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Crazy Rich Asians dared to make Asian lives aspirational. Its success could change Hollywood.

Crazy Rich Asians’ crazy rich success could mean more stories about less crazy rich Asian-American people.

Constance Wu in Crazy Rich Asians.
Constance Wu in Crazy Rich Asians.
Sanja Bucko/Warner Bros.
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

2018’s box office Cinderella was a Cinderella story itself.

Crazy Rich Asians, the first major Hollywood movie featuring an Asian and Asian-American cast in 25 years (since 1993’s The Joy Luck Club), made $237 million worldwide at the box office and became the highest-grossing romantic comedy of the past decade.

The movie tells the tale of the ultra-rich and very gorgeous Young family, particularly as it pertains to Rachel Chu — the woman who, unbeknownst to her, is dating the dashing heir apparent to the family’s fortune. This setup seems like standard rom-com fare, complete with a side of upper-crust indulgence. But it’s the first time that Asian and Asian-American people have been allowed to indulge in this type of fantasy in a Hollywood movie.

It’s remarkable that it’s finally happened, but also that it took so long to happen.

Ironically, the film’s success is linked to one of the most common criticisms waged against it: that the movie uses affluence to sell its diversity. To some critics, by celebrating the lives of only very rich and very beautiful Asian people, the movie failed to really capture the beating heart of Asian and Asian-American people. But even its biggest adversaries might agree that you don’t have to fully embrace the affluence porn or the upper-crust narrative of Crazy Rich Asians to understand that its success has the power to break down barriers.

Crazy Rich Asians sells the relatable dream of extreme affluence

Crazy Rich Asians’ appeal is in how it sells the billionaire fantasy of the Young family. Even with a modest budget (a reported $30 million), it was the year’s most sumptuous movie this side of Wakanda, showcasing lavish condos and homes and letting Michelle Yeoh’s Eleanor Young flaunt lavish fashion (her character wears Valentino in the kitchen) and a ring with jewels as big as meteorites from Yeoh’s personal collection. And when Peik Lin explains how the Youngs amassed their fortune, or when Nick Young explains who his cousins are and what their social status is, it sounds more like a Greek myth or superhero origin tale than a story about regular people.

Luxury seduction is central to the story — Eleanor wants to protect her son Nick and the family’s fortune from Rachel; Rachel’s goodness is based on her being able to walk away from Nick and his wealthy life; and viewers, who have seen director Jon M. Chu unfurl this glitzy universe, wonder if they could do the same thing as Rachel and turn down this opulence if given the chance.

But the luxury serves another purpose here too: It makes the Youngs aspirational and desirable.

“It’s clear nobody had faith in a fluffy rom-com about the lives and loves of Asian people going down smoothly without a heaping spoonful of affluence porn,” Emily Yoshida wrote in her review of the film for Vulture.

In movies, most often adaptations, affluence and luxury have been a way for Hollywood to make something esoteric or niche appeal to more mainstream audiences.

Nancy Meyers’s stories in It’s Complicated and Something’s Gotta Give have been lauded for exploring the romantic lives of women, specifically older women, whose stories usually don’t get told in Hollywood movies. But one reason those movies are alluring to a wider audience than older women is that their protagonists have the best homes — including kitchens that people would murder for — and the plushest lives money can buy.

The BDSM components of 50 Shades of Grey were smuggled into a film with mass appeal via Christian Grey’s affluence — in the cinematic adaptations, the fantasy of being Grey’s submissive was overshadowed, for many, by the high-end perks that came with it.

And Tony Stark’s immense wealth and technological trappings in Iron Man — the movie that kicked off Marvel’s Cinematic Universehelped turned a B-List comic book hero into an A-List cinematic figure.

There are, of course, different ways in which the superrich are portrayed. Movies like The Wolf of Wall Street and Margin Call flay the financial sector and suggest that money rots your soul. Similarly, reality TV series like The Real Housewives, Vanderpump Rules, and their many cousins in Bravo’s stable of programming operate on cynically breaking down the fantasy that rich people are exceptionally smart or powerful by showing us very affluent people acting like fools. And we can’t forget the immortal lesson of The Great Gatsby: that money will never buy us happiness or love.

This all raises the question of what it is about wealth that eases Hollywood’s qualms over making a movie that deviates from the norm. And in turn, what the moviegoing audience attaches to affluence — moral value? aspiration? wish-fulfillment? — that reinforces Hollywood’s fidelity to it.

Crazy Rich Asians, while satirizing the gaudiness of some characters and the outright fiendish behavior of others, presents Eleanor and the Young family’s wealth as something earned.

In its opening scene, Crazy Rich Asians shows an all-white, British hotel staff treating Eleanor like trash with a side of racism (she’s told to go to Chinatown). The implication is that these people couldn’t imagine an Asian family having money or outranking them in the social hierarchy. Eleanor’s money becomes an equalizer, and the opening scene plays out as a revenge fantasy in which she turns the tables on some horrible people.

That’s bolstered by the movie’s kind depiction of the ultra-wealthy and generous Astrid, and the several times the movie mentions Eleanor’s “sacrifice” — while she plays the villain, her actions aren’t so much malicious or evil as they are acts of protection for her family. Though the film contains less savory depictions of rich people acting bombastic and fiendish, in Crazy Rich Asians, it’s possible that you can have money and still be a good person who is kind, loyal, and protective of family.

