With the release of Crazy Rich Asians and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, the creatives involved talk about the importance of representation and the pressure that comes with it

It feels like this week, in many ways, will be seen as something of a litmus test for Hollywood with both Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians and Jenny Han’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before heading from the bookstore to the screen. Crazy Rich Asians tells the story of Rachel, an NYU professor who travels with her boyfriend to Singapore and learns he’s actually the son of the richest family on the island. To All the Boys … is set to debut on Netflix and is about Lara Jean, a teen romantic who discovers her private love letters have been mailed to their recipients. They’re both relatable, whip-smart protagonists, and they both happen to be Asian.

Crazy Rich Asians review – glossy romcom is a vital crowd-pleaser
4 out of 5 stars.
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In 2018 this shouldn’t be a surprising addendum, and yet female protagonists of color are still a rarity in Hollywood. USC Annenberg’s latest study “Inequality in 1,100 Popular Films” found that of the top 100 films of 2017, only 33 had a female protagonist, and within that number, only four of them were women of color. That number remained largely unchanged from 2016 and 2015, leading the study to conclude that “clearly, there were very few – if any – leading roles available to female actors from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups across the most financially lucrative movies in Hollywood.”

You can see this trend extend to the romantic comedy genre. Love is a concept that has obvious universal appeal, yet the most-funded romcoms have by and large focused primarily on the lives of white characters. Within the 100 top-grossing Hollywood films spanning over 38 years, only a small handful feature people of color (Hitch and Maid in Manhattan, to name a couple), and not a single one features an Asian woman as the lead. In this aspect alone, the fact that both Crazy Rich Asians and To All the Boys feature a female Asian protagonist is remarkable.

“I hoped that I would be a lead in my career, of course that was a hope of mine. But I never thought I would be so lucky to be the lead of a romcom,” said Lana Condor, who plays Lara Jean in To All the Boys. “Simply because I don’t get those opportunities, for probably many reasons, but one of would likely be because I’m Asian. So when I got the audition and it said they were looking for an Asian American girl to play the lead love interest in a romcom, I was shocked. Truly. I just had never gotten that before.”

Last year, the big-screen adaptation of Ghost in the Shell came under fire for casting Scarlett Johansson as Motoko Kusanagi, a Japanese woman whose mind is inserted into a cyborg body. In response to the backlash, screenwriter Max Landis said in a vlog that it was unfortunate yet predictable, as “there are no A-list Asian female celebrities right now on an international level” who could have sold that film. Ghost in the Shell ended up not making its money back domestically, but the belief that a film needs a familiar white face – even when it doesn’t make sense within the framework of the story – to win over audiences is an enduring one.

And it’s an idea that has continued to create a rather homogeneous landscape. “I have had experiences where they say open to all ethnicities, and then I get there and it’s a bunch of blonde, blue-eyed beautiful ladies. And then myself,” said Condor, in talking about her experiences of sometimes being the only Asian in the waiting room for auditions. “And then I have to ask, why am I here? If we’re all auditioning for the same role, it clearly looks like you [the production] already have a picture in your mind.”

Crazy Rich Asians author Kevin Kwan is no stranger to Hollywood tending towards a white default. “Crazy Rich Asians was released in May 2013, and by April there was so much advance buzz that Hollywood was paying notice, and several big time producers were approaching my people and asking about the rights,” said Kwan. “Within that group there was one prominent producer who said, ‘Oh, I would be interested in this if we could change Rachel into a white girl,’ basically. And we did not even bother responding.”

When asked if the story could have been the same had Rachel been white, Kwan said “No, not at all. I think this person completely missed the point. But this was extremely early days, before the book came out … I think it was a request born out of sheer ignorance about the project, and it was a very, at the time, 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.”

To All the Boys author Jenny Han had a similar brush with Hollywood whitewashing when it came time to consider a film adaptation. “Early on, I had conversations with producers who were interested in optioning the book, but the interest faded when I told them Lara Jean had to be Asian,” Han said. “They didn’t understand why she had to be Asian when there was nothing explicitly in the story that required her to be. For me, it’s not a matter of why, she simply is. And in a more equitable world, I wouldn’t have to justify that.”

Finding partners who were supportive of keeping Rachel and Lara Jean Asian was just the first bar to clear for these productions. They then had to consider the many nuances (and burdens) of representation, in a field that hasn’t seen a major studio-funded, all-Asian cast in a contemporary film since 1993’s The Joy Luck Club. This affected Crazy Rich Asians, in particular, where Kwan and the director, Jon M Chu, had to figure out how to authentically portray an Asian diaspora.

“There are characters from Singapore, Thailand, Hong Kong, the Philippines … that was the reality of my book and it showed the diaspora of modern Asians today, so I wanted to as much as possible replicate that with the castings,” said Kwan, who worked alongside Chu to fill more than 70 roles with Asian actors. “A Hong Kong actor should play the Hong Kong Chinese role of Eddie, for example. Nick Young should be from Singapore, and should have gone to Oxford, or at least be able to fake that accent. So we really as much as possible strived for authenticity. But I think what we found was that’s not the reality of what’s out there in terms of the talent pool. We found some roles were very easy to cast, and other roles proved more of a challenge.”

The biggest challenge was finding a leading man for Rachel’s boyfriend, Nick Young. “We auditioned literally hundreds of people for the role, and went back to many of them, and it was like a Goldilocks and the Three Bears type thing where there were so many talented actors, but there wasn’t that one person where we could all just say ‘Yes, this is Nick’ until we met Henry Golding,” said Kwan. “And then instantly we knew he was perfect for the role, but at the same time we knew he was [biracial] British-Malaysian, and we wanted to be conscious of how people would feel about that.” And indeed, the production did come under fire for Golding’s casting as a full-Asian character. (In contrast, Kwan said, Meryl Streep can play “an Australian, a Danish person, a South African” and any number of white characters without facing the same level of scrutiny.)

