Phil Yu couldn’t remember a time he had seen two Asian romantic leads on a poster for a Hollywood film. But there it was in late April – a poster for “Crazy Rich Asians” with its leads, Constance Wu and Henry Golding, embracing each other beneath the tag line: “The only thing crazier than love is family.”
He has since attended two screenings of the movie, which he describes as a powerful emotional experience for him and others at the screenings.
“Asian-Americans, just like anyone else, deserve to see stories ... [with] characters who look like us from our community having fun and falling in love.... It means a lot to see yourself reflected in this everyday way,” says Mr. Yu, who runs the blog “Angry Asian Man.”
The film, which opens Aug. 15, is an extreme rarity – the first movie from a major Hollywood studio with Asian-Americans at its center since “The Joy Luck Club” in 1993.
According to a study released by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, 4.8 percent of speaking characters in Hollywood films in 2017 were Asian. “Crazy Rich Asians,” which is based on the international bestselling book by Kevin Kwan, follows Rachel Chu (Wu), an Asian-American professor from New York who travels to Singapore with her boyfriend, Nick Young (Golding), for his best friend’s wedding. She finds out that he’s, well, crazy rich.
Jamie Kho, a Chinese teenager who lives in the Philippines, has bonded with her 50-something parents while reading the books because they identify with the characters. “Although I’m not crazy rich, there are a lot of aspects, especially when it comes to culture and tradition about respect, I can identify myself in,” she says.
When Patrick Nan, a rising junior studying film at Pitzer College in California, heard about “Crazy Rich Asians,” he thought, “This is finally our turn to enter into mainstream Hollywood, for Asians to be finally portrayed authentically.” Asian and Asian-American characters, he hoped, would no longer be only kung fu experts or computer geeks who can’t get a date.
Hollywood films rarely portray Asians and Asian-Americans in romantic relationships, says Peter X Feng, an Asian-American English professor at the University of Delaware and author of “Identities in Motion: Asian American Film and Video.” “Crazy Rich Asians” is asking the audience to identify with the Asian-American female lead, “a big shift” from the history of representing Asian-American women as “a trophy or a prize” who are hypersexual and extremely feminine, says Dr. Feng. Asian men, in contrast, were and continue to be depicted as either being of deviant sexuality or completely comical and not masculine, he adds. Even actors who were sex symbols in Asia like Jet Li are always “extremely chaste” in Hollywood films, he says.
A part of the emasculated way Asian men are portrayed in Hollywood comes from an American anxiety about Asian wealth, one that is not directed at other Western and white nations, adds Feng.
As casting was announced for the film, those who were scrutinizing the production process found fault with some of the decisions. Many questioned the casting of Golding, who is British-Malaysian and biracial, to play the Chinese-Singaporean lead role. Others criticized the film for not reflecting the diversity of Singapore itself, with ethnic Chinese making up more than 76 percent of the population, Malays 15 percent, and Indians more than 7 percent as of 2014.
According to Jun Okada, coordinator of the film studies minor and associate professor of English at the State University of New York Geneseo, the scrutiny comes from a history of yellowface in Hollywood that continues with the practice of whitewashing, such as Scarlett Johansson starring in the 2017 film “Ghost in the Shell,” which was adapted from Japanese anime.
With so few movies like it, the pressure for the film to do well at the box office and to represent an entire community is high. “It’s under a huge magnifying lens,” says Dr. Okada.
Eventually, if more films about Asian-Americans get made, “not every single movie will have to hold up the expectations and hopes of an entire community,” Yu says. “It can just be another movie. And a movie like this can be allowed to fail.”