VANCOUVER – I’m flanked by two Caucasian companions in the theatre who came to watch Crazy Rich Asians with me. Thrilled yet uncertain, I caught glimpses of their reactions in my peripheral vision. They laughed out loud at countless moments and were wiping tears off their cheeks at others. I felt a complex mixture of emotions churning inside me—moved, exhilarated, validated, surreal, but more importantly, a sense of relief.
Like so many Asian-Americans and Asian-Canadians, we want this to be not just a great story for Asian-Americans, but a great story for everyone.
We’ve waited for this moment for 25 years– for many of us, that’s all or most of our adult lives. Deep down, we suspect the next 25 years of our fate hinges on the success of this one single movie—if it flops, Hollywood studios can go back to the same excuse of “Asian-American leads don’t bring profitable box office” and condemn Asian-American actors for another couple of decades.
We also want to know on a visceral level that we, despite the color of our skin, are part of the same collective, and we too have the emotional power to move and connect with the greater collective. We want to feel normalized. We want to be seen.
We want to feel like we deserve being seen.
For my non-Asian friends, these are reasons why Crazy Rich Asians is a historic milestone and is monumentally meaningful:
1. “Crazy Rich Asian” is the FIRST major studio movie in 25 years with an all-Asian cast about a contemporary Asian-American story. It’s a historical milestone!
TWENTY-FIVE FUCKING YEARS! A QUARTER OF A CENTURY!!!! People usually seem shocked when I tell them it’s been 25 years. But it has been that long. The last one was Joy Luck Club in 1993 (which I have mixed feelings about but I won’t get into them here).
It is different from just a couple of “Token Asian” characters on screen. There have been thousands of movies with an all-white cast over the last quarter of a century, while there are thousands of Asian-Americans and Asian-Canadians in their 20s and 30s who have never, ever seen an all-Asian cast in the movie theatre, walking around having never felt what it feels like to be fully represented on the big screen.
THIS IS HISTORICAL!
2. This movie has the ability to represent Asian-Americans/Canadians as opposed to a movie about Asians.
A seminal moment in my life was watching Better Luck Tomorrow in 2002, an indie film about Asian-American students who, on their way to Ivy Leagues, fell into the world of drugs and crime. It was a movie that led its director Justin Lin to the Fast & Furious franchise and Star Trek: Beyond and launched John Cho’s career, leading him to Harold and Kumar go to White Castle, Star Trek, and becoming the first Asian-American male lead in a romantic comedy series Selfie in 2014.
I remember sitting in front of the screen as a young adult, moved to tears. Because finally, there were characters on screen who looked like me and told stories I could relate to. Since I was quite young when Joy Luck Club came out (I did not catch it on the big screen), like most Asian-Americans and Asian-Canadians, I rarely ever saw characters on TV and film who looked like me, who represented me. The characters in Better Luck Tomorrow weren’t kung-fu masters. They didn’t wear traditional Asian clothes. They were regular North American teenagers like me.
It validated who I was. It gave me a certain sense of permission I didn’t realize I needed.
It was the pivotal moment that inspired me to become a storyteller in the film/TV industry, who can be a part of the force that can bring that inexplicable, empowering feeling to other Asian-Americans/Asian-Canadians.
In the 2018 Aug 15th issue of TIME, the article “Crazy Rich Asians is going to Change Hollywood. It’s About Time” explained: “Even more crucial was the film’s ability to represent the profound tensions within the Asian experience—especially the differences in identifying with mainland Asia vs. the diaspora.”
“[Constance Wu] is frustrated by people who don’t seem to understand the differences…They think that having an Asian in their movie is the same thing as having an Asian American, and it’s just not.”
Crazy Rich Asians is a story about representation. And hoping that people FINALLY understand that just because I look Asian, I don’t automatically resonate with people who physically live in Asia.
I can’t count the number of times people say things to me they assume simply because of the color of my skin, because what they think is true to other people of Asian descent MUST BE TRUE for me too. But we are normal North-Americans. Do I attach random Scottish or Russian stereotypes to random white people I meet? Even if your great great great great great grandfather may have been from Scotland? NO. Because that’s ridiculous.
I also can’t count the number of times people tell me I look like and can be Zhang Zi Yi in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. She’s a glorious actress, but I relate to her as much as I relate to a random actress from Argentina–which is, I relate on a human level, not on an identity level. Zhang Zi Yi does not represent me, even though the color of our skin is the same and we both have Chinese-sounding last names.
But Constance Wu represents me! Sandra Oh too! (Who just became the first Asian-American–technically she’s Asian-Canadian–actress nominated for Emmy’s Lead Actress for Killing Eve, another historical milestone in 2018!! *Cue Rene’s Ecstatic Happy Dance*.)
