As I wrote almost exactly a year ago, Asian leads in Hollywood films have been vanishingly rare for the medium’s entire history. Considering the breathless anticipation with which the studio system awaits my each and every word here at Paste, it’s no surprise that they clearly have pivoted, making 2018 a conspicuous year for representation in major releases that did respectable box office.
So, you know, you’re welcome.
I’m sure I’m not the only half-Asian-who-passes-for-completely-white man who wonders, with fingers crossed, whether the fact Black Panther has proven to be as bankable as The Last Jedi, or Crazy Rich Asians has met with such with critical praise and box office enthusiasm means more minority actors in more movies you and I and everybody we know just have to see. I’m also wondering whether Hollywood will finally be convinced that a good story with good actors and the confidence of the studio behind it will sell well even if the leads aren’t (100 percent) white people.
Love in the Time of Endless Adaptations
What’s floored me, personally, about the rapid-fire release of Crazy Rich Asians, Searching and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is how matter-of-fact they are about both the American-ness and Asian-ness of their leads and how this affects (and more importantly, how it does not at all affect) their lives.
It’s a frustrating fact that very little gets made in Hollywood now without having some sort of known intellectual property attached to it, the result of a studio system groaning under the weight of its own gravity, ready to collapse if it puts a foot wrong and yet seemingly determined to keep Hoovering up more and more competitors, fiercely fixated on the idea that if it just owns all the IP in the world, it’ll be able to make all the dollars.
So, it’s too bad that you need to be based on a novel or comic book or greeting card to get anything made now. It’s encouraging in this frustrating environment, at least, that filmmakers turned to novels like Crazy Rich Asians and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before to dip into the easy popularity that must ipso facto undergird every single release these days.
Constance Wu, who plays protagonist Rachel Chu in Crazy Rich Asians, has been frank about the fight for representation that Asian actors face. I think she may finally have been vindicated, considering her $30 million picture has, as of this writing, recouped its costs six-fold. The novel and movie center around a fun, low-stakes romp in Singapore as Chu discovers her perfect boyfriend Nick is actually the heir to a vast business empire owned by a stiffly traditional Singaporean family.
Nick takes Rachel on a whirlwind wedding party trip as he prepares to stand as best man in his rich boyhood friend’s unbelievably lavish wedding. Rachel finds the spotlight on herself as the obvious fiancée-in-waiting, navigating the treacherous fish-out-of-water situation of meeting the family, moving about in a culture of filial piety she knows only secondhand, and being the one plebe among the insanely rich. She endures the harsh judgment of Nick’s mother, Michelle Yeoh, whose own callous treatment at the hands of her husband’s mother has caused her to internalize the self-sacrifice of Chinese familial culture and foreshadows her own distaste with Rachel’s freewheeling and empowered American womanhood.
Rachel comes out on top at the end, of course, because this is based on a mushy romance novel that people go to see to enjoy vicariously living through its characters and to bawl when Kina Grannis’ cover of “Can’t Help Falling In Love” comes on.
That itch needs scratched, damn it, and it is refreshing that in this case it was with a movie starring Asian leads that feels universal. The tension of the plot focuses on Rachel’s feelings of isolation and uncertainty. My girlfriend, a survivor of South Carolina debutante culture, left the film with the takeaway that you could have set the movie in the American South and kept basically every plot beat the same. (They would have done that 50 or even 20 years ago, and not bothered to credit the book.) The least believable and relatable part of the movie is that Yeoh did not simply unleash a Wing Chun chain punch attack on the racist British hotel concierge in the first scene.
Not Pictured: Crazy Rich Asians
It was a solidly not-bad movie and it deserves a sequel more than f***ing Terminator: Genisys does, is what I’m saying, if only for the fact that it’ll be something we haven’t seen as much of before and it won’t bankrupt its studio if it fails. The first scene where the ancient old matriarch of the family comes doddering out, alike in every manner to my own poor late grandfather, pushed buttons in me I didn’t know I had.
In the same vein, Netflix’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, itself an adaptation of Jenny Han’s 2014 high school romance novel, feels like it could be about any American girl in any American family. The film follows teenager Lara Jean (the American daughter of a Korean mother and a father so harmlessly white that he’s portrayed by God’s Not Dead 3’s John Corbett), a girl in a multiracial family that looks exactly like mine, and that is as blandly American as mine. The plot kicks off as her sister breaks up with a long-time boyfriend prior to going abroad for college—the boy next door whom Lara Jean has secretly been crushing on since forever. Her coping strategy for unrequited love is to compose handwritten letters (with valid addresses on the envelopes) to her crushes and then put them in a box.
When, inevitably, those missives make their way into the mail stream, Lara Jean finds her innermost feelings aired to boys she hasn’t given a second thought to in years, and the hunky dude she regards as off-limits.
I have to confess I didn’t enjoy the movie nearly as much as Paste’s own Alexis Gunderson clearly did. But the fact you can release it with a Vietnamese-American female actor in the lead role and nobody bats an eye is decidedly progress, though, so good on Netflix and the apparent legion of fans who have professed un-self-conscious glee in watching it.
Asians Can Finally Just Want Their Daughters Back
Movies with taut thriller mysteries or epic battle are more my speed, so it’s with some astonishment that Screen Gems of all studios provided me with a fun, interesting, well-executed little movie in Searching. John Cho dads himself up to play a widower hunting for any leads in his daughter’s sudden disappearance, all while discovering all the ways in which he doesn’t realize he doesn’t know her. It’s a detective thriller predicated on the very real worries parents justifiably feel in the technological hellscape of modern social media.
It’s a gimmicky movie whose gimmick—having everything transpire through the screen of a computer or phone—has already been done. That said, Searching does it way better. It also has met with overwhelmingly positive reviews from critics and audiences and has so far made a tidy $45 million off what had to have been a minuscule production budget.
Also, it’s about a Korean-American family. It isn’t shy about this, and it doesn’t beat you over the head with it. Cho and his daughter and his late wife cook kimchi and have contacts in their chat programs and calendars written in Korean, but there is also very little in their lives that would not have been in this movie if they’d made it 20 years ago and cast Harrison Ford in the role. It feels real to me because it is real to me.
Is it weird I’m celebrating the fact that mediocre or small-release films that aren’t Big Huge Cultural Events like The Joy Luck Club or Memoirs of a Geisha are prominently starring Asians and hoping we see more of them? Is it grasping at straws to remark on three films that acknowledge that a family with Asian roots can find itself in the same thrilling over-the-top fictional situations that families with European roots can?
Maybe. But Asian invisibility, and immigrant invisibility, are real things that contribute to a dangerous kind of ignorance in popular culture and an entrenchment of cultural power in a very few hands. You can’t tell your story, can’t command respect, if you’re born into an entire ethnicity that is not considered “bankable” or “leading man material.” You can’t really respect your fellow Americans if you don’t understand the subtle difference in experience between a Chinese-American mother and her American-born child. You can’t sympathize with somebody if you haven’t internalized that they’re as American as you even if their last name is Kim or Covey Song or Chu. I don’t expect these three relatively modest successes to trigger a total course correction on the part of Hollywood studios, but I hope it isn’t a fluke either.
Kenneth Lowe is an all-American boy. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.