It’s been 25 years since the release of “The Joy Luck Club,” the first major Hollywood movie to have an all-Asian cast and portray the contemporary Asian-American experience on screen. Since then, there has been a severe lack of Asian characters, never mind an entirely Asian cast or an Asian-focused plot. Even after #OscarsSoWhite criticized the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the lack of diversity in their nominations during the 87th and 88th Academy Awards, and attempts were made to remedy the issue by casting more people of color, the lack of Asian representation was still troubling. Yet diversity advocates seemed to overlook this problem, notably Chris Rock at the 88th Academy Awards when he brought three Asian children on the stage and called them, “[PricewaterhouseCoopers’] most dedicated, accurate, and hard-working representatives.” While TV and online productions were thriving with Asian-focused stories such as “Fresh Off the Boat,” “Master of None,” and Wong Fu Production’s “Yappie,” mainstream film had almost nothing to show for it. Asian characters have frequently been used to serve the white person’s narrative, and often have no personalities or are made to display very stereotypically Asian behaviors, such as the asexual nerd or the Oriental idiot, and are in some instances entirely erased or replaced by white people (ahem, Emma Stone and Scarlett Johansson in 2015’s “Aloha” and 2017’s “Ghost in the Shell” respectively, in which they both depicted Asian characters).
That was, until the summer of 2018 rolled around, and we got not one but two amazing movies exclusively focused on Asian stories whose successes in the box office disproved Hollywood’s preconceived notion that movies need to feature white people to tell good stories and be successful.
Despite the many hurdles “Crazy Rich Asians” had to overcome, including choosing Warner Bros. Pictures to debut the film in theaters over Netflix’s safer and far superior offers as well as the obvious questions over whether its story will appeal to a mass audience, it was clearly a huge success. Globally, the movie made about $208 million in the box office, over six times its budget of $30 million. However, what was far more successful was its appeal to all people. When the film first hit theaters, I would often see Snapchat stories from my non-Asian friends about how the movie made them cry and how they felt Nick Young and Rachel Chu were the perfect couple. These stories made me cry tears of happiness because they were proof that people from all cultures loved a story that celebrated my own culture, further disproving Hollywood’s white-centered beliefs. Let’s also not forget how the movie unapologetically celebrated Asian culture; from the night market food stands that take from the well-known street food culture of Asian countries — and remind me of the streets of Shanghai where I would go to eat breakfast every day — to friends and family making dumplings together that remind me of the time when I attempted (and failed) at making dumplings with my parents; to the goosebump-inducing Mandarin cover of Coldplay’s “Yellow” that took the offensive term and turned it into a triumph of Asian beauty and pop culture. With the lack of whiteness in this movie, it is a miracle this movie was made at all, let alone make a profit SIX times its budget.
Hot off the heels of “Crazy Rich Asians” was “Searching,” a thriller that takes place entirely on computer screens and smartphones. While it unfortunately did not have as much hype surrounding it as “Crazy Rich Asians” did, it still marked another huge milestone in Hollywood as it cast an Asian man in a role that is typically given to white actors, making it the first thriller to star an Asian. The movie’s plot is also significant in that it successfully tells a modern-day story that warns us of the horrifying consequences of being deeply entrenched in social media. While “Searching” is more plot-driven compared to “Crazy Rich Asians,” it also broke Hollywood’s preconceived notions in that it depicted a much more loving relationship between an Asian parent and a child than the “tiger mom” abuse audiences are often exposed to. We also can’t forget that John Cho is finally the star of a major movie release after two years of the #StarringJohnCho campaign.
While both movies are as far from each other as genres can get, both movies celebrate Asians whose feelings of joy, rejection, and fear are shared by non-Asians, rather than as token props. Just as movies such as “Black Panther” and “Moonlight” focused on black character-centered narratives, “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Searching” have birthed people’s interests in Asian ones. Their influence will most certainly be felt throughout Hollywood as a reminder of the effects of such diverse storytelling for years to come and will continue to inspire Asians everywhere to share their own stories.
Ashley Zhou is a second-year software engineering major. She can be reached at email@example.com.