Crazy Rich Asians is meaningful because it is important to have stories on the big screen about modern Asian-Americans/Canadians who are diverse, who are not there to represent an exotic stereotype, who are not kung-fu fighters, not sexualized dragon ladies, not mysterious ancient personas, not repressed model minority, but are just there as normal humans in North America.
It’s also not about “wanting to be white” and denying our heritage. In the movie, Rachel, as an NYU economics professor, is fully American but acknowledges her heritage. However, the movie does NOT need to be about her “finding her roots” and it’s not about her cultural struggle with her parents’ traditional Asian values. It’s a universal story about love and strength that all humans can relate to.
In the same week Crazy Rich Asians came out, Netflix also came out with the teen rom-com To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” a story about an Asian-American teenager and her secret love letters to her five crushes. This is also record breaking—there has NEVER been an Asian-American female lead in teen rom com! There are teenage Asian-American/Canadian girls who will watch this and finally feel that they too deserve to be the lead in romantic stories.
(There will always be criticism about how none of Lara Jean’s five crushes is Asian. But let’s break one barrier at a time).
In To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, I love that the Korean-American protagonist Lara Jean is just a normal American teenage girl who writes love letters to her crushes. She’s intelligent, but not a math nerd. She’s attractive and cute, but not in a Japanese-school-girl or K-Pop Idol kind of way. She’s got a back bone and has no problem standing up to Queen Bee, but she doesn’t need to do martial arts to show her strength.
She’s just a regular American teenage girl who happens to have Asian heritage. The movie doesn’t need to explain her Asian background but it also does not pretend it’s not there–One of the cutest romantic gestures her love interest Peter does in the movie (*Spoiler alert—but it’s a small spoiler so I don’t think movie gods should condemn me*) is going across town to the Korean grocery store to buy the Korean yogurt dessert she likes. Peter never asks a single question about her Korean background. Because it does not need explanation or special attention. It just simply IS. We want to acknowledge our heritage, but don’t want to exoticize our heritage.
We want to see characters on the big screen represent who we are, just as we are.
One of my best friends who is Asian-Canadian said that half way through watching Crazy Rich Asians, she felt what it meant to be represented on the big screen: “is this how white people feel like ALL the time? To watch a hero/heroine that looks like them do awesome stuff in movies???”
Representation gives us an empowered feeling enabled simply by being seen as real people with flesh and blood, conquering obstacles and having real human experiences, not a figment of fantasy.
Representation and visibility is important because it normalizes us, it humanizes us, it allows us to feel seen.
3. This movie breaks stereotypes
Most of, if not all of, my Asian-American or Asian-Canadian filmmaker/actor friends got into the film and TV industry motivated by the same reason: growing up, we don’t see people on screen who represent us and we want to change that. When we do see people in films and TV shows who look like us, oftentimes they perpetuate stereotypes we want to break:
Female Asian characters on screen are often the Submissive China Doll; the Objectified Geisha who is elegant, attractive, demure; the Ninja Warrior; the Sexualized Dragon Lady; the Strict Tiger Mom or Unrelenting Matriarch.
Male Asian characters on screen are often the Model Minority/Nerd/Computer Geek; the Martial Artist; the Chinatown cook/delivery boy; Gangsters; the Misogynist. Asian men are rarely seen as worthy of romance on screen. Even martial artists who appear sexy are usually too busy fighting bad guys to get the girl on screen.
While we celebrated the progress of having Asian-American leads, we are aware that many of these characters are still extensions of stereotypes. Many of Lucy Liu’s characters in Ally McBeal, Charlie’s Angels, Kill Bill, or Elementary, epitomize the Dragon Lady and/or Warrior Woman stereotype–dominant, intelligent, over-achieving, cold, and hypersexualized.
Same thing with Maggie Q’s Nikita, who is lethal, icy, and shows superb martial arts skills wearing skin-tight sexy outfits, combining the stereotype of The Dragon Lady and the Feminine Ninja Warrior. As much as these actresses do a great job giving these characters depth and complexity, these roles are prone to being fetishized.
And we rarely get the opportunity to be “normal.”
We are normal human beings who are multi-dimensional and diverse, and we want to see media reflect that.
We are starting to see changes on the small screen, with Korean-American John Cho playing the first ever male lead in a romantic comedy TV series Selfie, Filipino-American Vincent Rodriguez III playing a hot stud the protagonist Rebecca is literally obsessed with in Crazy-Ex-Girlfriend, Chinese-Canadian Hayden Szeto playing a sweet, artistic teenager stumbling through his first love in The Edge of Seventeen, Ross Butler playing the sensitive jock who has the cutest, sweetest summer love with Hannah in Thirteen Reasons Why, etc.
