The new film Crazy Rich Asians stars an all-Asian cast, and it was number 1 at the box office in its opening weekend. It was directed by Jon Chu, an Asian American, and it was based off a novel written by Kevin Kwan, another Asian American. A sequel is already on the way.
I was hopeful going into this film--more hopeful than I would normally be. Asian Americans are having a cultural moment right now in Hollywood; we're getting more roles, more opportunities, and more of a say in how our stories are told. The last Asian American to have a seismic, ground-shifting effect on the American cultural landscape was Bruce Lee, and since his death, we've struggled to emerge from his shadow and retain a distinct Asian-ness to our identity, rather than subsuming it. But there have been strides, particularly in the last 20 years.
Sometimes, it comes in the form of parody: Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle wrestled with Asian stereotypes from the perspective of two young Asian American men. Other times, it comes in the form of mythbreaking; Better Luck Tomorrow portrayed four Asian Americans who used their academic reputation as cover for illegal hustling. Both films were stepping stones to what we have today. Comedies like Fresh off the Boat, stand up specials like Ali Wong's Baby Cobra, and films like upcoming thriller Searching depict Asian Americans with complexity. They neither deny Asian heritage nor patronizingly feed into it. True integration simply is.
And keeping with that, Crazy Rich Asians is an old school romantic comedy, so steeped in tropes that it includes not only a vengeful ex-girlfriend and a mid-film breakup, but also a dramatic airport denouement. The subtext here is both mundane and groundbreaking: that Asian Americans love the same as any other American, that we experience the same heart-melting and heartbreaking emotions. The scenes that would be ordinary in another film--two Asian couples enjoying street food in an open market, or two Asian men bonding over respective relationship problems--are so rare in American film as to be non-existent. But they are in this movie, unassumingly making a bold statement: We are not dispassionate people.
Words can't express how special it was for me to watch #CrazyRichAsians but here are some thoughts:— Rachel Phan (@RachMPhan) August 20, 2018
- YES to showing Asian men as sexy romantic leads
- "Tian Mi Mi" and the shuffling of mahjong tiles are the sounds of my childhood
- I felt so proud to see my culture on screen pic.twitter.com/heOdBGmzPl
But this negative stereotype persists. In an article for Pacific Standard, Ravi Mangla cites a speed-dating study done at Columbia University, in which women--even Asian women--are less likely to respond favorably to Asian men. A study by OKCupid also concluded that Asian men consistently rank at the bottom of women's preferences. It's a recurring problem in the LGBTQ community as well.
Therapist Nicole Hsiang, in an interview with Brittany Wong of the Huffington Post, discussed the negative impact this can have on Asian men's psyches: “Dating rejection can be traumatic because it affirms these deep-seated beliefs about their masculinity and sexual attractiveness. Many Asian men who grew up in a mostly white environment have told me they think they are unattractive, comparing themselves to the white masculine ideal.”
As a movie reviewer who's also the wife of an Asian man & mom to 3 #hapa kids, I've been waiting forever for a movie like #CrazyRichAsians that features desirable, funny Asian characters (& sexy Asian men). Hooray for #CrazyRichAsians huge opening weekend. https://t.co/E6R1dEqV3a— Sandie Chen (@sandieachen) August 20, 2018
Crazy Rich Asians challenges this state of affairs, most notably in its treatment of Asian male sexuality. The most sensual, erotic scenes in the film involve Asian men; in an early shower scene, water glistens off Pierre Png's muscular, nude body, and the camera lingers on him, ogling the definition of his abs and stopping just short of an R-rating. Later scenes show male characters, especially lead Nick Young played by Henry Golding, in various states of undress, more so than any of the film's female characters. This was the point: to subvert audience expectations about Asian sexuality to an American audience--even an Asian American audience--that has been conditioned to ignore it. By celebrating Asian men's desirability, Chu forces us to confront it.
We just saw #CrazyRichAsians. And can I just say, I’m glad the rest of the world now has SEVERAL prime examples of hot-ass Asian dudes? They’ve been relegated to comic relief for far too long, so those fresh outta the shower scenes... ??? pic.twitter.com/usY4KM6pLe— Ashley Woodfolk (@AshWrites) August 18, 2018
And that's not to say that every Asian man in this film is a rippling Adonis with seductive charm; that would have been a different type of condescending. There are other Asian men in this film who have average bodies and physiques and who are awkward or socially inept; Ken Jeong plays one of these characters in a show-stealing appearance. But it is not embarrassing. Why? Because the problem with American film is not that Asian misfits exist; the problem is when they are the only characters, and they carry the burden of representing an entire people.
In Crazy Rich Asians, these comedic men exist alongside other Asian men who are dramatic, sympathetic leads. Multiple Asian roles allow for complexity. And this is why true representation--rather than its close cousin, tokenism--matters.
Like many other Asian Americans, I left Crazy Rich Asians moved--that we are portrayed as people worthy of dignity, love, and mutual desire. I was ecstatic that our cultural eccentricities are criticized from within, for our own self-reflection, rather than from without, for others' amusement or validation.
This film reaffirms what we have always known, that Asian characters should never be played by non-Asian leads; we must continue to assert our place in our own stories. And this is a great step forward. The next "Bruce Lee" might not be an action hero; he just might be a romantic lead.