-Westernized Asian cast and creator in a theatrical film release for the first time since 1993, when Disney made The Joy Luck Club. There are many who might have been skeptical about the film; would the quality of the movie be compromised in the name of representation? It’s a lot of pressure for any movie, let alone a romantic comedy that is traditionally sidelined by critics and seen as artistically not as important.
Thankfully, the pressure on this film has successfully produced a diamond. The movie has all the elements that any good romantic comedy should have. It’s hilarious, swoon-worthy and aesthetically pleasing. Additionally, after raking in over $150M at domestic box offices, it shows that Asian-centered stories and actors are highly bankable and in demand. People are tired of waiting for representation and they want it now.
The film is a thinned out version of Kevin Kwan’s 2013 novel of the same name but packs an equally brilliant punch in two hours. The screenplay, adapted by Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim, doesn’t hold back on the tropes that we have seen since the dawn of Hollywood romantic comedies. We see the classic story of Cinderella, which has previously provided templates to romantic comedies such as Maid In Manhattan, played out in the movie: a “commoner” falling in love with a prince. We also see influences of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Emma in the class conflict between the two lovers in the story.
One thing that stands out even from the opening scenes is the grandeur of the film. It is obvious that the creators of the movie didn’t hold back with the magnificence of how the characters in the book live. The grand mansions and the gorgeous cars, including the Audi R8 that Peik Lin drives, are on full display. Right from the start of the movie, we see the characters with Louis Vuitton luggages in tow and we see even more of it with the various dresses, like the gown Araminta Lee wears at her wedding. For fans of the book, the crew went in full force with creating the palatial Tyersall Park that is almost its own character in the book. There is certainly no forgetting the “Rich” in Crazy Rich Asians in this film.
Ultimately, the biggest takeaway of the film is how much heart it has. Even the glitz and glamour of the movie can’t distract us from the fact that the movie is a story of love in every form. Any interaction that we see between Nick and Rachel on screen had us swooning and for some scenes even brought us to tears. Despite the over the top designer dresses and excessively luxurious flying, the premise of their story is simple; they are two people who are in love and want the blessing of Nick’s mother. They are undoubtedly the main characters of the movie but none of the other characters are relegated to second fiddle, most of all Eleanor Young, Nick’s mother played by the uber talented Michelle Yeoh. At first glance, Eleanor might be a one-dimensional villain, putting her own agendas at the forefront but as the story progresses and unfolds, even through all her schemes, it’s fairly obvious that Eleanor only wants the best for Nick and loves him deeply in her own convoluted way.
Another character that manages to steal the screen is Astrid Leong Teo, Nick’s incredibly elegant and compassionate cousin played by Gemma Chan. Astrid was born into Singapore’s version of aristocracy on both sides of her family, a double heiress in her own right. The first glimpse of Astrid that we see is her walking into a jewelry store, unflinching as she spends a ridiculous amount of money on a pair of earrings. Yet we quickly see her story unfold to be something much deeper involving her husband and her family. One of the main themes of the film is class struggles and it is perfectly portrayed as the story of Astrid and her husband, Michael, unfold on our screens. Without giving too much away, Astrid’s story is a rare look at how, in a heteronormative world, a lot of times, expectations are put on men to be the main breadwinner and as a result, men struggle with the notion that they are married to or dating women who are richer than them. The movie celebrates women and one of the ways it does so is in the way how Astrid lives her life unapologetically and tells her husband to reflect on his fragile sense of manhood in their class difference.
In an interview with Channel News Asia, director Jon M Chu talked about how the movie is a love letter to Singapore and the love for the country is palpable. One of the key features in Singapore is its cuisine. Whether you’re Malay, Chinese or Indian, food is integral in your culture and we definitely see that in the movie. In one scene, we see the characters enjoy food from each ethnic group including – but not limited to – Satay, Chilli Crab and Hokkien Mee. The beautiful skyline of the city features heavily in the movie, the iconic Marina Bay Sands, Gardens by the Bay and Merlion make their appearances along with the beautiful shophouses along Chinatown. While the movie is primarily in English, it seamlessly blends different Chinese dialects and Mandarin, emphasizing on the efforts to make the movie authentically “Asian.” The movie also features Mahjong, a game that’s commonplace in many Chinese households – no doubt the sound of the tiles knocking against one another brings back memories for many – in a form of power play between two characters at the end of the film where poker would usually be in place. The movie even manages to touch on Confucius’ 2 millenia old idea of filial piety. We see it portrayed at Eleanor’s calm demeanor broken only in the presence of Su Yi, her mother-in-law.
