“Crazy Rich Asians” aims for high stakes in Hollywood representation

Michelle Yeoh, Henry Golding and Constance Wu in “Crazy Rich Asians.” (Photo by Warner Bros. Entertainment.)

It’s hard not to cheer for “Crazy Rich Asians,” a film based on the New York Times bestseller by Kevin Kwan and the first in his trilogy of books depicting the lives of the super-rich in Southeast Asia and Mainland China. It’s the first time in 25 years that a major Hollywood project has cast a modern-day film with all main actors of Asian descent. 

It’s a treat to see Kwan’s “crazy rich” world of the 1 percent come to life. I read all three books, went to high school in Southeast Asia and have visited former classmates in Singapore, where the movie takes place. I also work with the Seattle Asian American Film Festival (SAAFF), which screens movies with underrepresented Asian American themes and characters. The budgets of most films screened by SAAFF pale in comparison to the $30 million behind “Crazy Rich Asians” through Warner Bros., whose CEO Kevin Tsujihara is the first Asian American to head a major Hollywood studio.

Representation in Hollywood matters, an understanding held by the handlers of the movie when they turned down a gargantuan Netflix deal to make sure it would be released before a mainstream theater audience.

“Flower Drum Song,” the very first Hollywood movie with an all-Asian American cast, came out in 1961, a little more than 30 years before “Joy Luck Club” in 1993. These films were punctuated by “Memoirs of a Geisha” in 2005, an English-language film set in early-20th century Japan and which had a majority Asian cast. The distinction between Asians and Asian Americans is important, as Constance Wu, who plays the lead character Rachel in “Crazy Rich Asians,” urged the public to consider on Twitter last week.

Rachel Chu and Nick Young, played by Henry Golding, are two New York University professors who fall in love. Nick invites Rachel to to his childhood friend’s wedding in Singapore, where he plans to introduce her to his family. Rachel is blindsided to discover that his family — who are involved in real estate and investments — actually helped settle Singapore.

The Young family and their friends are “crazy rich” — not crazy and rich, another important distinction. Nick’s elegant but cold and vengeful mother, played by Michelle Yeoh, is protective of his future in the family business and he’s one of Asia’s most eligible bachelors.

The movie simplifies several of the book’s more complex stories, including one involving Nick’s cousin Astrid and her husband’s suspected infidelity. It works, though. The movie keeps the focus on Rachel and Nick, with just a hint of what might be in Astrid’s future. (Pro tip: Stay through the end credits.) Astrid and Rachel are the most vulnerable and relatable characters on screen. Their portrayals give the movie its heart.

A more accurate, or politically correct, title for “Crazy Rich Asians” might be “Crazy Rich Fair Asians” or “Crazy Rich East Asians.” South Asians and Pacific Islanders won’t find themselves on screen except for brief cameos of taxi valets and weaponed Sikh guards holding watch over a grand family estate. “I’m glad the bell boys were Indian. I needed representation!” quipped Ashwin Kamath, a Seattle-area Indian American architect who hosts Seattle’s NBA meetup, after one recent pre-release screening.

It’s a shame that a big-budget Asian American movie in Hollywood faces pressure to be all things to everyone because it comes along so infrequently. However, casting agents missed an opportunity to represent brown Asians as themselves onscreen in roles beyond guards and servants. (While the movie features Nico Santos and Kris Aquino in speaking roles, they are playing characters that are outside of their Filipino heritage.) I wish the movie had shown more Asian diversity as extras in the public and party scenes, since that is the demographic reality of Singapore. I went to high school with many affluent Indians in Thailand, whose families had been there for generations, but in this movie based in the region, they are invisible. This raises a much deeper, offline conversation about the politics of colorism and high society in the API community. Who do the uber-rich mainly associate with and invite to their parties? Usually with people who look like them.

“Crazy Rich Asians” casts multiple biracial actors, including Golding, a British/Malay TV presenter who makes his big screen debut. Golding has gotten some early pushback for not being “pure” or “Asian enough,” which is misguided. Biracial actors should be welcome as part of the Asian diaspora in which interracial offspring are a reality.

Director Jon M. Chu confirmed at a recent appearance in Seattle that Golding, who grew up in Malaysia, turned down the role several times before accepting. Golding said he had no acting experience and thought others could do better. Clearly, Golding underestimated himself. He was a perfectly believable actor and personified Nick, as described in the book, to a T.

Chu, for his part, is challenging other Hollywood filmmakers to give the API community more influence in storytelling that involves them, both in casting and in constructing the narrative. Hollywood has had a long-standing problem with depicting Asians and Asian Americans onscreen. The early Hollywood practice of casting white actors in “yellow-face” continues today. Directors Cameron Crowe and Rupert Sanders have gotten backlash for casting white actresses Emma Stone (“Aloha”) and Scarlett Johansson (“Ghost in the Shell”) as characters of Asian descent. Crowe, the director of “Aloha,” apologized.

With Chu’s insider cultural lens, he doesn’t skimp on Asian cultural nuances and elements, such as mahjong and food. One of the movie’s most joyous and authentic scenes takes place in Singapore’s hawker markets showcasing their specialized food vendors. Singapore is at the crossroads of the Indian, Malay and Chinese cultures and its cuisine is among the most mouthwatering in the world.

It’s these glimpses of authentic Asian culture which anchor this movie, creating opportunities for Asian American theatergoers to recognize themselves on the big screen and bond as a community. At one preview screening in Houston with a primarily Asian American audience, the crowd collectively understood the cultural jokes. We laughed and cried at similar moments, recognizing characters and dynamics in our own families. At the same time, with universal themes of love and family, the movie’s subject matter has broad appeal.

The love story in “Crazy Rich Asians” isn’t just between Nick and Rachel. It is between friends, a mother and daughter, and about the love Rachel finds for herself. Rachel in the movie has a bit more wit and grit than readers of Kwan’s books may recall. Goh Peik Lin, her “new money” college friend played by Awkwafina, serves as a bridge between East and West and is a lot funnier on screen. Awkwafina steals the show.

I left the theater generally satisfied with the film adaptation of “Crazy Rich Asians,” but the ending raises questions. How exactly will the leading couple work out some pretty important life details? Does the pretty, happy conclusion of this milestone movie mean we can’t possibly hope for a sequel? What did Chu mean when he set the movie’s resolution scene to the eyebrow-raising lyrics of Coldplay’s “Yellow,” sung in Mandarin by Katherine Ho? Was this a subtle nod to the yellow race?

Everything about “Crazy Rich Asians” — from the $30 million budget to the two-album release by WaterTower Music — shows that the creators, cast, and crew didn’t hold back on this project. They went all in. It’s a calculated risk, but one they hope will pay off. Along with the 2017 rom-com “The Big Sick,” starring Pakistani American comic Kumail Nanjiani, movies like “Crazy Rich Asians” will have an impact for diverse representation and storytelling. We need more Asian American stories told by Hollywood so that each can stand on their own. Go see “Crazy Rich Asians” and vote with your dollars. Send Hollywood the message to make more American movies with Asian themes. May we look back and say this milestone is when things started to change.

Asian American actors Awkwafina, Nico Santos and Constance Wu all have major roles in “Crazy Rich Asians.” (Photo by Sanja Bucko for Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

Correction: In an earlier version of this article, Ashwin Kamath’s name was misspelled. This has been corrected. We also added a sentence clarifying Asian diversity in the cast.

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