Michelle Yeoh, Henry Golding and Constance Wu in a scene from “Crazy Rich Asians.” (Sanja Bucko/Warner Bros. Pictures)
Walking into an advance screening of “Crazy Rich Asians” last week, I felt like the evil food critic of “Ratatouille,” Anton Ego. I fully expected the movie to be one of overblown expectations and misguided support.
Ever since I got into entertainment as an actor 10 years ago, I’ve had trepidation watching Asian American produced content; it has the stigma equivalent to a random Silver Lake hipster friend telling you to check out their one-man show. Chances are it’s not going to really be that good, but you have to watch it anyway to support them because who will — white people?
This unfortunate bias is a consequence of a Catch-22: Asian Americans don’t have the infrastructures or support systems in place to nurture talent, not even to the extent other minorities such as the Black and Latinx communities do. As a result, a lot of the stuff we make apart from the white-dominated media machine is messy, underfunded and lacking in craft. Hollywood decision-makers expect us to fly when we’re still learning how to crawl, and sometimes the weight of those expectations can crush us before we even get a chance to try.
I am very aware of this bias because I experienced it firsthand with an ambitious project I self-financed and produced last November called “Just Doug,” a TV dramedy pilot that highlights the systemic biases in Hollywood against Asian Americans. While navigating my project through the Hollywood machine, in a way, I was Rachel Chu, the main character in the movie, an American who goes to Singapore and discovers that her boyfriend comes from an extremely rich family. Like Rachel, who is played by Constance Wu, I was alone and unwanted on an island in a world I was unfamiliar with and the rules of which I was learning on the fly.
While trying to get the support of Hollywood is difficult enough, I didn’t realize that the Asian American community was even harder to crack. My project faced intense scrutiny from producers, actors and critics, ranging from Asians who totally embraced it to the point of tears to others who withheld support because it didn’t fit their particular agenda, and still others who thought it was unfair that I even had the resources to self-finance, as if I “skipped the line” of paying my dues.
But despite all that, my show was featured on Facebook Watch and DramaFever and enjoyed positive press. While the silence of many Asian organizations and journalists I had reached out to was deafening, I knew in my heart that what I created reflected my own unique truth and that I had made an impact. Looking back now, I would do things differently, but it went how many first-time Asian American projects go — it only breathed through sheer force of will.
I’m going to tell you a little secret about “Crazy Rich Asians.” The film adaptation for the movie was not originally intended for Asian audiences. The book was a massive hit with white women; indeed, it almost reads in the vein of the escapist romantic fantasy genre that has been very popular this side of the millennium (see: “Twilight” and its fan-fiction spinoff “Fifty Shades of Grey”). The original adaptation of the screenplay was written by a white man, Peter Chiarelli who had his own questionable past of ghostwriting “The Proposal” under a female name.
When discussing the movie adaptation, author Kevin Kwan was even approached by a producer who suggested the Rachel character be white. While this is not just offensive in that it’s yet another attempt at whitewashing, the underlying purpose of this change would be to give the escapist fantasy to primarily white women, the book’s primary audience.
So it’s with these thoughts that I went into the theater, expecting the movie to fall under the weight of its expectations, acutely aware of all of the compromises and flaws made in its production before watching it. And like Anton taking his first bite of Remy’s ratatouille, I was instantly taken back to my own childhood and experiences when I first was introduced to the escapist fantasy of film itself. There’s a special extra oomph when one sees oneself truly represented on screen. One of the most positive comments I’ve gotten on my own project was when a friend proclaimed after watching it: “Is this what white people feel like every time they go to the movies?”
I had an eerily meta moment within the movie, when Michelle Yeoh’s character, Eleanor Young, the disapproving mother of Nick Young, tells Wu’s character, “You will never be enough.” It’s a very Asian American-themed concept, not quite being Asian enough or American enough, or enough of a success to be visible.
“Crazy Rich Asians,” a rom-com, is not going to win any Oscars (though who knows with the new category for best popular film), it doesn’t push the envelope of filmmaking in any sort of groundbreaking way, and it wasn’t even my favorite movie of the year. But I found myself laughing, even tearing up (I’m not crying, YOU’RE crying), when I fully expected that my eyes would be constantly rolling.
For the first time, I saw Asians free to live their best lives, to be heartthrobs, jerks and everything in between, with true emotional lives outside of the Eye-of-Sauron-like white gaze. The characters in “Crazy Rich Asians” reflected real people I’ve encountered in my own life: I remembered my attraction to Asians with British accents watching Gemma Chan, who plays Nick Young’s childhood friend; compared my bromance with my best guy friends with Chris Pang and Henry Golding’s; and even bemoaned the presence of the overcompensating douchebag in Ronny Chieng, who plays Young’s cousin, a personality type that I’m all too familiar with from my time in the finance industry. It made me feel something, which is more than what I can say for my emotional investment in watching Tom Cruise sprinting for two-and-a-half hours.
My TV show, despite personally trying to check all the boxes, failed for being too “Korean,” not enough about (insert particular Asian ethnicity here), too Asian male-centric. I have seen similar types of criticisms about CRA, for not properly representing a specific issue, or even for possibly perpetuating the harmful Model Minority myth. But CRA has worthwhile social commentary, while at the same time being fun. It’s not supposed to encompass every single concern of Asian America. It’s a piece of a puzzle that’s still being constructed.
That doesn’t mean CRA is free from criticism. We cannot blindly usher in works without a critical eye, like we have in the past: “Miss Saigon” and “The Joy Luck Club” were works celebrated simply because they increased Asian American visibility but in many ways promoted harmful stereotypes and narratives about us. But I’m grateful that CRA exists because we can start having these conversations as we start to messily define the Asian American identity and experience.
The Asian American narrative in Hollywood will always at some level be co-opted by white voices until Asian Americans realize that they can take control of their own narrative and build those networks and the infrastructure to support Asian American creatives. But “Crazy Rich Asians” is unique because it does have Asians at most of the relevant levers of the production process (source material written by Kevin Kwan, screenplay co-written by Adele Lim, directed by Jon M. Chu, and starring…Asians). That was only made possible by Kwan and Chu’s willingness to turn down a boatload of money to be able to retain creative control.
When projects like CRA exist and become successful, they not only open doors to additional projects like it being greenlit (full disclosure of my self-interest in this project), but they also inspire the next generation of talent who see themselves on screen to join the industry and help us build the Asian American-run studios, production companies and networks that we need. They also inspire minorities to tell their own unique stories, before they get lost in the fabric of history. If you care about Asian American diversity in media, this is a way to support it and have a pretty fun time, too.