Rom-com

Asian Representation in Film: The Impact of ‘Crazy Rich Asians’

With box office hit and the critically well-received 2018 romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians, Hollywood has come a long way since Asian and Asian American stereotype characters like Long Duk Dong in 1984’s Sixteen Candles, or, even worse, dated, racist portrayals like that of Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Prior to Crazy Rich Asians, it had been 25 years since the world saw a predominantly Asian cast in a big-budget Hollywood — with 1993’s The Joy Luck Club — that isn’t about martial arts, nerds, or a period piece with subtitles. Rather, Crazy Rich Asians is a moving, funny, beautifully shot romantic comedy showcasing a modern Asian diaspora who speak English as their primary language.

According to the most recent report by the United Nations, Asians represent close to 60% of the world’s population, while a separate report conducted by USC Annenberg in 2017 revealed that out of 1,100 popular films, 70.7% of the characters were Caucasian and only 6.3% were of Asian descent.

With this significant imbalance, movie audiences have had very limited exposure on the big screen to the diversity they most likely see in everyday life, as well as alienating Asian viewers and doing nothing for preconceived, problematic notions of Asians as the funny sidekick, the kung-fu master, the chopstick-yielding exchange student, and every other broad stereotype that has played out in film.

Beyond the predictable and limited examples of Asians depicted in mainstream film, Hollywood also ostracized Asian actors through its tendency to whitewash films by casting Caucasian actors in Asian roles — something that Kevin Kwan, author of Crazy Rich Asians, the novel that was adapted into the 2018 film — was no stranger to.

When talking to The Guardian about the buzz circling around his book and being approached for movie deals, Kwan mentioned a particular, prominent producer who told him he’d be interested if they changed the protagonist, Rachel Chu (played by Fresh off the Boat’s Constance Wu) into a white character. “I think it was a request born out of sheer ignorance about the project, and it was a very … kneejerk reaction that was indicative of how Hollywood saw its industry, how they felt movies needed to be made, and how they felt a movie with all Asians would just never work,” he said.

Sticking to his guns, Kwan eventually teamed with Chinese American director Jon M. Chu, who shared his belief in the importance and necessity of Asian representation in the film adaptation. Chu was originally offered a healthy sum of money from Netflix (exceeding that of Warner Brothers’ which went on to produce the film) but turned it down. Justifying the decision to do so, he told NBC Nightly News, “we knew the importance of the project was to get it on the big screen — there’s a sign there that says ‘we are worth that energy, we are worth your time’ — for a big Hollywood studio to send that message, we knew was an important message to send the world.”

For many, that message was heard. Beyond the actors in Crazy Rich Asians being diverse in more ways than one, they also portray a deep humanity of the characters through their individual hopes, dreams, relationship problems, and longing for love and acceptance, creating a more fleshed out and truer representation of Asians in the real world.

Continuing to break box office records with a global total of $236 million, Crazy Rich Asians is now the highest-grossing romantic comedy in the last decade. The message Chu refers to has been received with open arms; and with that, comes open doors, open minds, and hopefully, many more diverse and stereotype-free films from the entertainment industry.

Did Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon Revive the Rom-Com with “The Big Sick”?

There was a time not too long ago when romantic comedies dominated the box office. Films like “My Best Friend’s Wedding” and “Bridesmaids” were perfect for going on a date or watching with a group of friends. But then, the genre faded away.

In a time when rom-coms struggle to get anywhere near the list of top box office performers, “The Big Sick” arrives to remind us why the genre isn’t dead and buried. Here are a few reasons why a critically-acclaimed indie rom-com made with a budget of $5 million is now being seen as the savior of the genre.

Makes great use of the rom-com book of clichés.

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Film has been around long enough that it’s nearly impossible to avoid every idea used before. The same can be said about any film genre you’re talking about. Of course, it’s hard not to notice when a new rom-com is marketed as a “fresh, new love story” but instead ends up featuring the most common clichés in the industry.

In “The Big Sick,” we don’t see an impractical “thoughtful gesture” to win the girl’s heart. Nor is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity forfeited in the name of love. While Gordon and Nanjiani’s film does have a number of familiar tropes, they’re executed in a way that makes the story feel authentic and believable — perhaps because the story is, indeed, based on the writers’ real life romance … with each other.

For example, in the film, Kumail offers his love interest a bag of mementos, not an exaggerated musical number. And the gesture fails to win her back. As Showalter himself put it, “Tropes work beautifully when a writer knows why the audiences have such an affectation for them.” And sometimes, subverting a trope or showing a different outcome than expected can refresh the narrative.

Love unfolds via three relationships, not one.

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In most romantic comedies we see the lovebird’s relationship unfold via their interaction throughout the film. A large number of minutes are spent showing the audience how the couple meets, goes on a date or more, has a conflict, discovers their love toward each other, etc. Would you believe that in “The Big Sick,” the protagonist spends very little screen time with his love interest?

Instead, we see more of Kumail interacting with his and Emily’s parents than with Emily herself. The result is a special, heartwarming story where the guy pursues his love interest without actually being around her. As Kumail deals with his family’s restrictive traditions and wins the trust of Emily’s folks, viewers are convinced by his believable love toward Emily in a way not normally seen in romantic comedies.

The story is both hilarious and heartfelt.

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The goal of the average romantic comedy is to keep us laughing as the love story unfolds. Somewhere along the way a conflict emerges, causing viewers to feel just as sad and hopeless as the protagonist who just had their heart broken. The best rom-coms, however, offer plenty of funny lines and moments while also tugging the heart strings in a profound, genuine way.

“The Big Sick” does just that and more with its excellent writing and acting. The humor is there thanks to the main couple’s interaction as well as Kumail’s one-man shows. But what sets this film apart is the big shift when his love interest breaks things off and falls ill, creating tension when her parents enter the story. Kumail’s struggle against real issues in order to win Emily, no matter what his or her parents think, sets up a story that’s just as touching as it is funny.