'Crazy Rich Asians': A Not So Crazy Shift In Hollywood Films

"If Hollywood doesn't make more films like this, they are going to suffer and lose audiences."

What you need to know
  • Crazy Rich Asians has been released in the United States and will hit local screens in a fortnight
  • There’s enormous hype surrounding the rom-com, as well as conversation marking the film as an historical shift in cinema representation
  • A recent study found films with culturally diverse cast fare better at the box-office, however diverse actors are still grossly underrepresented on big and small screens

For those of you old enough to remember, Crazy Rich Asians is the first major studio release featuring an Asian lead and a big Asian cast since The Joy Luck Club in 1993.

It took Hollywood filmmakers 25 years to re-visit this watershed moment for Asians in cinema.

The film is an adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s 2013 social satire best-selling novel of the same name.

On Thursday, actor Gemma Chan who plays Young’s cousin shared an image with Lisa Lu. Lu plays Young’s grandmother and was also the star of The Joy Luck Club. 

“It’s been 25 years I feel so many things -- grateful, proud, happy, emotional,” she wrote.

"I hope it is just the beginning. That it opens the door to more diverse, inclusive and authentic storytelling, not just from other Asian perspectives but any group which has been underrepresented in the past,” Chan said.

“That any young girl or boy watching it will feel that they are worthy of being the centre of their own narrative. That anything is possible.”

Director Jon Chu says that Crazy Rich Asians is “not just a movie, it’s a movement.”

Crazy Rich Asians
DIVERSITY PAYS AT THE BOX OFFICE, BUT STILL LACKING ON SCREENS

A  report from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) released in February, shows that in 2016 that films and television shows with casts attuned to America’s diversity had the highest median global box office and return on investment.

The study on diversity in Hollywood shows what the blockbuster hit Black Panther has also demonstrated at the box office -- diversity sells.

Black Panther ended its domestic run with more than $US700 million -- this puts it in the top spot for any comic book adaptation ahead of Avengers: Infinity War and Marvel's The Avengers.

Black Panther was a big box office success.

On the US all-time movie list it comes in third place behind Avatar (US $760 million) and Star Wars: The Force Awakens (US$936 million).

However, despite diversity being financially rewarding, the UCLA study also  showed that minorities in film and television remained sorely underrepresented - both in front of and behind the camera.

Ethnic minorities make up nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population in 2016, only 13.9 percent of the year's film leads were people of colour.

In 2016 Screen Australia analysed television dramas and found only 18 percent of main characters were culturally diverse despite non-Anglo Australians accounting for 32 percent of the population at the time.

"The proportion of Asians in Australia is about the same as African-Americans in the United States but Asians on our screens here are far less likely to be seen," Lena Nahlous, Executive Director of Diversity Arts Australia told ten daily.

A recent British comedy skit on the BBC (featuring Gemma Chan) satirises the discrimination Asian and coloured actors face in the film and television industry.

When Chan auditions for a fictitious role, a casting agent asks her if she can be “more white’. When an coloured woman walks in, it is assumed she is there as an assistant and the casting agents  pass on their coffee orders.

FILM RECEPTION THUS FAR

To date, Crazy Rich Asians has rated very well on Rotten Tomatoes -- with critics and audiences giving it a 93 per cent rating.

“In pulling together so many terrific yet unknown or little-seen Asian performers in one movie, Crazy Rich Asians makes you think about all the talent—performers of all colors and ethnic backgrounds—that goes untapped, just because Hollywood doesn’t know what to do with it. Now, there’s no longer an excuse,” Time reviewer Stephanie Zacherek wrote.

However, Chu warns the film doesn’t attempt to represent all Asians, nor should any film seek to.

“It’s unfair for one movie to represent all these people. One movie that represents [all] Asians — that’s just ridiculous.” Chu said.

However, if this can crack the door a little bit so that other stories can be told, and it spawns a resurgence in these stories getting shown at the highest levels possible -- I would love to have this.”

Nahlous remembers watching Joy Luck Club 25 years ago and is disappointed it's taken so long for "this to happen again given there is so much hunger from audiences for different stories and storytellers."

"I fear this will be another one-off but I really hope is isn't. It does feel like this movie is part of a movement, a tide changing. And the reality is if Hollywood doesn't make more films like this, they are going to suffer and lose audiences" Nahlous said.

Crazy Rich Asians has just been released in the US and hits local screens at the end of the month.

Contact the author at alattouf@networkten.com.au

Antoinette Lattouf is a Senior Reporter at ten daily and Director of Media Diversity Australia.