September 13, 2018 — It’s a surreal and a pioneering moment. Since the release of The Joy Luck Club in 1993, it has taken 25 years for another movie with an all-Asian cast based in the modern period to reach the silver screen. Chances are you’ve heard the buzz about Crazy Rich Asians. The story revolves around two NYU professors, Rachel Chu, played by Constance Wu, and Nick Young, played by Henry Golding, who are in love and visit Singapore for Nick’s best friend’s wedding. While they are there, Rachel finds out that Nick is from one of the wealthiest families in Singapore and that he has generations’ worth of reputation and responsibilities to live up to. It’s an entertaining and engaging story, but more than that, it proves that diversity can drive business in Hollywood. Crazy Rich Asians is a game changer. Here’s why:
The struggle of Asian-American women is represented realistically
For many, Rachel Chu is not just an Asian woman lead character but she is also relatable. She was raised by a hard-working and fierce single mother who immigrated to the United States. I believe many of us can look to our parents or a few generations back and relate to those who come to the country seeking a better future. Persevering through a sometimes challenging new life in the United States is something many people have great respect for. Through Rachel’s and her mother’s experience, we see similar sacrifices and struggles that women still face today.
Indra Nooyi, who is stepping down as CEO of PepsiCo, once said “I don’t think women can have it all . . . we pretend we have it all.” This movie reflected that opinion in the scene when Nick’s mother, Eleanor Young, played by Michelle Yeoh, shares with Rachel that she withdrew from university when she met Nick’s father in order to support him and raise their family. The tone is cool, but nuanced, and encapsulates Indra Nooyi’s assessment. So can women really not have it all? Where does the success of a woman lie? Does it have to just be in the home or the workplace? How can companies help women to have both if desired by creating better workplaces? Through this scene specifically, and the movie as a whole, viewers can relate to the dilemma of the modern woman.
In the movie, Rachel struggles with Nick’s family’s objections to their relationship. Through this struggle, the audience has an opportunity to understand a little bit more about the cultural context of how important family is and what it means to be a woman in some Asian cultures. Rachel is a strong woman who wants the opportunity for both a career and a family, but ultimately it’s complicated. Regardless, Rachel shows us resilience and strength, rather than common Hollywood stereotypes of meekness and submission. She is a strong and modern Asian-American woman.
This movie is a win for diversity in Hollywood
Why did it take so long for Hollywood to make a movie like this? One reason is that there may be an underlying unconscious bias around Asian characters in Hollywood. Asians are often portrayed as meek and unfit for leading roles, and Asian women characters are frequently objectified and fetishized.
After watching Crazy Rich Asians I had to ask myself, “Was there really no white lead?” and “Did I see ANY white people cast in this film beyond extras?” I was astonished when I did my mental tally and found that indeed, the cast really is fully Asian or Asian American. The film hearkens back to 25 years ago, when The Joy Luck Club made history for being the first movie of its kind with an all-Asian cast. It might have taken 25 years, but Crazy Rich Asians really did feel that important, especially since attempts at busting Asian stereotypes between these two films have been met with a decided lack of enthusiasm.
In 2000, Romeo Must Die, starring Jet Li and Aaliyah, came out with a wide release. The two find themselves on opposite sides of a gang feud, but nevertheless fall in love. But despite the lofty, Shakespeare-evoking title, the two characters never even kissed onscreen. Why didn’t the producers go all the way and fully commit to their Asian male romantic lead?
And maybe society wasn’t ready for a non-martial arts, Asian-cast movie even as recently as 15 years ago, when Better Luck Tomorrow was widely released. An indie festival darling and favorite of many critics including Roger Ebert, the Justin Lin-directed subversive teen romp tried to break with stereotypes about Asian-Americans. But the film, while pushed initially by MTV, was quickly forgotten. So Crazy Rich Asians is succeeding where other films ultimately failed.
The film is making an impact in Asian American communities
Before its release, not everyone in my Asian-American community shared the same enthusiasm about Crazy Rich Asians that I had. Some simply didn’t like the genre, while others didn’t feel that it was relatable to their personal Asian-American experience. So I held my breath and kept my expectations at bay as the release day rolled around, to see how it would do at the box office.
With $34 million recorded for a five-day opening weekend, I was floored. My social media channels were buzzing with so much energy and pride for the movie. And there was a humble gratefulness through it all. There was a sense of pride, but also a responsibility to keep this momentum going. Would this be a one-hit wonder?
While writing this blog, news broke that a sequel is already in development. This is one of the first times something of this magnitude has happened for the Asian-American community in the entertainment industry. With cautious optimism, I look forward to seeing where this takes us, while keeping a keen eye trained on the upcoming entertainment awards season. The rise of Crazy Rich Asians gives me hope that #WhiteWashHollywood could soon become a thing of the past; certainly that’s where it belongs.