Crazy high expectations: What's at stake for Crazy Rich Asians

More than just a big-budget romantic comedy, Crazy Rich Asians carries the expectations of many moviegoers of Asian descent who are hungry for their own Black Panther.

Lavish rom-com debuts amid wider conversation about representation in Hollywood

Aspiring blockbuster Crazy Rich Asians has the unenviable task of carrying the expectations of an Asian diaspora in the West hungry for its own box office success like Black Panther. (Warner Bros. Pictures)

It's a modern tale exploring class, identity, family and generational conflict. And an eye-popping introduction to a wealthy nation's upper-UPPER crust featuring a sassy, beautiful heroine who gets put through the rom-com wringer.

Hitting North American theatres today, Crazy Rich Asians tackles all of this and, what's more, the aspiring blockbuster has the unenviable task of carrying the expectations of an Asian diaspora in the Western world hungry for its own Black Panther.

Based on the first book in Kevin Kwan's bestselling trilogy, Crazy Rich Asians tells a fish-out-of-water tale about an American-born Chinese professor accompanying her boyfriend home to Singapore for a wedding. Her world turns upside down when she discovers he's a beloved heir in one of the country's most esteemed (and wealthiest) families and gets plunged into the dazzling, calculating and mind-boggling world of Asian aristocrats and socialites.

Directed by Jon M. Chu from a script co-written by Adele Lim, Crazy Rich Asians is populated by an international dream team of young actors of Asian heritage, led by American Constance Wu, Malaysian-Brit newcomer Henry Golding and Malaysian superstar Michelle Yeoh.

Director Jon M. Chu, second from left, and author Kevin Kwan, right, pose with the cast of Crazy Rich Asians at the film's Los Angeles premiere this month. (Eric Charbonneau/Warner Bros.)

It's no secret that Hollywood has a problem showcasing people of colour. In the run-up to Crazy Rich Asians hitting theatres, for instance, there's been one much-quoted point of reference to underline the scarcity of Hollywood stories centred on Asians or Asian-Americans: A quarter century has passed since the release of the cross-generational drama The Joy Luck Club

Asian characters are still rarely seen in Hollywood movies, especially as fully formed leads. According to the figures released in July from the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, over the past decade Asian characters have comprised just 6.3 per cent of the characters featured in Hollywood's top films.

It's easy to see then, why so many have sky-high hopes for Crazy Rich Asians.

"Growing up, I've always imagined characters in books not as characters that look like myself," said Georgia Dominguez, a fan of the original novels who took in an early screening in Toronto.

"Seeing something come to life, relating with some of the characters on a physical note, is important for future generations."

The film's achievement in representation also wasn't lost on its cast and creators.

"Usually when you're a person of colour or a queer person, you walk into a work environment and you're usually the only one," said actor Nico Santos.

"In this movie, we all just got each other … We just could be ourselves."

A cultural moment

Crazy Rich Asians isn't completely alone this month, dubbed #AsianAugust by groups like the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment to mark this cultural moment where several significant Hollywood projects featuring Asian casts and creators are making their debut.

Two years after the hashtag #StarringJohnCho ignited discussion about the lack of Asian leads in movies comes Searching, a psychological thriller starring Cho as a frantic father digging through his missing teen's social media accounts in hopes of finding her. A Sundance prize-winner lauded for its innovative storytelling, Searching is also Hollywood's first contemporary, mainstream thriller with an Asian-American lead, according to its director, Aneesh Chaganty.

Meanwhile, joining the romantic comedy renaissance blooming on Netflix is To All the Boys I've Loved Before, a teen movie starring actor Lana Condor and based on Jenny Han's bestselling young adult novel.

Like Kwan's Crazy Rich Asians, Han's book piqued Hollywood's interest prior to its publication, but early producers sniffing around proposed whitewashing her main character.

"The interest would kind of fade away once they realized that I was going to insist on the main character being Asian-American," Han said in a recent interview in Los Angeles.

But hashtag campaigns such as #OscarsSoWhite and #StarringJohnCho "really moved the dial" in terms of representation becoming a bigger part of the conversation, even from just two years ago, she said.

Not free from criticism

That Warner Bros. signed on for Crazy Rich Asians and is supporting it with a glitzy, global promotional push has nevertheless opened the high-profile project up to criticism.  

Some have slammed the film's (and the book's) focus on Singapore's ethnically Chinese majority and apparent sidelining of those of Indian and Malay heritage. Others are riled that the wider discussion about the dearth of Asian stories in Hollywood has often ignored the contributions of South Asian stars and movies. Then there are those who feel the over-the-top opulence depicted perpetuates the damaging stereotype of materialistic Asians.

Awkwafina, left, and Constance Wu appear in a scene from Crazy Rich Asians. (Warner Bros. Pictures)

People will chafe at the fact that Crazy Rich Asians is focused on just one specific community and that's a valid concern, acknowledged Rebecca Sun, senior reporter for entertainment industry outlet the Hollywood Reporter.

This group of people carries the onus of representing everyone. It has to represent like all Asians ... which of course, no project can do.- Rebecca Sun, Hollywood Reporter

However, the central fact that remains is the industry lacks representation across the board, she said.

"This group of people carries the onus of representing everyone. It has to represent like all Asians across the continent, which of course, no project can do," Sun said, as she recalled speaking with Pakistani-American performer Kumail Nanjiani about feeling a similar burden with his 2017 cross-cultural rom-com The Big Sick.

That said, while it's an achievement that Crazy Rich Asians was produced, a real shift in Asian representation in Hollywood will only materialize if the movie is a box office success, Sun said.

"Unfortunately, the success or failure of this film hinges on the aspect that makes it unique, which is this unique racial category," she said. "If it doesn't do as well as people expect, they are not going to say it's because the writing wasn't there or it opened in a tough spot of the year. It will be judged based on the fact that it's an all Asian-American cast."

Chris Pang, left, and Henry Golding appear in a scene from Crazy Rich Asians. Studio executives will tie the film's success or failure to its all-Asian cast, according to journalist Rebecca Sun. (Sanja Bucko/Warner Bros.)

For risk-averse studios, success paves the way for similar projects, but failure could mean there won't be another Asian-centred film for another quarter century, Sun predicted. "That's the kind of pressure that this film — like it or not — is under."

In the meantime, Canadian producer Kevin Li is among the many who are impatient for the entertainment industry to explore more — and more complex — Asian stories that speak to a wider contemporary experience. Vancouver-based Li believes success for Crazy Rich Asians is a rising tide that will raise all ships.

"For a long time, what we've been shown on TV and in the movies is the kung pao chicken films, the lemon chicken films," Li said.

"But the reality is people have a more sophisticated taste in content. We want aburi sushi. We want the ramen, the Peking duck. We want the pad Thai. People are asking for that."

Vancouver producer Kevin Li believes box office success for Crazy Rich Asians will help pave the way for additional film and TV projects centred on the contemporary Asian experience. (Warner Bros. Pictures)

With files from Tashauna Reid