Does the movie do a perfect job of portraying every Asian? That’s a question on a lot of people’s minds, and with good reason. This movie is something that was a long time coming and a lot of Asians around the world were both excited and nervous for its release. One topic of conversation that has come up a lot is making sure that the representation is accurately portrayed. There was a loud dissent amongst many who said that “brown Asians” such as Malays and Indians were underrepresented. The movie’s focus on East Asian faces immediately provoked complaints of its lack of diversity from Americans of South and South East Asian heritage, and the Twitter hashtag #BrownAsiansExist was created. The only main actor in the movie that was not of East Asian descent was Nico Santos, a Filipino-American. It’s clear why many would feel like this movie is not representative of their culture. “Asian” is not a homogenous group of people that are just one Chinese family making dim sums together.
Similarly, though, for that reason it isn’t fair to pin all expectations of Asian representation on this one film. The movie is not perfect and has some lengths to go, but it’s a wonderful step in the right direction. It doesn’t compromise the authenticity of the cultures that it does present on screen.
Crazy Rich Asians succeeds as a celebration and subversion of the romantic comedy genre. Representation aside, it is everything a romantic comedy is supposed to be. It makes you laugh with punchy one-liners, smile, root for love and crave big romantic gestures of your own even if you don’t really like them anyway. The story is something that we have seen before but it isn’t told in the same boring way that we have seen a million times over as it challenges some traditional expectations of Hollywood romantic comedies.
There are jealous exes trying to cause drifts in the relationship between the leads but they manage to resolve it healthily quite early on in the movie. Both the leads are grounded, reassured adults that have their lives together. There is never a damsel in distress that needs rescuing. Rachel chooses her own path from the start to the end, facing her fears straight on and owning her life. As she says herself, she is enough and at no point in her story is she not. There are conflicts within herself but she never changes herself at any point in any way for her to be worthy of the love she wants and longs for.
At the end of the day, the movie, at its core, is a good one. It defies the same old stereotypes that we’ve seen many times over. There are Asians who are lawyers and lecturers at NYU and not just ninjas and North Korean leaders. The characters are funny and crass, they don’t speak with a parody of an accent of what Hollywood expects Asians to sound like. The men in the movie are Asian but they are not desexualized at any point, defying Hollywood’s conventional view on what a hottie is supposed to look like. Chinese culture was portrayed without compromising the contemporary feeling of the film, showing that people who embrace their culture while simultaneously representing what every millennial globally experience.
The movie has impacted so many people, including the ones involved in its creation. We had the opportunity to interview Harry Shum Jr., who plays Charlie Wu, and ask him about his thoughts about the movie and his own experiences with representation. Harry was a very vocal supporter of the film even before it was released, joining forces with over a hundred others to give the film a “#GoldOpen,” an initiative to boost the film’s opening weekend numbers by buying out theatres all across the US. This move proved to be a success, with the film earning $26.4M on its opening weekend, not including the $8.9M that it earned on the Wednesday and Thursday leading up to it. Given all his efforts to make sure the movie was a success in the box office, we asked him what the movie meant to him and why it was so important for him that the movie succeed.
Diversity within diversity
“I remember sitting in my living room when I was 10 years old and obsessively watching action films. I’d watch them and mimicked them trying to be the hero of the story. I didn’t blink an eye at the fact that a lot of these films portrayed Asian men and women as evil, docile or weak. Sure, I watched Hong Kong flicks and loved them but it was still a foreign film that reflected life in another country,” he said. It’s true that foreign films that featured all-Asian ensembles existed but as he mentioned, it was not reflective of the experiences of Asian Americans. This again shows just how diverse “Asian culture” is. The experiences that Asian Americans have are vastly different, even within the category of Asian Americans. A first generation Korean American would have had a different experience growing up in the US compared to someone who is Indian American.
Harry further expanded on the significance of the film to him and why its success is so important by saying, “Since I got in the industry, I vowed myself to portray whatever role, small or big, that I would be so lucky to get as three dimensional even if it didn’t call for it in the script. I felt that it was not only my responsibility to the community but to my 10-year-old self. This is incredibly important to me that we collectively help move the needle forward to allow people from all walks of life to be portrayed as layered humans with expansive behaviors that don’t fall into the trap of damaging stereotypes that can affect future generations to come.”
