I take a deep breath as I walk into the dark theater with several girlfriends from work. It’s 11:00 AM on a Friday, and the only people in the theater are us, a few rows of senior citizens, and a couple here and there. All week I’ve been reading the reviews for Crazy Rich Asians, watching the cast do interviews, witnessing this momentous event every step of the way. It’s been on my calendar for a whole year. As my girlfriends and I sit down to wait for the lights to dim and for the trailers to start playing, I only had one thought in my head. Gosh, please don’t suck.
Falling In Love with Romcoms
In 1999, I fell in love with romantic comedies in a little three-screen theater on Sycamore Street in Willows where I grew up. I remember getting butterflies in my stomach while I watched Heath Ledger serenade Julia Stiles and all of Padua High School with “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” in 10 Things I Hate About You. I remember empathizing with Rachel Leigh Cook’s character Laney Boggs, the unattractive-but-attractive high schooler who gets a My Fair Lady transformation in She’s All That. But most of all I remember wondering how the heck Drew Barrymore’s insecure Josie Geller (a 25-year-old who had Never Been Kissed) knew how to French kiss Mr. Coulson at the end of that movie.
Then came the days of The Wedding Planner, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, 13 Going on 30 (Yay, Mark Ruffalo! I always wanted to see him as a romantic lead—insert emoji with heart eyes), 50 First Dates, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Notting Hill, Love Actually, Hitch, 27 Dresses, and recently Leap Year, Trainwreck, Home Again, and many more. In nearly 20 years of watching romcoms, I’ve never seen an Asian American lead, not even an Asian American best friend who supports the romantic lead. Nada.
This became the norm. And it became the norm for me to have no expectations that there would ever be anyone who looked like me in a romcom on the big screen.
One Day in August
Naturally, when there was no one who looked like me on American cinema, like many others, I turned to Thai lakorn (soap opera), Korean dramas and Bollywood. I loved them all, and in many ways, I still do. But it wasn't the same. I noticed—not all the time, but enough times—different comedic beats, romantic timing that was little off, and even unfamiliar storytelling/filming techniques. There were moments where I was left scratching my head because I didn’t get what had just happened on screen. They weren’t wrong, they were just off for me, and I know now that it’s because I wasn’t the intended audience.
Last Friday, as the opening credits for Crazy Rich Asians began, I held my breath. This was it. This was what I had been waiting nearly 20 years for.
Constance Wu, the heroine Rachel Chu, an American, came on screen—beautiful, natural...funny. Then Henry Golding playing Rachel’s love interest Nicholas Young—handsome, charismatic, drool-worthy British accent. He wants to take her to Singapore to meet his family. She’s hesitant, but agrees, and quickly finds out that he’s not only the most eligible bachelor in all of Singapore, he’s the heir to one of the country’s wealthiest family. Drama ensues.
It definitely totally didn’t suck. I laughed at the jokes, I blinked away tears at the quiet moments, and I celebrated at the end. Then I went home and put on Netflix’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and did it again.
Falling In Love with Romcoms Again
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before tells the story of a high school teenager who’s secret love letters get mailed out to all of her crushes forcing her to come out of her bubble and live life. Lana Condor plays heroine Lara Jean, a sweet and quirky half-Korean 16-year-old who loves romances. As soon as her letters are sent out, Lara Jean starts a pretend relationship with her classmate Peter Kavinksy, a recipient of one of her letters, in order to avoid her sister’s ex-boyfriend who is also a recipient of one of her letters.
Nostalgia. Bubbliness. Sigh. Peter Kavinsky. No, I’m not in love with the teenage love interest in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, but oh the feels. It was 1999 again. I was a fourteen-year-old girl who saw myself on the screen. And it was perfect. Sigh.
But It’s Not Doing Enough...Some Might Say
As a writer, Jenny Han’s book To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before changed my life. So when news broke that it was being made into a movie, I flipped out in a good way. I scoured the Internet looking for articles on every single detail—who was going to play Lara Jean Covey? Who was going to play Peter Kavinsky? And most importantly, where could I watch it? I came across an article on a popular Asian American blog and read the whole thing, then continued on to the comments—I know, bad idea. One commenter said, “Oh, the love interest is white guy? Then we haven’t moved forward at all.”
I’ve been trying to understand this all-or-nothing attitude that I sometimes encounter online. Just because Lara Jean’s love interest is a white guy doesn’t mean her story is any less important or any less valid than an Asian American girl whose love interest is Asian American. They’re both Asian American stories and they’re both valid. It just so happens that this one movie, based on a specific work of fiction, depicts one story. And for me, an Asian American girl, having this one Asian American girl’s story told is a lot better than having no Asian American girl’s story told. For me, a small step forward is better than no step forward.
Critics have also pointed out that nothing in Crazy Rich Asians resonated with the lived experiences of many Asian Americans. That the film didn’t do justice to the diversity of the Asian American diaspora, the widening Asian American income gap, and representation of Asians world wide. And no, Crazy Rich Asians didn’t do the majority of those things, but I don’t think it was meant to. Crazy Rich Asians is based on a work of fiction that told one story of one Asian American woman’s experience. It’s unfair to expect one film to do everything that has ever been needed for the Asian American and the worldwide Asian community. Plenty of people have commented on this topic, so I’m going to point you towards a Washington Post article where Christina Chin, who is a sociology professor at California State University, Fullerton, says “This type of criticism is most often faced by movies with all-minority casts or minorities cast in lead roles... Films with all-white casts aren’t held to the same standard because so many exist to offer varied voices and perspectives.”
These are just two movies of two stories of two Asian American women, and two movies are never going to be enough to cover all the stories of Asian Americans, not to mention Asians world wide. I think sometimes, as immigrants, as refugees, as minorities, maybe we feel as if this movie is the only movie we will ever get, so it must represent everything that is us. But that’s impossible. Instead, what has been possible is both of these movies’ roles as pivot points, as conversation starters. These movies are opening the doors for other stories. Because they exist, we can all use them as launching points to say these important words, “Yes, and…” on a larger scale.
Yes, and don’t forget about the widening income gaps among Asians in the United States.
Yes, and Singapore is home to Malays and Indians, too.
Yes, and Asian is a huge umbrella term for hundreds of ethnic groups with varying languages, cultural practices and histories.
Affirmation, Validation, Possibility
When the Crazy Rich Asians ended and the closing credits rolled, I sat in the theater and felt—to be honest—kind of numb. Yes, I laughed. Yes, I almost cried during a couple of the scenes. Yes, I screamed like a little girl in my head in my seat. But I also didn’t let myself feel these emotions too much. I was numb with worry that at any moment someone was going jump out and say, “Just kidding! This was all joke.” I was worried that at any moment this movie was going to prove it wasn’t good, and not just that, but that it wasn’t as good as movies starring white actors. And now I wonder if I’m going to feel this way every time I sit down in a theater to watch Asian American actors on the big screen.
I hope not. And I think that’s the magic word: hope. This movie gave me hope. Asian American actors are good enough, Asian American stories are worthy of telling, and we will get our sequel (Astrid + Charlie forever!).
All my life, I’ve been uber-aware of my “otherness” and of making sure I followed the rules, didn’t say the wrong thing, and didn’t draw too much attention to myself so no one can say, “See? We never should’ve let her in.” All my life, I’ve watched and enjoyed romcoms without daring to desire an Asian American lead because society had taught me it would never happen. I had accepted my fate, and I had accepted the fate of Asian Americans in Hollywood. Crazy Rich Asians and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before dared me to hope and to re-evaluate what I thought and what I know to be possible. For me, for nearly 20-something years of waiting, they are enough just as they are.