One hundred years ago, one of the silent film era’s highest-paid stars and first sex symbols created his own production company to avoid being typecast as an exotic villain or forbidden lover. For three years, this Japanese superstar was in complete control of the films in which he appeared. He produced them; he helped write, design, direct and edit them — an extraordinary feat, at the time. He wanted to change how American audiences saw Asians in film. For a while, he succeeded, but by 1922 he left Hollywood for Japanese and European cinema, returning 27 years later only to be typecast for the rest of his career. His name was Sessue Hayakawa.
Eighty-three years ago, the first Chinese-American star in Hollywood lost the role she was born to play to a white actress. Her studio, MGM, refused to consider her for the lead in The Good Earth, a film about Chinese farmers struggling to survive in pre-World War I China, and instead offered her the part of a deceitful song girl who destroys the family with her feminine wiles. To add insult to injury, MGM cast no one of Asian descent in the lead roles for The Good Earth, and they were rewarded for it: Luise Rainer’s yellowface won the Academy Award for Best Actress that year. Meanwhile, the disenchanted Chinese-American star faded into the background, trying to make the best of B-movies and Poverty Row. Her name was Anna May Wong.
I wish these two stars, largely forgotten today, were the only examples of racism against Asians and Asian Americans in the American film industry, but you know I could go on. There’s Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell. Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles and pretty much everything in Big Trouble in Little China. Hollywood has always preferred to use white actors to tell Asian stories or to reduce Asian actors to either bit parts or stereotypes, always making them the butt of the joke.
And now it’s 2018. Now we have Crazy Rich Asians, the first studio movie to feature an all-Asian cast since 1993’s The Joy Luck Club. Are you sensing a “finally” in that last sentence? Because you should.
It’s taken 100 years for this movie to happen.
Directed by Jon M. Chu and based on the novel by Kevin Kwan, Crazy Rich Asians is not only the perfect rom-com, but it’s the first rom-com I’ve seen since maybe My Big Fat Greek Wedding that hasn’t bored me to tears (recent surprisingly great Netflix rom-coms Set It Up and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Pie Society notwithstanding). Part of that has to do with the rom-com formula, ever present and familiar thanks to Shakespeare and Austen, but a bigger part of it is the homogeneity of Hollywood rom-coms in general. After a while, all the Kate Hudsons and Reese Witherspoons and Matthew McConaugheys and Ryan Reynoldses start to blend together. So do the New Yorks and LAs and Seattles. So do the wedding planners and plucky journalists and manic pixie dream girls.
Crazy Rich Asians is a breath of fresh air, in every way imaginable. From its outstanding cast — featuring Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Gemma Chan, Awkwafina and the indomitable Michelle Yeoh — to its entirely new and unfamiliar setting in Singapore, I honestly can’t remember the last time I watched a rom-com and sat there completely riveted.
The story of Rachel Chu (Wu), a Chinese-American woman who is meeting the family of her Chinese boyfriend, Nick Young (Golding), for the first time, only to discover that they are one of the richest families in Singapore, contains just about all the rom-com tropes you can think of, but for once they feel new.
When Rachel sees the $200 billion-dollar estate that belongs to Nick’s grandmother, you forget all about Lizzy Bennet walking through Pemberley for the first time. When Rachel, who has been criticized time and again for being a commoner with a fashion sense that doesn’t suit the absurdly rich, shows up at the film’s central wedding looking like Cinderella, you kind of want to cry because she’s the most beautiful Cinderella you’ve ever seen.
And that’s just what this film gives you on the surface. There’s so much to be said about the cultural implications of Crazy Rich Asians, but I’m the wrong person to say them: instead, I’ll direct you to this Twitter thread highlighting Asian Americans who have written about the film over the past few weeks. Every piece is well worth a read.
Beyond the cultural, though, there is the familial, and particularly the maternal. Fathers are largely absent from Crazy Rich Asians, leaving the non-romantic and most emotionally hard-hitting stories to the film’s mothers. Themes of sacrifice and selflessness, of doing what is best for your children even if it hurts you deeply, are the true heart of this film. And while there are very specific cultural contexts in which these mothers operate, these are themes that are familiar across cultures. My mother did something akin to what Rachel’s mother does to protect her children from a dangerous situation, and I could see my grandmother in the matriarch of the Young family, who unexpectedly attends the wedding with her granddaughter Astrid (Chan), just so Astrid will not have to show up alone on one of the worst days of her life.
It was these moments between mothers and daughters, fairly quiet and unremarkable in a film that goes out of its way to be spectacular and opulent, that moved me to tears in Crazy Rich Asians. Such depth of story beyond the central romance feels completely unprecedented in a studio Hollywood rom-com, and it’s here I’ll remind you again that it’s taken 100 years for this movie to be possible. It’s crazy that this movie feels so novel when it’s one of the oldest stories ever told. It’s crazy that this movie feels so rich, in every sense of the word, when it’s only because so many rom-coms that have come before are sanitized and whitewashed until they are almost comically indistinguishable from one another.
And it’s crazy people thought there was no audience for this movie. For a long time, I eschewed rom-coms because I thought they were the worst Hollywood had to offer. And they can be, when Hollywood underestimates women and makes movies that are stupid because it thinks women are too stupid to ask for more. The same can be said for audiences of color, who have been vocal in their demands for better since the days of Sessue Hayakawa and Anna May Wong but who are only just now being taken seriously.
One can only hope that Crazy Rich Asians is the first of many — in all genres, not just rom-coms. We need these stories. And we need the next 100 years of Hollywood to be better in every way than the last.
This is a good start.