How retrograde is this: One of the first film producers interested in Crazy Rich Asians wanted certain key roles to be rewritten as Caucasian. Shocking? Not if you know Hollywood's history of whitewashing - the practice of casting white actors to play minorities - Asians, African Americans, Native Americans, Pacific Islanders and so on.
Here's a quick reminder. Referencing back to 1915 when the very white Mary Pickford was cast as Cio Cio San, tragic Chinese beauty in the film, Madame Butterfly, Hollywood has been whitewashing minority characters FOR OVER A CENTURY.
1937. Paul Muni, white American actor, and Luise Rainer, white German actress, (both previous Oscar-winners) were cast as poor Chinese farmers in Imperial China in the screen adaptation of Pearl Buck's masterpiece, The Good Earth. (Recently viewed, the makeup is ludicrous. Rainer looks like Meryl Streep with her eyes taped.)
1946. Another Pearl Buck novel about China, Dragon Seed, was adapted to the screen. The Chinese heroine, Jade, was played by an exaggeratedly slant-eyed...Katherine Hepburn. ??? Mind-boggling.
The practice continued down the decades.Whites in blackface, yellowface, redface. 1949. Jeanne Crain cast as a black girl passing for white in Pinky. Jennifer Jones cast as a Eurasian beauty in Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing. 1956. Marlon Brando ludicrously cast as a Japanese! in Teahouse of the August Moon. Whitewashed films with big Hollywood names never slowed down. They prevailed through the 60s, 70s, 80s 90s, and galloped right into the Millenia.
More recently. 2013. Johnny Depp plays Tonto in The Lone Ranger. (Yes, it was a spoof. But still insulting to Native Americans.) 2015. In the disastrous film, Aloha, set in Hawai'i, the very pale-faced Emma Stone plays a Chinese-Hawaiian in weird, tan makeup. (Especially nauseating to me, a Native Hawaiian.) 2017. Scarlett Johannson plays Japanese cyber-punk Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell. Plus dozens more. Fill in the blanks.
Yes, established movie stars are bankable. Unknowns are not. So maybe it's more than institutional racism. The problem is, 90% of Hollywood film executives are white. Which leaves non-whites grossly under-represented as film makers and actors. Until there is more diversity at the top, for all it's 'progressive politics,' Hollywood will remain stunningly retrograde.
By my reckoning, from the release of The Good Earth in 1937 to 1993 when The Joy Luck Club was released, the only major Hollywood movies with predominantly Asian casts were films about Martial Arts, Triad Wars, and opiated thugs who spit.
No wonder Crazy Rich Asians is being hailed as not just a movie but a revolution powered by phenomenal box office receipts. As of December 2018, the film had earned over $238,000,000 global dollars, against a $30,000,000 budget.
In spite of its banalities - its rom-com tropes, ear-splitting mandopop soundtrack, and spoofing of trans-national plutocracy, Crazy Rich Asians is the first Asian-American-centric story to hit the big screen in a generation. A sexy, funny, shockingly outrageous film with a slangy stew of languages - Malaysian, American, Singaporean, British, Australian - which explains its global appeal. Best of all, it's powered by an all Asian cast. Think of it. For twenty-five years Asian-Americans have had no real presence on the big screen, no representation of their lives.
Unlike that other breakout film, Black Panther - a cathartic film that confronts America's history of slave labor and earned over $1.2 billion global dollars - Crazy Rich Asians doesn't wage war on America's past neglect of Asian Americans. With their world-wide digital footprint and phenomenal purchasing power, they don't need payback. What they want - and deserve - is representation. Finally, in an over-the-top spoof, it's here. A film that's perceived as universal rather than just Asian because it speaks to each of us - anyone who's ever been an outsider. Anyone who has longed to belong.
With its eye ever on the bottom-line, Hollywood has always been curiously slow to grasp movie audiences' saturation points (Rocky VI? Batman X?) and changing tastes. Television seems to be quicker on the draw, with prime-time multi-cultural series winning awards and loyal fans. But we're concerned here with big-screen major studio releases on a global scale.
