Opulence, romance, and dead fish can all be found in Crazy Rich Asians, a hilarious film based on the bestselling novel of the same name, but what makes the film most unique is its abundance of Asian actors in dynamic lead roles.
After its release on August 15, 2018, Crazy Rich Asians became the most successful studio romantic comedy in nine years. It is the first major Hollywood film to feature an all-Asian cast in a modern setting since 1993, sparking conversation about diverse representation in media.
“What I loved about Crazy Rich Asians was that it was so obviously, unapologetically Asian,” said Sofia Kwon ‘19, a president of Kent Place’s Asian and Pacific Islander Cultural Association (APICA).
The film follows native New Yorker Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) as she travels to Singapore to attend a wedding and meet her boyfriend’s family. Kwon found some aspect of Asian culture in every scene. She recognized many Asian values and ideals, including family, loyalty, duty, and respect.
Not only does Crazy Rich Asians highlight Asian culture, it focuses on the underrepresented story of an Asian-American woman. For example, Kwon remarked that the film addresses the clash between the Asian emphasis on selflessness and the American ideal of pursuing one’s own dreams. She relates to Rachel, who is Asian-American but does not feel like she is considered to be enough of either.
“Even though [Crazy Rich Asians] was so unapologetically Asian, it was a high-quality romantic comedy. It had moments of great humor and great tension and great heart,” said Kwon. “Asians get to be normal people, interesting characters, [...] where their Asian identity is a crucial part of their narrative without being stereotypical.”
Frankly, people want to see that.
Growing up, neither Kwon nor Elynn Chang ‘19, another APICA president, found accurate representation of Asian and Asian-American characters in television or film. The few Asian characters Chang saw were stereotypical, and she remembers the negative effects of those stereotypes.
“Knowing that the world thinks you're automatically supposed to be good at math based on how you look and then not actually fitting into that standard did make me insecure,” Chang shared. “As a young girl growing up, there were already so many things to be insecure about.”
Refreshingly, the characters in Crazy Rich Asians are not one-dimensional calculus students or martial arts experts. They are developed, intersectional, realistic characters who most audiences can relate to.
However, critics have pointed out the lack of accurate, diverse representation in the 2018 blockbuster. Though set in Singapore, a diverse country, Crazy Rich Asians focuses only on outrageously wealthy, light-skinned Asians.
“It is portraying a very tiny minority of people, Chinese people who live in mind-blowing opulence and luxury, who have probably gotten this wealth through the labor and the exploitation of other Asians who are much poorer and are not getting movies,” said Kwon.
According to USC Annenberg’s Inclusion Initiative, only about 5% of characters in 2017’s top 100 American films are of Asian descent, showing no significant change in the percentage of Asian characters in film for at least a decade. It is not difficult to understand why, when a film finally boasts an all-Asian cast, many are disappointed by the lack of complete representation.
That being said, Jon M. Chu, the director of Crazy Rich Asians, told Deadline that it would be “ridiculous” to expect one movie to represent all Asians, and his goal was to open the door for other stories to be told in other films.
“This movie is stirring up questions, conversations and it is definitely a start,” said Chang. “The most important thing is just to make sure that the public recognizes there are more stories and perspectives out there. But also it’s important to celebrate a new milestone in this industry.”
The film’s creators actively tried to ensure that it would be the milestone that it is. Kevin Kwan, the author of the novel, turned down a tempting opportunity to produce the film in 2013 with a white actress playing the lead role because he wanted an all-Asian cast. Chu worked diligently to find that perfect cast.
It was worth it, not just because it was lucrative, but because diverse representation is important.
“[Media] shapes the way we view the world. And so when you are saturated with media that only shows the same main characters, you begin to feel like those are the only people that matter,” said Kwon. “And that’s damaging—to people in and not in a minority group, to people who are in positions of privilege and who are not. And it influences the way we treat others, the way we treat ourselves, the way we move through the world.”
Chang and Kwon both hope that Crazy Rich Asians will inspire the creation of many more films featuring people of color and their stories.
Constance Wu’s tweet on why Crazy Rich Asians “means so much to so many people”