But we have yet to see that on the big screen—until now. The lead of Crazy Rich Asian Nick Young, flawed like normal humans as his lack of awareness throws his girlfriend into dramatic conflicts, has a gorgeous face, delicious abs, is a total Alpha while being classy, cultured, and emotionally sensitive at the same time (oh btw he’s also a history professor at NYU). Yes, please give us more of that!
The director Jon Chu choked up when he described his brother crying when he saw the scene where Nick Young, in a white suit, walking out of his house dashing and debonair like the “Asian Bachelor,” because Asian-American men grow up never seeing men on the big screen looking like them who are seen as attractive, sexy, handsome men worthy of great romance.
Conventionally, Asian women are hypersexualized and Asian men are desexualized and emasculated on screen. However, Crazy Rich Asians subverts it, showing sexualized hot Asian studs with gratuitous topless nude scenes and the Asian females were not sexualized! A movie full of gorgeous Asian actresses but not visually pushing their sexuality?! My brain can’t even compute!
4. This movie also shows a diverse range of Asian characters
The movie breaks stereotypes by showing a diverse range of Asian characters.
We have been seeing encouraging changes in the past few years: The Mindy Project, starring a South-Asian-American female lead, a hilarious gynecologist who loves trashy celebrity gossip, is endearingly self-centered, and doesn’t fit the conventional cosmo magazine cover physique; Fresh Off the Boat, which is about an Asian-American rap-loving boy growing up in Florida; Kim’s Convenience, portraying second-generation Korean-Canadians as a photography student or working at a car rental place instead of in medicine, law, or engineering; Master of None, where the Indian-American Aziz Ansari plays not a doctor or taxi-driver, but an actor (Ansari became the first Asian-American actor to win a Golden Globe for best actor in a TV comedy in 2018–this is an auspicious year for Asian-American artists!).
In Crazy Rich Asians, the characters are not stereotypes and there is beautiful diversity in the range of characters the story depicts. A few characters may come across as caricatures, but most are complex and three-dimensional.
I love the dichotomy in this movie that shows the rich diversity of the Asian diaspora: With the nouveau-riche Asians contrasting Asians with old money. The traditional matriarchs contrasting westernized young women unafraid to stand up for themselves. Hot Asian stud with a heart of gold contrasting hot Asian stud who is an unctuous cheater. The first-generation immigrant contrasting the fully Americanized second generation. It mocks filthy-rich Asians who are douchebags or Mean Girls but also movingly portrays filthy-rich Asians who are classy, compassionate, vulnerable, and good human beings. And none—absolutely NONE—of the Asians did martial arts in this movie!
The director John Chu said he was meticulous with his casting because he “wanted this to be the Avengers of Asian actors.”
The director brought together actors from all over the world–the UK, the US, Malaysia, Singapore… The brilliant cast includes living legend Michelle Yeoh, Asian-American rapper Awkwafina, comedic talents Ken Jeong, Jimmy O Yang from Silicone Valley, Nico Santos from Superstore, and Fresh Off the Boat lead Constance Wu, etc. Bringing together the “Avengers of Asian Actors” definitely was a major factor in making the storytelling complex and compelling.
I absolutely LOVE how the movie either subverts or breaks stereotypes and shows beautiful diversity. Having just a “Token Asian” on screen to fulfill the diversity requirement is different than having a cast of varied Asian roles and backgrounds—instead of just being a token representation of the entire community, they can finally be individual characters with full dramatic agency.
5. We are hoping this is our “Black Panther” moment—so studios are more willing to greenlight movies featuring Asian leads or Asian-American stories.
“For decades, Asian Americans working in the film and television industry have carried the impossible burden of fixing a system that has tended to punish, stereotype, and ignore them.” (2018 Aug 15th issue of TIME)
We’re hoping this isn’t a once in a quarter of a century phenomenon, we’re hoping this isn’t just a movie, but a movement.
Asians make up 5.8% of the US population as of 2017, so to be proportional, 5.8% of all American films should feature Asian-American protagonists. But in 2017, a University of Southern California study shows that 37 of the top 100 grossing films didn’t even have Asian characters at all, and 67 of them had no Asian females.
When “diversity” became a hotter issue, film and TV producers started casting more Asian-American or Asian-Canadian actors, but usually on the side as minor characters, ancillary support on a white protagonist’s Hero’s Journey. Of the films with Asian characters, most of them are supporting characters or the “token minority” to fulfill the diversity quota.
Like Wu said: “They think we’ll say yes to anything and we’ll just be grateful.” Asian kids grow up believing they can never be heroes or romantic leads, only white people are allowed to be heroes.
When the super rare great Asian characters do appear in movies, many of these roles are just given to white actors–Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange, Emma Stone in Aloha, Scarlet Johansson in Ghost in the Shell. Aloha and Ghost in the Shell both became (well-deserved) box office flops.
