Michael Tow has already seen the movie “Crazy Rich Asians” four times and helped organize a buying spree to sell out an advance screening last week at AMC Loews Boston Common.
“As an Asian actor and producer, there are not many of us. When something as important as this comes out, we have to support it,” said Tow, who is also a financial planner in Brookline. “This to me is our ‘Black Panther.’ ”
‘Crazy Rich Asians’ comes to the screen with big expectations
Marvel’s “Black Panther” became a cultural moment for black Americans in February when Hollywood featured a black superhero from a futuristic black country with a mostly black cast. People bought out theaters and organized group screenings, helping to make “Black Panther” the highest-grossing superhero movie of all time in the United States.
As “Crazy Rich Asians” heads into its opening weekend, Asian-Americans like Tow want to send a message to Hollywood: Asian-American stories are as universal and enduring as anyone else’s, and the proof will be at the box office.
Asian-American entrepreneurs, influencers, and community leaders have rallied hundr of Asian-American business leaders, nonprofits, and celebrities across the country to snap up all the seats in theaters showing the romantic comedy adapted from Kevin Kwan’s best-selling novel of the same name. They’re spending anywhere from $1,100 to $5,000 for all the tickets and often giving them away for free.
“We realized Asian people don’t support Asian people,” said Bing Chen, one of the creators of #GoldOpen, and a digital media entrepreneur who helped build YouTube into a video juggernaut. “A lot of us realized it was time to counter that.”
There has been little unity, Chen explained, because Asian-Americans are not a monolithic group. There are about 20 million Asian-Americans with roots in more than 20 countries in East and Southeast Asia. They share no common struggle.
Studios have sporadically greenlighted Asian-American plot lines: “Joy Luck Club” (1993), “Better Luck Tomorrow” (2002), “The Namesake” (2006), the “Harold and Kumar” trilogy (2004, 2008, 2011), and “Gook” (2017).
But “Crazy Rich Asians” — a movie about contemporary Asian-American life with an all-Asian cast — could be the film that forces Hollywood to rethink how it portrays Asians. They can be leading men, they can be leading ladies, they can have mainstream appeal — no need to whitewash anymore. In order for the rom-com to be a bonafide hit, it will need more than just Asian-Americans filling the theaters.
Early tracking indicates that it’s not so crazy to think of Asian-Americans as bankable stars. According to Box Office Mojo, Warner Bros. projected “Crazy Rich Asians” to deliver a $29 million five-day opening, but the hype and strong reviews may push that figure closer to $40 million. That would be big for a romantic comedy. (Revenue from advance screenings counts toward opening numbers. Here in Boston, Tow joined forces with Chinese-American community leaders Wilson and Esther Lee, who have been purchasing tickets and distributing them through the Boston Asian American Film Festival.)
Susan Chinsen, founding director of the Boston Asian American Film Festival, has also seen the movie four times, most recently Wednesday night with her kids, 7 and 8, when it opened in theaters nationally.
What resonates with Chinsen, a Chinese-American, is to see her own hyphenated experience play out on the big screen. She could relate to characters who mixed English with a dialect of Chinese and the familiarity of Madonna’s “Material Girl” sung in Cantonese.
“This is the first time Hollywood has made a distinction between Asian-Americans and Asians being central to the narrative. That is what was blowing my mind when I was watching this,” said Chinsen. “Hollywood is finally giving space to my lived experience.”
The movie centers around Rachel Chu, a New York University economics professor who travels with her boyfriend, Nick Young, to Singapore to attend a wedding and meet his family.
Chu (“Fresh Off the Boat” sitcom star Constance Wu) discovers that Young (heartthrob Henry Golding) is a scion to one of Asia’s crazy rich families. His mother (international action star Michelle Yeoh) doesn’t approve of her son falling in love with an Asian-American. The tension and humor in the movie come from highlighting the cultural differences between Asians and Asian-Americans, but you don’t have to be Asian to understand what’s going on.
I got a sneak preview of the movie last week, and I felt what Chinsen felt. For the first time, I watched a movie that reflected my own life of straddling two cultures, Asian and American, and like Rachel, there were times I didn’t feel like I fit into either one.
The movie also shows Asians as well-rounded characters. The men can be sexy, not nerdy and weak as commonly depicted. Women are not quiet or submissive. We are fashionable and emotional, and we can deliver a punch line, too, especially Asian-American rapper and actress Awkwafina, who steals scenes as Rachel’s friend Goh Peik Lin.
But for me, the movie was also bittersweet. It was the moment that made me realize that all the movies I’ve seen before were never about me or for me. Why did I have to wait so long?
Consider this: Of the top 100 films of 2017, 37 had no Asian-speaking characters, according to an analysis by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. Asian females are even more invisible, absent from 65 films. White females, by contrast, were only missing in seven films.
“Crazy Rich Asians” got to the big screen because that’s where director Jon M. Chu and author Kwan wanted it. In an interview with Hollywood Reporter, Chu and Kwan recounted how they turned down a ton of money from streaming service Netflix and went with a lower offer from traditional studio Warner Bros. because they wanted the trappings of a big Hollywood release.
“Here, we have a chance for this gigantic payday instantaneously. But Jon and I felt this sense of purpose,” Kwan told Hollywood Reporter. “We needed this to be an old-fashioned cinematic experience, not for fans to sit in front of a TV and just press a button.”
Chu, whose previous films include “Now You See Me 2” and “G.I. Joe: Retaliation,” understands how expectations are high for “Crazy Rich Asians,” telling Hollywood Reporter: “To be on the biggest stage with the biggest stakes, that’s what we asked for.”
But one movie isn’t a movement, and Asian-Americans behind #GoldOpen get that. They’ve already set their sights on the next movie to support: Aneesh Chaganty’s “Searching,” starring John Cho, who will be the first Asian-American actor to lead a mainstream thriller.
It will be widely released Aug. 31; get your tickets and popcorn, and let’s break some more barriers.