We live in chaotic, incendiary times. We long for movies that reassure us that we count. Stories that speak to us, to our individual ethnicities. Box office receipts from Black Panther and CRA will hopefully jolt Hollywood awake to the financial and moral imperatives to make more films of diversity with authentic actors.
Of course, in all candour, there are minuses galore in Crazy Rich Asians. It omits Singlish - the patois of Singaporeans. The casting is a mix of Chinese, Japanese, Korea diaspora-actors of different nationalities that excludes real South and Southeast Asians - Malays, Indians, Eurasians - largest populations in Singapore.
And there is blatant tokenism. The only real South Asians glimpsed are house-servants and Gurkha guards. Invisibility - a form of racism by omission. (Although, again, the film is meant as a selective send-up of wealthy plutocrats. )
Singaporean critics have condemned the film as representing the worst of their country and completely erasing minorities, the poor, the marginalized. "It's not a film made for Singaporeans, but rather a high-fantasy escapist film made for maximum appeal to rich East-Asians."
But, still. With its cliched but appealing love story, its regard for the sacredness of family, and its old-fashioned take-off on The Great Gatsby - rich girls in flapper dresses dancing to Singaporean jazz bands - Crazy Rich Asians is the highest grossing romantic comedy of the last ten years. And the sixth highest grossing ever. Jon Chu, Director, wanted the movie to convey the old, classic Hollywood movies 'with style and pizzazz.' His synchronized water-ballet is a tribute to the Busby Berkley films of the 1930s.
Mixed in with the crassness and grossly exaggerated wealth of CRA, there are genuinely touching scenes: three generations of family wrapping jiaozi dumplings in the old, traditional way. A mahjong scene where a mother and an American 'interloper' compete for her son's love, both fearing they will lose. And predictably, heartfelt lectures on familial responsibilities vs. momentary passions.
The confession scene between the China-born mother and her Americanized daughter reduced me to tears. Likewise, the over-the-top wedding scene with its 'sappy' Elvis Presley love song. Tears, belly-laughs - there's been such a dearth in recent films, we long for such catharsis.
And there's definitely laughter. Youtube star, Awkwafina, as Goh Peik Lin, with her hip-hop swagger and killer comedic voice, urges her American friend to never kowtow to her boyfriend's forbidding mother. "She's playing 'chicken' with you! But you can't swerve. Chickens are bitches! You gotta' walk right up to her and tell her, "Bok! Bok! Bitch."
Again, Crazy Rich Asians is not War and Peace. It's a feel-good rom-com with million dollar props. The excitement here is that the all-Asian cast is a breakthrough, long overdue, which is already paving the way for more - and more realistic - Asian-American films. Thanks to Kevin Kwan, the book's author, and Jon Chu, hopefully there will be no more cliche, racist roles offered to Asian actors - evil dragon ladies, bow-legged uncles pattering in ching-chong - while the major Asian roles are changed to Caucasian, or worse, given to whites made up in yellowface.
The Hollywood practice of whitewashing minorities (of any color) is a gross anachronism. It has to be abolished. Likewise, the word 'minority.'
Finally, I want to address certain mainstream film critics, Americans, Brits, Asians, who - rather than applaud the groundbreaking casting, and the ultra feel-goodness of the film - excoriated Crazy Rich Asians across the board as "...embarrassing," "...gauche," "...opulence porn," "...revolting film about rich white wannabe's," "disgraceful," "...disgusting," "...an embarrassment to Asians."
My response to them is this: Fangsong Huo Kefu Ta! Get over it! Revolutions are not about good taste. Or, to quote Awkwafina... "Bok! Bok! Bitch."
Thanks, and Imua.
(This post is dedicated to my beloved uncle, Ayau Kam, Sr. who instilled in me a deep love of films. Once a month we went to the Chinese Cinema in Honolulu. The first adult movie I ever saw was Ben Hur, in Shanghanese.)