Some people view this as creative reinterpretation, like a Japanese adaptation of Macbeth. But when such severe imbalance exists in the industry, what we need first is proportional balance before introducing creative reinterpretation. If not, it’s just white-washing characters.
Unsurprisingly, both To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and Crazy Rich Asians had gotten requests from the studios to replace the Asian female leads in the movies with white female leads. The writers and directors refused.
Jenny Han, the novelist of the book To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before which the movie is based on said, “It wasn’t that she needed to be Asian; it’s just that she was. Never in my life have I seen an Asian-American girl star in a teen movie before.” Han struggled to find a production company that didn’t want to whitewash her female lead, but refused to compromise.
The most common excuse studios use is that non-white actors do not bring box-office success.
Crazy Rich Asians’ creators understand the impact, as they actually turned down Netflix’s lucrative offer (7-figure minimum paydays for each stakeholder UPFRONT, complete artistic freedom, a greenlit trilogy) which could’ve been more profitable and would’ve guaranteed a “gigantic payday” for them. But they chose to gamble in the theatres because Netflix does not release numbers, and they know showing the numbers in the box office is more meaningful in influencing studios in the long run. This is going to show that Inclusion and Diversity is good business. At the end of the day, show business is a business.
As of writing this, Crazy Rich Asians tops the box office as the No. 1 movie in the US and Canada on its opening weekend, generating $35 million on its first 5 days and a three-day total of $26 million.
Voting with your money is critical to changing the game. I boycotted Aloha, Ghost In the Shell, and Doctor Strange (which was so hard because I LOVE Cumberbatch), but bought 10 tickets for Crazy Rich Asians to share with my friends. It’s not just entertainment, but also communication to Hollywood studios, letting them know that Asian-American leads DO make them money.
Crazy Rich Asians may look like an overnight success, but like most overnight successes, it has taken decades and countless talents to bring us to this moment. We have been Sisyphus, pushing this impossible boulder uphill, never certain if we’d reach the top or get crushed. But we never gave up.
It looks like we are in a watershed moment. Following Crazy Rich Asians and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Sony Pictures indie thriller Searching about an Asian-American family is coming out in a week and another Netflix rom-com starring Ali Wong and Randall Park is on the way (Say what???! I cannot wait!). There is definitely momentum.
We need to remember our power as consumers, and the movie ticket we pay for that we hold in our hands is not just a movie ticket, but a vote telling studios what matters to us.
6. It’s a GREAT story and it’s a GREAT movie
“We want to be included, not just as a token, but really with flesh and blood, with heart, with passion and with the storytelling that deserves to be told.” –Michelle Yeoh
It’s critical that this is not just a movie that Asian-Americans/Canadians enjoy. Great movies starring Asian-American actors cannot just have support from the Asian community. The movie and the writing need to be excellent to move all people from all types of backgrounds, and without a doubt Crazy Rich Asians succeeds at doing it. The movie isn’t flawless, but it’s a great story wonderfully told.
To start with, the movie is sumptuously produced. The luxurious costumes and the opulent set rival The Devil Wears Prada and The Great Gatsby, exciting fashionistas around the world.
I went to the theatre with another Asian (my brother) and 4 Caucasians—an American, an Australian, and two Canadians. Regardless our race or where we are from, we ALL love the story.
As someone who looooves comedy, I think this is one of the funniest movies I’ve seen. As a rom-com, I was worried the humor would be forced or cheesy. But the humor is sharp, witty, and perfectly delivered. It helps that the cast includes some of the best Asian-American comedic talents like Ken Jeong, Awkwafina, and Ronny Chieng, whose comedic timing is impeccable. There are so many laugh-out-loud moments.
But the Hero’s Journey narrative arc is also on point, displaying so many layers of nuanced complexity in the plot and character dynamic. The pacing is fast, dramatic tension skillfully built up, and there is not a slow moment along the smooth emotional ride. The deep emotional, tear-inducing moments are perfectly orchestrated.
At least four of us cried, multiple times.
And for me, that is the most important component. We don’t want to just have Asian-American faces on screen for the sake of having them. All we want is the ability to also show our humanity. We want to tell stories about Asian-Americans that can also move people, stories that connect us together.
And I felt that happen in the theatre, like magic. I was surprised by how packed the theatre was on a Sunday mid-afternoon, especially when Crazy Rich Asians had eight showings that day. The theatre was so packed we had to take nosebleed seats. But I felt the pulsating energy of the audience in the room, magnetically drawn by the story about the journey of a young woman coming to the realization that she is good enough and deserving, no matter how others treat her or view her.
And this time, I was no longer the young girl crying alone in an empty living room watching Better Luck Tomorrow, but in a large theatre surrounded by hundreds of people of all colors and backgrounds, who were moved by and resonated with characters who look like me. And they were laughing with me, and they were crying with me.