Kwan attributed the difficult of finding a leading man to the fact that being an actor just historically hasn’t been seen as a realistic job choice due to the lack of roles for Asians. “That leading man quality is so extremely rare, and we were finding in the group of people who could play Nicholas Young, between the ages of 25 to 35, was a challenge,” said Kwan. “Because most attractive, dynamic, smart, 25-year-old Asians aren’t becoming actors. The ones especially from Asia are working for Google or Goldman Sachs, or they’re neurosurgeons. That’s kind of part of the experience of growing up Asian, and being an actor has not been viable in a meaningful way for most Asian people.”

According to USC, Asian characters made up only 4.8% of speaking characters in Hollywood films last year, despite being 5.7% of the US population. Last year there were only four Asian leads in the 100 top-grossing films: Kumail Nanjiani in the Big Sick, Jackie Chan in The Foreigner, Ali Fazal in Victoria and Abdul, and Steven Yeun in the animated The Star. It’s this grim landscape for Asian American actors that has led to outcry over films such as Ghost in the Shell, The Great Wall and Doctor Strange, which were viewed as lost opportunities to give a key role to an Asian American actor.

The same often cannot be said of the experiences of actors whose careers are based in Asia, and it’s this cultural divide that Kwan noted on the set of Crazy Rich Asians. “There was a whole homegrown contingent of Singaporean actors and Malaysian Chinese actors, who had very successful careers in their home countries that were also part of this movie. And they themselves didn’t fully grasp why this movie was so important for Asian Americans, because their struggles as actors were creative struggles,” said Kwan. “It was never about race for them. They didn’t have to go through the issues of being the only Asian in the room, or the only Asian on set. And they never had to play these stereotypical roles because they had come from this other world where they were born in the majority.”

With so much riding on the success of both of these films, it’s near impossible for these movies to simply exist as just that. In a 2015 Salon piece, Sonia Saraiya called this the “just one guy” problem: “a situation where an actor or a film/show becomes a lone representative of an underrepresented group, and as such has to navigate a morass of identity politics”. Both films are under pressure to not only speak to a broad, Asian diaspora experience, but also make enough of a splash at the box office (or Netflix viewership, for To All the Boys) to convince Hollywood that Asian leads are even a viable option going forward.

It’s a difficult position to put both films in, but both Kwan and Han spoke of wanting their works to exist as just good stories first and foremost. “I don’t think [To All the Boys] needs to accomplish anything more than be what it already is – a warm-hearted story about family and growing up and falling in love for the first time,” said Han, when asked about what she hopes the film adaptation accomplishes. “I think that sometimes we put undue pressure on stories featuring people of color, and I hope we get to a point where it’s not such a rarity to see a person of color be the hero of a story, so that it can just be a story and not have to carry so much weight.”

“I don’t think this movie can be everything for everyone,” said Kwan about Crazy Rich Asians. “And I think it’s completely unrealistic to. I just hope that, if this movie succeeds, we’re just part of a greater movement that will allow so many more stories to be told from a diversity of voices.”

Crazy Rich Asians, in particular, has been criticized for not portraying a wider spectrum of Asian ethnicities and backgrounds, but Kwan says the castings in the film are true to the focus of his books. “It’s based on this very small clan of extremely insular, extremely privileged Singaporean Chinese people,” said Kwan. “And the fact of the matter is, you really don’t see that many dark-skinned Asians in that world. It’s very segregated. It’s very insular.”

And that’s the thing with the burden of representation: when we only have a few examples of films that feature people who may even remotely resemble us, it’s hard not to examine all the ways in which that piece of media may uplift or fail us. In contrast, films featuring majority white characters rarely need to put themselves under the same level of scrutiny – their characters are able to be shallow or unlikable, or their stories plain bad, without that having any wider repercussions. Cameron Crowe’s Aloha tanked at the box office and was critically panned, for example, and yet it didn’t sound the death knell for the acting careers of Emma Stone, Bradley Cooper or Rachel McAdams, nor did it make studios wary about producing any more romance or drama films. Chu, meanwhile, has said that if Crazy Rich Asians doesn’t do well, a number of Asian-centric projects may not receive a green light.

And this isn’t to say studio-funded Hollywood films represent the entirely of Asian contributions to this field. While Hollywood has remained mostly homogeneous in this regard for the last 25 years, the independent film scene has been thriving with works from Asian creatives. Film festivals like the Bay Area’s CAAMFest, New York’s Asian Film Festival, and Los Angeles’s Asian Pacific Film Festival have existed for years to showcase the ingenuity coming out of Asian communities. Films like Mina Shum’s Meditation Park and Lena Khan’s The Tiger Hunter have explored the Asian and American experiences with humor, sensitivity and grace. Aneesh Chaganty’s Searching, featuring John Cho, made waves at Sundance for its ingenuous storytelling method, and will debut in theaters this month.

These films have all been created without major studio backing. This does not make any of these films lesser; they are just not able to reach as wide an audience as if they were funded and marketed by a large studio. The hope with films like Crazy Rich Asians and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is not that they will literally represent all Asians and all experiences; it’s that they will shift Hollywood executives’ thinking so that they do fund and greenlight more works normally only seen within the festival circuits.

Kwan has hopes that the current momentum can only mean better things on the horizon. “I really had this moment where I felt this new conviction to double down and keep creating new content that can really be a resource for the amazing talent that’s out there,” Kwan said. “I know how to write, so what I’m going to do is I try to create as many new projects as possible, to really fill the space and give work to all these amazing actors.”