Ken Jeong spoke about how significant it was to be on an all-Asian cast set and being led by an Asian director, saying that it was “very, very special.” The significance of the casting was definitely not lost on the cast. Harry shared his own experience on set with an all-Asian cast and said, “I didn’t realize how proud it would make me feel to be on set with such a worldly cast that looked like me. (…) To have a major Hollywood studio back up this beautiful story that celebrates characters that are usually reserved for the niche has been incredible to be a part of.”
Harry, though, is no stranger to being on all-Asian sets. Several of his projects like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny and Single By 30 featured Asian cast members heavily. Speaking on this, he said,“I have found in pride myself and have been so lucky to be involved in projects that land along with and outside the ‘Asian content’ realm. Coming from being a professional dancer and being involved with multiple projects that truly reflected the way our world looks today has been the most satisfying thing.”
He continued with, “A lot of us are trying to remedy the inclusion problem that we have in Hollywood by telling stories that can drive acceptance and empathy for the voiceless.” Shortly after Crazy Rich Asians came out, another movie featuring an Asian family as the lead characters was released – Searching, starring John Cho and Michelle La and directed by Aneesh Chaganty. Wanting to continue the success of Crazy Rich Asians’ #GoldOpen, Harry and others also bought out theaters to show their support for Asian led talent in Hollywood, resulting in the movie earning $26M in the month that it’s been in cinemas domestically. Globally, the movie has earned an impressive $46M and counting. Being cast and participating in Asian led projects is definitely important. It’s not a fight that should stop anytime soon, but it’s just as important to support existing projects.
Asian-American or Asian or American?
Without giving too much of the movie away, one of the things that Rachel struggles with is her Chinese-American identity. Early on in the movie, her mother warns her of the cultural conflicts that might occur when Rachel is in Singapore even if she is Chinese as well. It is an interesting topic to highlight considering how Asians are usually painted with the same broad brush.
We asked Harry to expand on his experiences as an Asian American growing up as a Chinese person in the US: “I have dealt with conflicts from my heritage and the land that I call home for all my life.” It’s not an uncommon sentiment for sure, with so many others expressing a similar experience with their upbringing. One thread on Twitter by an editor of the Huffington Post made its rounds on the website and many resonated with her story of never feeling like she could be proud of her heritage while being American. For some reason, people don’t think that there can be an intersection between Asian and American, with people oftentimes being made to feel like they had to choose between their ethnicity and nationality.
Harry continued with: “I used to dwell on it but I realize that all those moments of feeling different, shame and emotional pain from being bullied for the way I look made me stronger. To know that I could use this negative energy and repurpose it to better myself regardless of what people thought of me was life-changing. I wanted to strike a balance of being Chinese/American/Costa Rican without disrespecting one or the other.”
Hollywood’s favorite past time: Whitewashing
According to a study by the University of Southern California, only 5% of speaking parts in film, television, and digital programming were portrayed by Asian actors in 2014. Additionally, there have also been instances of whitewashing like Emma Stone in Aloha and infamously, Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell. What’s disappointing about this fact is that while these incidents happened in 2016 and 2017 respectively, they are merely the most recent examples of whitewashing. Going further back into Hollywood’s long history of whitewashing, we can look at prolific movies like Anna and The King of Siam in 1946 where Rex Harrison plays a Siamese king, Lawrence of Arabia where Alec Guinness plays an Arab Prince in 1962 and more famously, Mickey Rooney’s role as a Japanese man in Breakfast at Tiffany’s in 1961.
It’s so important for Asian stories to be told by Asian creators and be led onscreen by Asian actors. Visibility is important and in an increasingly diverse world that rightfully demands representation, there should be a noticeable effort made to make representation more visible. In an interview with Build Series, Awkwafina cited seeing Margaret Cho on Comedy Central when she was younger as being a monumental moment because seeing someone on screen that looked like her doing stand-up comedy made her realize that it was possible for her as well.
Of course, we wanted to know if Harry had the same experience growing up in the US. “Mine was a bit different because I didn’t know what I wanted to do career-wise when I was young. Although I did have a moment where something clicked for me,” he started. “When I was around 12 years old, I remember seeing an interview of Brandon Lee (Bruce Lee’s late son) and he talked about how he wanted to carve a path of his own that paid respect to his father’s philosophy but not mimic his career. I followed his career closely after that and really respected his decision to ‘exit the dragon’ and not play into the stereotypes that have plagued Asian men in film. I was devastated and deeply affected from his tragic passing on the set of ‘The Crow.’ Not only was he on his way to stardom and doing it on his own terms but I finally found an Asian actor who I could identify with on screen.”
