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Money (That’s What We Want): ‘Crazy Rich Asians,’ ‘Black Panther,’ and the Difficulties of Hollywood Representation

Just months after the extraordinary success of Marvel’s African American triumph, the first Hollywood film in 25 years to feature an all-Asian cast is being cited as a revolutionary act in the business. Does it matter that the film itself isn’t revolutionary?

Warner Bros./Marvel/Ringer illustration

For even the casual moviegoer, Jon M. Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians—a film adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s bestselling 2013 novel of the same name—has been set up to be one of the most important movies of the year. It is, for starters, the first Hollywood studio film to feature an all East Asian cast since The Joy Luck Club exactly 25 years ago. Chu and Kwan had, in fact, passed up Netflix’s generous package offer of a green-lit trilogy with complete artistic freedom in order to partner instead with Warner Bros. Their reasoning? A major film studio, while the less economically-secure option in this case, guaranteed that Crazy Rich Asians would actually screen in movie theaters and, as such, garner moviegoing stats.

Indeed, long before its release, the public had already begun making hopeful comparisons between Chu’s film and Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther—another racially targeted blockbuster, and one that became the third-highest-grossing film in American history. The kneejerk aversion to this analogy has been understandable, though its bottom-line significance should not be overlooked: If Crazy Rich Asians makes crazy amounts of money, then we won’t have to wait another quarter-century for another Asian-led Hollywood film.

That is, the status of Crazy Rich Asians as an Important Film of 2018 rests less on the movie being Good, than on it being Popular. While the breathless success of Black Panther lies in the possibility that it might be both, the relative dearth of Asian American blockbusters means that the sheer existence of Crazy Rich Asians already counts as a historical data point in American filmmaking—even before we know its box-office turnout and even despite the fact it is, in ways, just another fluffy rom-com. Black Panther—with its $200 million budget backing a majority-black cast in a superhero film about a mythical African kingdom—was an undeniable Hollywood milestone. But it builds on a growing tradition of African American mainstream filmmaking, from Spike Lee’s oeuvre to more recent contributions by Ava DuVernay and Lee Daniels. Among the various arguments against comparing Coogler’s and Chu’s films, then, we might add that—with maybe the exception of the recent animated Pixar short about dumplings—there simply haven’t been that many creative opportunities for Asian-centric Hollywood films.

How then, in the case of Chu’s film, to reconcile “significance” with “seriousness”? Sorely needed racial representation with aesthetic achievement? Politics with cinematic art? These questions seem especially relevant right now, as the Oscars move to add “a new category designed around achievement in popular film,” but they have also long haunted the canon of Asian American cultural production. One might debate whether Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club is in fact a Great Work of Literature, but no one can deny the singular significance of an Asian American novel about multi-generational Chinese immigrant families becoming a national best seller in 1989. The immigrant’s struggle that has so often been the focus of Asian American narratives has historically been read as prioritizing the politics of racial representation over aesthetic merit—so much so that it often feels “enough” that these stories get told, no matter how exactly they do so. That Crazy Rich Asians manages to collapse the immigrant tale into a story not of sentimental poverty, but of spectacular wealth, might be one of its most striking contemporary twists.

As telegraphed in its trailer, which spins shot after shot of dazzling affluence, Crazy Rich Asians was seemingly made for the big screen. Where Kwan’s novel drips with descriptions of couture fashion, lavish parties, and a kaleidoscope of brand names, Chu’s rendition turns out to be an expected feast for the eyes. The film is approximately 80 percent partygoing, 20 percent lounging around in luxurious settings. There’s even one extended sequence that builds emotional tension by alternating between bachelor and bachelorette parties that might as well be competing for Most Expensive. This sequence is followed by, you guessed it, yet another extravagant party. In the center of all this conspicuous consumption is one Rachel Chu (played by a winsome Constance Wu): the film’s protagonist everywoman and Chinese American economics professor who travels to Singapore under the pretense of meeting her boyfriend Nick’s family only to find herself trapped in what might best be described as a Cinderella-meets-Jane-Austen plot. Except, you know, Asian. In Singapore, Rachel meets the matriarchs of Nick’s crazy rich family, and butts heads, in particular, with his mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh, in a performance equal parts steely and soft). After some hazing, conflict, and melodrama ensues, the film culminates in a gripping 11th-hour mahjong match between Rachel and Eleanor that ends, shortly thereafter, with Nick putting a very giant ring on it. “Are we in some fairy tale story I don’t know about?” someone asks at one point. And in many ways, we are. If you’re looking for clever class critique or a meditation on the historical construction of pan-Asian identity politics, you likely won’t find it in Crazy Rich Asians. Social realism, this film is not.

