To many, Crazy Rich Asians was a “must-watch” or a check on the bucket list. For others, it was just another insignificant rom-com that hit Hollywood. Released in August of 2018, the movie depicts much more than a simple love story. Hollywood has suppressed the Asian-American voice since inception, but this movie epitomizes the diversity that should be included in major American films. Passionate, quirky, diverse, and ethnically inclusive, Crazy Rich Asians appeals to a broad audience and shares a message of cross-cultural connection. This movie, even with its flaws, clearly addresses the importance of embracing and respecting ethnic differences and represents a step forward for Asian representation in Hollywood.
Don’t let the flashy movie scenes and charismatic characters fool you. The film’s glitzy surface hides the difficulties and behind-the-scenes effort needed to produce this charming Hollywood film. For one, the last movie that casted Asian-Americans to perform major roles was The Joy Luck Club over twenty-five years ago, meaning that creating Crazy Rich Asians was no easy feat. According to statistics conducted in a recent study, out of approximately one thousand actors in major films, only three percent identified as Asian. For lead roles, the stats are even lower, with only 1.4 out of 10 being minorities. Clearly, this evidence points to the lack of Asian-Americans in lead roles. While recent trends show a slight upward increase in minority leads in 2016, these statistics point to an extremely un-diverse Hollywood and the difficulties of bridging the unequal gap of representation in Hollywood.
Indeed, the problem seemed to be compounded by director Jon M. Chu and his quest for redemption in Hollywood. Deciding to make this movie to portray the struggles of Asian-American culture, Chu faced a series of obstacles before pursuing the film. His previous films were hardly recognized, receiving low ratings on Rotten Tomatoes and minimal profits from theaters. After reading the Crazy Rich Asians book series written by Kevin Kwan, director Jon M. Chu felt a deep connection to its fish-out-of-water love story. When Rachel Chu, (portrayed by Constance Wu) visits her boyfriend, Nick Young (played by Henry Golding), and his family in Singapore, their romantic adventures reveal overarching differences between each society. Similarly, growing up in an Asian-American immigrant family in California, Chu distinctly remembered his first visit to his family in Asia and the feelings he experienced that made him feel like an outsider there.
However, at first, Chu pushed aside his Asian-American identity, claiming that “the reason why it took so long for me to explore this as an artist, explore my cultural identity, was because it was such a sensitive part of my heart and my soul.” However, continuous social media posts like #StarringJohnCho, which began in 2016, launched revolutions advocating for more Asian-Americans to be casted in lead roles. Nancy Wang Yuen, the author of Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism, added that “we should be fighting for the system to expand, so that all of us can get access to roles.” Tired of seeing their own stories being brushed away, the Asian-American communities’ continuous pressure prompted Chu to take up the challenge of making this movie. Crazy Rich Asians is Chu’s response to a widespread call for diversity in Hollywood films combined with his own desire to portray aspects of Asian culture personal to him.
As much as the Asian-American community was inspired by Crazy Rich Asians, it also criticized some aspects of the film, an example being casting. Starring notable actors, such as Ken Jeong and Michelle Yeoh, the movie seemed simple to put together. Certainly, the talent was there. But there was controversy surrounding the lead actor, Henry Golding, a half Malaysian-half Caucasian. To many, casting a half-Asian lead was inconsistent with the movie’s goal of portraying the Asian and American experience. Actress Jamie Chung was among the dissenters against the casting of Golding, claiming that casting a half-Asian lead was considered “betrayal.” After the movie release, however, Chung tweeted an apology to Golding, and the controversy died out. Although the controversy ended, it signifies the sensitivity of portraying minority groups in film.
This attention to cultural and minority conflict is reflected in the film in many ways. In particular, the movie successfully roots viewers in the context of wealthy Singapore. It incorporates many different dialects of Chinese and touches on aspects that Asian people can relate to and recognize. From the most commonly used app, WeChat, to the repertoire of Chinese songs, to making dumplings, the intricate details and displayed traditions contribute to the overall setting of the movie. These aspects are central to the traditional customs of Asia. Essentially, the movie accurately captures the Asian cultural experience, without appropriating the habitual practices and their importance.
Young’s extravagant family emphasizes the dichotomy between Asian and American culture. The movie accentuates a contrast between traditionalism and individualism, familial duties and personal desires, and wealth and social mobility. In several movie scenes, Eleanor Young, Nick’s mother, mocks Rachel’s inconsiderate choice of pursuing the ‘American dream.’ The movie argues that, in Asia, orienting goals towards what will benefit the family is valued more than choosing vocation based on individual passion. This severe contrast points to the identity issue that many Asian-Americans face and highlights the difference in priorities, values, and traditions between Asian-American and Asian culture.
However, the movie failed in many respects. The setting is in modern Singapore, a bustling and booming place of business that, of course, boasts wealthy families like Young’s. Not every Asian-American can identify with the prosperity that the family enjoyed, and the film only explores this small subset of wealthy Asian families. Personally, growing up in a middle-class Asian-American immigrant household, the story of wealth and serving familial duties is not something I’ve experienced. My family’s values are closely aligned with the ‘Americanized’ view of seizing opportunities, chasing our dreams, and climbing the social hierarchy. This brings up another point of how the film falls short in discussing the hyphenated Asian-American identity. The film focuses more on life in America and life in Asia, with few scenes depicting how it feels to be caught in-between.
Though the rom-com still conforms to the Hollywood formula to appeal to the American audience, the movie has major implications for the future of the US. This film poses serious racial questions that apply to Asian-Americans. In the opening act of the movie, Nick’s mother, Eleanor Young, explains to the concierge of a London hotel about a reserved room for the family. The concierge then proceeds to state that their hotel is fully booked and throws in an explicitly racist statement. Angry and unable to argue, Young’s family storms off to a phone booth to speak to the father. After reaching a resolution, they head back to be escorted to the luxurious room they initially requested. Unlike average experiences, though, this scene displays a feel-good moment that can only exist because of the Young family’s enormous wealth. It shows discrimination, but it also sidesteps the issue by showing how the Youngs’ economic situation helped them overcome this problem by buying out the hotel.
Still, the opening scene makes a general statement about the inherent racism dealt by many Asian-American individuals that isn’t always openly shared. Although not every Asian-American relates to their wealth, this opening act is a call to action for people to speak more openly about equality and to embrace diversity in the US.
The lasting legacy is ultimately a positive one, calling for diversity in the casting for Hollywood films. After all, the numbers speak for themselves—Crazy Rich Asians has become one of the most successful Hollywood studio romantic comedies in a decade in North America, with an estimated total of $117 million in profit. But is it considered real progress for the Asian-American community in the US? Or is this the only instance that will represent Asians on the big screen?
From both the Asian and American perspective, I would argue that this film raises thoughtful views of ethnicity, race, and culture, even if it is not perfect. Crazy Rich Asians has won over the attention of critics, including Rotten Tomatoes’ approval, and audiences all over America. To me, this is no one-hit wonder. This film shows the world what they haven’t seen in Hollywood for over twenty years, and now eager audiences await the sequel, myself included.