And reflexively, the fairy tale-like riches in Crazy Rich Asians offer viewers a glimpse into the humanity of Asian people — in characters like Eleanor, Rachel, and Rachel’s mother — that Hollywood has rarely made room for in the past.

The next win for Asian-American cinematic representation will be when movies regularly feature Asian Americans who aren’t crazy rich

Many critics have speared Crazy Rich Asians’ attention to the 0.1 percent of rich Asians, calling it not really a win for representation since it failed to tell the stories of all Asian people.

“Part of the way that this movie is being sold to everyone is as this big win for diversity, as this representative juggernaut, as this great Asian hope,” Sangeetha Thanapal, a Singaporean-Indian writer and activist, told the New York Times. “I think that’s really problematic because if you’re going to sell yourself as that, then you bloody better actually have actual representation” of Singaporean minorities — Malays, Indians, and ethnic minorities,” she said.

The movie was also dragged for not being “Asian” enough.

“In terms of representing all of Asians and Asian Americans, it doesn’t hit that mark. It is a very specific story to a specific enclave, and even within that enclave, a specific class of that enclave,” Nancy Wang Yuen, a sociologist at Biola University, told the Washington Post.

To be fair, the movie, by its title alone, never promised a serious story of financial haves and have-nots; to bury it for that reason seems irrational. It was never billed as “a deep meditation on the troubling financial inequality of Singapore.”

And beyond its title, the movie is a story about assimilation, immigration, Rachel’s mother’s struggle to move to America to give her child a better life. It isn’t some kind of revelation about how romantic love triumphs, of just a vapid showcase of wealth. Rather, the real romance in the movie comes from Rachel teaching Eleanor about her family’s experience, and Eleanor’s acceptance and realization of Rachel’s family experience.

When it comes to not telling the multiple stories of the Asian and Asian-American experience, members of cast acknowledged the criticism and are aware of it.

“I think Asians are not a monolith, you can’t lump them all together,” Constance Wu told Rolling Stone prior to the film coming out, anticipating the knock that Crazy Rich Asians might leave some Asians and Asian Americans feeling left out. “I do think people might be upset about it, because while it does share this experience, this experience might not reflect their own and they might still be looking for their story. But hopefully there will be more opportunities, because one story can’t represent the whole.”

Those comments underline how the frustration with Crazy Rich Asians and its perceived lack of representation seems to be more about the overall lack of representation of Asians and Asian-Americans in Hollywood.

“We can sugarcoat it all we want, but the moment you bring up an Asian-led movie, there’s one example to point to, and that’ll be us,” Chu, the director, told the Hollywood Reporter, explaining the pressure of the movie to succeed. “To be on the biggest stage with the biggest stakes, that’s what we asked for.”

Chu was explaining the standard that, prior to Crazy Rich Asians’ release, he knew the movie would inevitably set. If Crazy Rich Asians failed, Hollywood executives would be able to point to it and claim that movies about Asian people do not sell. But because it did so well, there’s hope it could break the ice for other movies to be made that otherwise wouldn’t have had a chance.

That said, Crazy Rich Asians’ commitment to portraying Asian and Asian-American lives isn’t immune from criticism. Asians and Asian Americans wanted to see the movie portray Asians and Asian Americans accurately because it was the only major Hollywood studio movie in 2018 to try.

And while some thought the movie’s narrow, “crazy and rich” purview meant it stumbled in that regard, it’s important to remember that thousands of movies came out in the decades between The Joy Luck Club and Crazy Rich Asians that didn’t feature Asian people enough to even warrant a conversation about how accurately they were portrayed. Nor were there lengthy pieces written about how all the other movies that came out in 2018 weren’t “Asian” enough.

Perhaps in the future, there will be stories about Asian and Asian-American people who aren’t extremely wealthy or extremely beautiful, the way they are in Crazy Rich Asians. Maybe there will be Hollywood movies about Asian Americans who aren’t crazy or rich, but sane and middle class. Or maybe there will be an Asian-American Spider-Man, or an Asian family that lives in a haunted house, or an Asian-American mother turned assassin who’s ready to take revenge on her family’s killers.

The eventual goal of the ongoing conversation about representation in Hollywood is to get to a place where we don’t have to talk about representation. Where we don’t have to celebrate movies because they reach ethnic and racial milestones — like being the first movie in decades to feature an Asian-American cast — because representation is the norm. The hope is that someday, American movies will wholly reflect the diverse American audience watching them.

Because of Crazy Rich Asians’ success, it’s now going to be harder for executives to say that no one wants to see movies with Asian or Asian-American leads. And because it was such a hit, there may be more projects created by Asians and Asian Americans about the Asian-American experience in the US. NBC News pointed out in September that a slew of Asian and Asian-American-led projects are now in production:

Last month, Chu and the team behind “Crazy Rich Asians” began working on a sequel to their first film. “Master of None” co-creator Alan Yang started shooting ”Tigertail,” a Netflix drama about a multi-generational Asian family. Ken Jeong landed a Netflix stand-up special that will also be directed by Chu. Amy Pascal’s Pascal Pictures bought the rights to ”Ayesha At Last,” a romantic dramedy novel about a young Muslim girl.

Those projects, along with a sequel to To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and an upcoming rom-com that stars Ali Wong and Randall Park, will tell even more stories that feature Asians and Asian Americans. Some of those stories won’t be anything like Crazy Rich Asians; some may even be in direct opposition to its story. But that doesn’t mean Crazy Rich Asians stumbled or failed. Rather, it means it succeeded enough in chipping away at the standard quo for these stories to follow.

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