Instead, the overt wish fulfillment of Kwan’s capitalist-driven romance plot is another major strike against any serious comparisons between Crazy Rich Asians and Black Panther. For while Black Panther is currently a top candidate for the new Oscars “popular film” category, Crazy Rich Asians will likely never even contend, no matter how well it does in the summer box office. And part of this boils down to the perceived widening gap between the genre of the superhero film and that of the romantic comedy. Whereas the female-driven rom-com continues seemingly to float in the Nancy Meyers world of luxurious domestic interiors, the masculinist superhero drama has, since X-Men, grizzlingly aged into a genre serious enough to contend with real-world issues. (Here, we might recall that the last big Oscars amendment was prompted by the Academy’s failure to acknowledge that other “genre-defying” superhero film, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.) The political stakes of Black Panther involve world-historical revolution in the contemporary moment of America’s waning late imperialism, whereas Crazy Rich Asians basically announces in its very title that Asians are so privileged, they’re even wealthier than white people now.

Coogler’s adaptation of the superhero genre has already inspired a rich variety of interpretive readings that are the exemplary marker of aesthetic complexity, whereas Crazy Rich Asians might ultimately appear to be nothing more than a formulaic romantic comedy, in which the biggest generic twist—the addition of Asian bodies—is already so radical that we hardly need to change anything else. Yet, rather than continue to pursue their fundamental differences—which discourages conversations about cross-racial representation in Hollywood, further ghettoizing different ethnicities—what if we seriously strove to think carefully about these two films together? After all, if both the general public and box office predictions are making the connection, it seems critical that we at least interrogate why.

Watching Crazy Rich Asians returned me, perhaps unexpectedly, to one of the central themes of Black Panther: its science-fictional portrayal of Wakanda as an alternate—and better—modernity against the reality of present-day America. In Crazy Rich Asians, a similar alternate modernity might be found in Chu’s portrayal of capitalist Singapore: a hyper-accelerated, hyper-networked island whose abundant splendor comes into frequent conflict with the lagging ethos of America as represented by Rachel. Both Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians are, in ways, post–Bandung Conference films about the right to development, where a seemingly unfettered process of modernization has occurred not in America, but in a separate national context with its own non-white racial makeup. The utopia of Wakanda—whose Afrofuturist livelihood, in Coogler’s film, relies on the country remaining an autonomous space—might even find its underbelly in the frantic surrealism of Chu’s Singapore, which, while obviously a “real” space, is nonetheless rendered as an insane fantasy. So while Black Panther might be primarily a superhero film and Crazy Rich Asians first and foremost a rom-com, both nonetheless offer a speculative thought experiment about a world not dominated by white America. What if the center of the world was somewhere else? What if the ruling racial power wasn’t white? Both films ask these questions, and answer them in admittedly vastly different ways, though neither really moves toward thinking about the cross-racial implications of their respective new world orders.

These are heady themes for any film to take on, no less a Hollywood studio film. Crazy Rich Asians can’t do everything, nor should it have to. But as the first all-Asian Hollywood studio film in a long time, Chu’s film functions, together with others such as Black Panther and Coco, as a litmus test for the politics of racial representation in Hollywood today. Because of this, it seems necessary to think about these films together, especially as Hollywood becomes increasingly globalized. What kind of world do they cumulatively imagine? We don’t know. Yet.

Jane Hu is a writer and Ph.D. candidate living in Oakland.