Higher stakes beget greater visibility, which in turn engenders more scrutiny. So with last week’s releases of two Asian American–fronted films—Crazy Rich Asians and Netflix’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before—there are new questions being asked about responsibility and representation as they apply to a heretofore invisible minority. We are learning what other underrepresented communities in America have already experienced: With growth come growing pains.
The fun part is measuring the new heights: Crazy Rich Asians won the weekend box office with a $25.2 million gross, drawing an Asian audience of nearly 40 percent and a Time magazine cover. Both the Jon M. Chu–directed theatrical release and Susan Johnson’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, adapted from Jenny Han’s YA novel, earned 93 percent scores on Rotten Tomatoes. (Overworked Twitter Joke of the Week: They’re Asian; of course they get good grades.) By any metric, the movies are rousing successes that reaffirm the power of diversity and defy the “bamboo ceiling.” With the heady talk about what all of this foretells for the future of Asian American entertainment, it’s as if we’ve reached a sudden crescendo with no buildup. As Chu famously said of Crazy Rich Asians: “It’s not a movie, it’s a movement,” a statement echoed by Constance Wu, his lead actress, and countless others on social media. But does the movement allow for healthy dissent?
Related: You can’t please everyone. Crazy Rich Asians, which opened in theaters last Wednesday, is based on a Kevin Kwan novel about a Chinese American woman who goes to Singapore to meet her boyfriend’s wealthy family for the first time: Meet the Parents with yellow faces. While making the film, Wu reportedly asked the director to remove dialogue from the book in which her character discusses how she had previously never dated Asian men. In an ostensible effort to negate stereotypes, the line was stricken. (Had it been included, it might’ve been the most believable line in the whole movie.) Also removed from the book for the film: Kwan’s detailed references to the way Chinese expats in Singapore differentiate themselves from mainland Chinese, Taiwanese, Hongkongers, and other Asians. It’s a story focusing on a hyperspecific subset of people, yet the movie forsakes specificity in favor of a universality that reverts to the familiar monolithic perspective on Asian culture. “One Asian story is the same as the next Asian story,” wrote Connie Wang to describe this lack of nuance. “One Asian face is the same as another Asian face.” It’s all well meaning, but feels pandering and sanitized to be palatable to the masses.
Also related: The hardest to please are often your own people. In To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, which premiered on Netflix last Friday, a mixed-race teenage girl of Korean descent deals with the ramifications when her crushes on five different boys are exposed. As in the adapted book, none of her romantic prospects are Asian. (Ironically, the only Asian male to speak in the entire movie is the ’80s caricature Long Duk Dong, who appears in a scene when the protagonist and a suitor watch Sixteen Candles.) To All the Boys remains faithful to the original text of Korean American author Han (and to her own personal experiences), yet in doing so threatens to reinforce negative stereotypes. In that sense, it’s authentic, but—to at least one viewer—feels a bit hurtful.
This is the Catch-22 of representation, raising difficult and sometimes uncomfortable conversations about how we want to see ourselves depicted on screen. There are no absolute rights or wrongs in this uncharted territory, only worthy discourse. However, dialogue about these prickly issues—about casting, about colorism, about interracial dating—is largely occurring in private, or at least being confined to the margins. Publicly, the Asian American community has been gobsmacked by positivity, banding together in hopeful solidarity to help these films succeed. Hence the buying out of theaters to support Crazy Rich Asians and the blanket praise by Asian American media types. (There has been less overall chatter on the more teen-focused To All the Boys, which is maybe why Crazy Rich Asians turned down Netflix for Warner Bros.) It’s all understandable, given the dearth of opportunities for Asian Americans in decades past. The success of Crazy Rich Asians and To All the Boys, the thinking goes, will yield greater opportunities for Asian American creators.
Fair enough. Who would be churlish enough to stand in the way of progress? But the fight for representation in film is a long war of attrition; along the way are smaller internal battles, including those that require critical engagement. We’ve seen this phenomenon play out before within other minority groups—think the groundswell around Black Panther or, before that, Bridesmaids to name two prominent examples of films whose campaigns generated similar conversations. Not every movie will win, or justify the outsize significance we assign to it. There are levels to this, with stops and starts on the climb toward the summit of mainstream acceptance for the underrepresented. Still, it’s easier to absorb failure when you’re not stuck at the bottom. Here at base camp, the questions that have long plagued other minorities—do I have to like a piece of art to support it? Is there a moral obligation to suppress critical judgment in order to help movies whose success could open doors for others?—feel more fraught.
Which leads to my own truth: I didn’t much care for either Crazy Rich Asians or To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, even with managed expectations and an appreciation for romantic comedies. The former centers on a couple with negligible chemistry and has the cheap look of a gussied-up TV movie. (Generationally rich Asians are not this tacky.) It isn’t that I needed the film (or any film) to reflect my own identity or experiences; it’s that Crazy Rich Asians fumbles the identities and experiences of its own characters. In terms of craftsmanship, I liked To All the Boys better, but its obscuration of racial identity makes it feel like an individual victory, won on the face value of its Asian American female lead alone. Both movies are clearly targeted at women, and there are strong performances in each. It’s no crime to make vapid, forgettable entertainment. I’m Asian: I don’t mind tripe. It’s that the tripe is being advertised as a five-course meal that brings the discomfort.
Of course, the marketing is not the movie, and vice versa. With Crazy Rich Asians in particular, however, the distinction is hard to unpack. This is not the “end all, be all” of Asian American studio films, said the director Chu. The subtext: Just enjoy it for what it is—a frivolous rom-com. On the other: “It’s not a movie, it’s a movement.” If it’s unfair to expect a single film to bear the burden of representation for the entire diaspora of Asian Americans, then employing the language of political organizers only serves to make that weight heavier. Art, unlike politics, is not a zero-sum game. Crazy Rich Asians is not a movement; it’s just a silly movie.
And that’s fine. Let’s cut the uplifting sociopolitical bullshit and call this what it is, the familiar Hollywood machinery at work. It’s not about the movie, it’s about the money. We now have definitive proof that prominent and deep-pocketed Asian Americans will galvanize to spend their capital and offer free, unsolicited PR for movies starring people who look like them—the more anodyne, the better. (And yes, there are plenty of people of all colors who legitimately enjoy both of these movies.) Cynicism aside, Hollywood success should lift the collective spirit of Asian Americans, help boost inclusion numbers, and maybe inspire Asian American kids. Crucially, it demonstrates that we, too, have earned the right to play the game. The most important “M” word will lead to inevitable sequels and more opportunities for studios to milk our dollars; thus, there will be new openings for Asian American creatives and performers, which will one day bring homes in Malibu, and face time with Ryan Seacrest, and shiny trophies, and the whole lot of it.
But along with the spoils comes the scrutiny. This is the hard part: the engagement, not the enjoyment. America can now see the fissures that exist within our community—and even new ones that are being formed. Is it problematic for an Asian American to use performative hip-hop slang? Do Asian women usually prefer non-Asian men? Have Southeast Asians been forgotten? What about the income gap in Asian America? Are we allowed to tell stories only about Asian families? Crazy Rich Asians and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before create the questions, not the answers. If nothing else, their successes have set us off on the rocky road from invisibility to the spotlight, a journey that produces less joy for me than it does reflection. This is the only movement that really matters.