Crazy Rich Asians is the first major Hollywood studio film with an all-Asian American cast in 25 years. It’s also really, really good
Like most children of the ‘90s I mark my adolescence by the Harry Potter book I was reading at the time.
I started high school with Order of the Phoenix in my backpack. Philosopher’s Stone was what I was reading when my baby brother was born. I was sitting my final exams when The Deathly Hallows was released.
I loved Hermione, of course, and Ginny too but the character I felt particularly drawn to was Cho Chang. For a long time I couldn’t quite work out why. Sure, she was beautiful, and as skilled with a broomstick as Harry himself. But she was so drippy! And kind of boring. It was only later that I realised that the reason I was so drawn to her was that she existed, an Asian girl with my features, my hair and my nose and my eyes, my heritage.
It is a very powerful thing to see yourself reflected back in the stories that you read, and know, and love. But Cho Chang is only one character. Lane Kim from Gilmore Girls is only one character. Rose Tico from Stars Wars: The Last Jedi is only one character. Imagine if there was an entire story populated with hundreds and hundreds of faces like yours, and not a single one that wasn’t. How would you feel?
Since its US release, Crazy Rich Asians, the first major Hollywood studio movie in 25 years featuring an all-Asian American and Eurasian cast, has topped box offices so it’s no wonder that the UK release has now been brought forward from November to 14 September.
It stars Constance Wu as Rachel, an economics professor who agrees to travel with her boyfriend Nick (Henry Golding) to Singapore to meet his parents, whereupon she discovers that his family is one of the richest in Asia, and Nick the beloved heir. Michelle Yeoh, a Queen among us, plays the family’s terrifying matriarch. The film is based on a bestselling novel by Kevin Kwan, released in 2013 and followed by two equally as bonkers sequels.
Not since 1993’s The Joy Luck Club has a gloriously, riotously Asian story been told on such a global cinematic platform.
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Kwan and director Jon M. Chu revealed that they turned down a get-rich-quick seven-figure payday from Netflix in order to work with Warner Bros, a major studio, on a movie that would reach an international audience.
Other studios asked Kwan to Americanise his story, to change the setting or to white-wash his lead character Rachel. “It’s a pity you don’t have a white character,” one producer told Kwan, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
This is the kind of mentality that has dominated movie making since time immemorial. Thankfully, in 2018, it is no longer being tolerated. After the success of Hidden Figures, Girls Trip, Get Out and Black Panther, which made more than £1 billion at the box office, the fear of telling a culturally-specific story to a mass audience has been allayed, somewhat. Early predictions are good, and chatter from the lucky few who have seen it suggest that the film is going to be a hit.
The movie has an immense weight on its shoulders. “This is more than a movie,” Wu paraphrased Chu in an open letter on her Twitter today. “It’s a movement.”
It’s about breaking down stereotypes. It’s about challenging the perception of what an ‘Asian story’ is. It’s about filling the biggest screens in the biggest multiplexes in the biggest cities of the world with hundreds of Asian faces and demanding that they be seen.
Before Crazy Rich Asians, Wu had never starred in a major studio movie. (Neither had Golding, who was the last actor to be cast and was discovered from a BBC travel series he used to host. The movie also stars Gemma Chan, comedian Awkwafina and Kevin Jeong.) Her first major acting role was in Fresh Off the Boat, the first Asian American sitcom in 20 years.
At first, Wu thought the shooting schedule would prevent her from accepting the role of Rachel. But then, in a dramatic moment on a flight, she sent Chu an impassioned email begging him to move the filming dates so that she could fly to Kuala Lumpur and Singapore and take part.
“What all this could do means so much to me,” Wu wrote. “It’s why I advocate so much for young Asian-American girls, so they might not spend their life feeling small or being commanded to be grateful to even be at the table.”
You can’t be what you can’t see. That’s what they say. Now just imagine what the millions of young people who see Crazy Rich Asians in two weeks can be.
Crazy Rich Asians will be released in the UK on Friday 14 September.
Images: Warner Bros