Crazy Rich Asians - embracing the hype of Asian representation in Hollywood (Part 1/2)
This post is a bit late, but like most Asian people last weekend (and it seems this weekend as well, according to box office estimates), I ended up seeing Crazy Rich Asians. And if you've followed this website long enough or know me personally, you'll know that I have some gripe when it comes to discussions on Asian representation in cinema. I don't consider myself to be a bitter person, especially when it comes to watching movies, but I do feel very strongly about North American Asians supporting actual Asian film markets, which just doesn't seem like a popular past time for most people. So as you can imagine, coming into the release of the film, there were a few things I wanted to get off my chest. While I wouldn't consider these things to be negative for the most part, I concede that they might be viewed as neutral thoughts at best. However, after actually seeing Crazy Rich Asians this weekend, I've decided to put those thoughts on hold for now because this is a film that actually deserves some undeniable enthusiasm.
Let me start by getting one thing out in the open - Crazy Rich Asians is a huge deal for Asian representation in Hollywood. Aside from being the first major Hollywood studio production led by an Asian cast in 25 years (unless you include Revenge of the Green Dragons, which you really shouldn't), it's also one of the few large-scale mass media movements surrounding an Asian property in American popular culture. In addition to blowing up like wildfire on social media, Crazy Rich Asians has also had a heavy presence on the talk show circuit and been plastered on the covers of Entertainment Weekly, The Hollywood Reporter and even Time Magazine. The only other property I can think of to get this kind of large-scale coverage would be Constance Wu's other historic venture, Fresh Off the Boat. But as impressive and historic as that was, the kind of coverage the show received, and continues to receive, is nothing compared to this.
The coverage has been extensive, and the level of excitement surrounding the film is something that certainly feels unprecedented. Not because an Asian film hasn't been the focus of large-scale media attention or put on the covers of American magazines, because that has definitely happened before. Notable examples would include the release of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Jackie Chan on numerous occasions. But what makes the coverage around Crazy Rich Asians so uniquely important is the fact that everything feels local. The widespread attention that the film is receiving is void of the usual 'international' association normally bestowed upon Asian films. And that is in no ways a form of criticism, because Crazy Rich Asians isn't a typical Asian film. For the first time in a very long time, this is an Asian American film, and that's what makes Crazy Rich Asians so special.
During the film, there's a scene when the Constance Wu's character has a conversation with her mother (played by Tan Kheng Hua) about identity that really epitomizes the importance of this film. Hua's character essentially tells her daughter that even though she's Chinese when it comes to her skin colour and appearance, deep inside, her heart and identity is something else. It was essentially a more poetic way of calling her daughter a 'banana'. But that's exactly what this film is. It's a film that stars people who look and appear to be Asian, but don't necessarily behave, speak or carry the values that you typically see in an 'international' Asian movie. That kind of representation has been around for over 100 years when you consider the full gamut of Asian cinema. This is representation for Asian Americans, or Asians in Hollywood, which is a whole different ball game.
And I won't lie. When I saw the Warner Brothers logo during the opening credits for the film, I got a few goose bumps. The dissociation of seeing a major Hollywood studio logo on a film about Asian people (with international distributions from companies like Sony Pictures Classics not falling into this same group) was something that was curiously much more palpable than I thought. It was a pretty damn good feeling. Seeing Asian people speak fluent English and deal with the pesters associated with Chinese culture was also more remarkable than I expected. As much as I adore Asian cinema, seeing Crazy Rich Asians did make me realize what a large gap there's been in Hollywood movies. And in some ways, it did fill a representation gap that I've been honestly ignoring, albeit subconsciously.
And don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that I felt seen for the first time ever or that this was the pinnacle of representation for me. It's not, because I feel like there is still a long way to go (see next post). But for now, I can't deny that Crazy Rich Asians is a milestone for Asian representation in Hollywood. Believe the hype, embrace it, and get your Asian friends and families to resist the cultural temptation of pirating this movie, and actually purchase a ticket.