Harry’s words, along with Awkwafina’s, show just how important visibility is. People need to know that opportunities exist for them and that Hollywood is not an exclusive club, particularly since demand is obviously there. The numbers reached by Crazy Rich Asians in the box office would not have been attained if people did not want to see a different narrative on screen. So why has it taken a quarter of a decade for an ensemble like this to be featured on the big screen again? “With #OscarSoWhite, the Ghost in the Shell debacle and just Asians in Hollywood getting shafted from playing roles that were originally written for them, there was a natural public outcry to stop whitewashing these roles. There is still so much work to do but it’s nice to allow ourselves to celebrate the victories that come with progress,” Harry said.
People are tired of waiting to have their narratives told by people who might not be able to completely empathize. “The film is currently Warner Brothers’ most successful film this year in terms of box-office numbers and that speaks volumes. The support from folks inside and outside the community is beyond astonishing.” In the age of social media, people have platforms to express their dissent and what they want. All it takes now is for networks and production houses to catch on and listen to what people actually want – to be heard, seen, and represented.
The Chosen One
Like with any movie, there were mixed reactions to Crazy Rich Asians. While there were many that loved it enough to go for rewatches, there were also some that were disappointed. In addition to the focus on an East Asians, the cast of the movie is dominated by Asian-Americans and British East Asians, with Singaporean actors mainly in supporting roles. Singaporean cast members were reportedly told to use less Singlish, a quintessential cornerstone of Singaporean culture, one of the rare things that could band Singaporeans of all races together. To some, the movie is merely an appetizer to Asian culture with conscientious efforts being made to make the movie more palatable to a Western audience in its eagerness to further its representation goals.
But is it fair to pin all the hopes of the community on one movie? Is it the chosen one?
To some, the answer is yes. The movie is shown to be a champion for Asians yet showcases only one culture. If they choose to promote themselves as such, there is an expectation that they will deliver. A lot of effort was put into making sure that the cast was all-Asian and that the movie was filmed in Singapore and Malaysia. So why shouldn’t pressure and hopes be put on the creators to deliver something that’s perceived as “authentic”?
However, at the same time, are similar expectations being placed on other Hollywood films? When a romantic comedy featuring white leads is released, is it expected to be a blockbuster that will leave an impact for decades to come? There is undoubtedly a double standard when it comes to how the movie is judged. Hollywood releases tens of movies in a year that fly under the radar and yet when this movie – merely a romantic comedy – was released, it was expected to solve Hollywood’s long history with underrepresentation. People only require Caucasian films to tell one good story each, so why are we so demanding of this movie to represent the cultural diversity in Asia?
Jon Chu himself said that it would be “ridiculous” for one movie to represent such a diverse demographic of people and Constance Wu acknowledged that the film “won’t represent every Asian American” in her emotional statement when the movie first came out.
“The most rewarding thing is hearing about how the film has affected many Asian families who rarely go to the theaters or some generations who have NEVER stepped foot into a theater come out and feel proud to have representation on screen. People pouring their hearts out and some not realizing that they never knew what pride felt like after watching a film.” Harry shared. Nonetheless, there is no doubting that this movie did leave an impact on many.
In the Build Series interview, Ken Jeong talked about how his show, Dr. Ken, got greenlit after the commercial success of Fresh Off the Boat on ABC, a sitcom about a Taiwanese family living in America – the first sitcom in 20 years to feature an all-Asian family. When creating something that resonates with people, people will respond and be clamouring for more. People want to see themselves and their stories on screen. Talking about what he hopes the film will achieve, Harry said, “Stories that transcend race in particular and ultimately tell a human story that most haven’t been able to see or had the opportunity to connect with. Our society has shaped and put the marginalized in a box and movies are a powerful tool to give them the opportunity to tell their own stories as intended.” Crazy Rich Asians is by no means perfect, but what it could do is inspire Asian creators to create their own narratives and stories with their own voice and resources.
“I hope that more stories of the Asian-American experience will emerge on our screens. The key is that they still have to be well told. (…) I’m optimistic about where we are heading and I will continue to do my part in supporting and being a part of that change.” Of course Harry is going to be part of that change, and honestly? We never had a doubt.
I’m made up of 10% Char Kway Teow and 10% chocolate milkshakes and 80% food related humour. I have a love for writing, puns and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. My biggest dream in life is to be Rosa Diaz or marry her. I’m still undecided. On ShumDario News, I help with updates, writing, graphics and the occasional listening ear.