When I first heard that there was going to be a film adaption of “Crazy Rich Asians,” I held my breath because I knew, while it would be a watershed moment for Hollywood, its success (or lack thereof) would dictate the future of Asian representation in movies. It’s an unfair burden to put on a movie, but that’s what happens when major film studios don’t make a movie about Asian characters for 25 years.
I was nervous for how it would be perceived by others. Could director Jon Chu, who was previously known for the “Step Up” movies and Justin Bieber’s concert documentaries, be able to transfer the story well onto the screen? I’ll admit I didn’t have much faith in the guy who masterminded 2015’s “Jem and the Holograms,” which still has the fourth worst opening weekend box office record for a wide release film.
But more importantly than book-to-movie adaption, I wondered if Chu had what it takes to make a film that would be able to prove that Asians in leading roles don’t mean box office failure.
In an interview with NPR, the book’s author Kevin Kwan recalls talking with producers back in 2013 when the book first debuted. During this meeting, the producer offered to option the book as a potential movie if the book’s main character, Rachel Chu, was changed into a white woman. Kwan does defend the producer a little, noting that the offer was made back before the whitewashing controversies with “Ghost in the Shell” and “Aloha” made headlines — but it shouldn’t have to take public outrage to know that casting a white girl in a story about a Chinese-American woman clashing with her boyfriend’s Chinese-Singaporean family is wrong.
Huffington Post writer Kimberly Yam recently wrote a thread of tweets that went viral about the importance of Asian representation on-screen and how she grew up rejecting her Chinese heritage because of her peers’ negative perception of Asian culture. And her story of growing up Asian-American isn’t an isolated one.
I know her story is one I’ve felt too. I remember growing up pretending not to know what the local Asian grocery store was and being secretly pleased when someone called me “whitewashed.” I tried to tone down any part of me that was Korean out of fear of being associated with a “lame culture,” and it didn’t help that the few Asian characters I would see in “Glee” or “Pitch Perfect” were quiet and weird. If anything, watching such TV shows and films reinforced my idea that I should stay far, far away from from being associated with these characters.
When I was younger, I didn’t have the chance to embrace my culture through media, which is why it’s so important that there’s a chance to change that narrative for a new generation. Because when we see people on-screen who reflect our culture, it reminds us to celebrate our diversity, not hide it.
After seeing the film, fashion blogger Ha Truong made a replica of Rachel’s wedding-day dress for her 5-year-old daughter. When her initial Instagram post of her daughter wearing the dress went viral, she posted another photo, talking about how watching the film has helped her daughter embrace her Chinese heritage. It’s the perfect example of why representation matters and why Hollywood shouldn’t shy away from making stories with Asian leads out of fear that they won’t succeed.
Just last year, Michael Lewis, the author behind hit films such as “Moneyball” and “The Big Short,” explained that his bestselling book “Flash Boys” wouldn’t be produced into a movie anytime soon because executives were nervous about casting an unknown Asian actor, Brad Katsuyama, to play the lead. Lewis commented on how a decade ago, producers would have just cast a white actor as Katsuyama without batting an eye, and now, with the outcry following “Doctor Strange” and “Annihilation,” they are just not greenlighting the movie at all.
But that’s not the solution. Even if it’s a decision made from a business standpoint, refusing to make any film with an Asian character in a leading role reinforces the idea that their stories are not worth telling because they don’t appeal to a large enough audience. But as the box office success of “Crazy Rich Asians” has proven, moviegoers can still enjoy a witty, gorgeous film whether or not it’s relatable.
Hopefully from here on out, Hollywood will realize that a film can have unknown actors, a minority cast and an ethnic storyline and succeed.