Asian-American identity contrasted through film: Crazy Rich Asians and Mulan
Asian-American identity is a hot topic these days, and a lucrative subject matter. I do not intend to cover the entirety of the subject in this post, nor do I believe I could in ten posts. But this topic is something that has been on my mind since Mulan was announced a couple of years ago. Regrettably, I did not write anything about it back then, having only my self satisfaction to reflect on.
Before I get started, I think it’s helpful to make a few notes. Firstly, a lot of these ideas are derived from my own anecdotal experiences as a Chinese-Canadian. However, I will be using the term Asian-American, because I feel like much of the Asian-American diaspora shares many experiences, despite its varied differences. I use “American” to refer to Canada and America as a whole, as these groups also share many experiences. There is some contention about whether South Asians should be included in this grouping, but I feel as though the general consensus is that “Asian” refers exclusively to East and Southeast Asians.
Artistically speaking, I didn’t think Crazy Rich Asians was anything special. Many of my friends had taken to referring to it as “the Asian Black Panther” which I took grievance too, but that’s a separate issue. I had read Kevin Kwan’s novel prior to watching the film, and thought that the adaptation was fantastic. I’m not saying the book was materially worse than the movie, but the feelings of glamour and luxury were translated in a way that was similar to the way Baz Luhrmann conveyed a party in his 2013 adaptation of The Great Gatsby. I would forever picture Fitzgerald novels as fantastic operatic productions filled with empty wealth and grandeur. Hold onto that thought.
With a smörgåsbord of careful music selection, casting, and costume design, CRA was able to create a celebration of obscene affluence and unrealistic beauty that was completely at odds with the supposed moral of the romantic comedy. But that’s just the genre. The surprise then, was not that it was enjoyable, but that it was done with an all-Asian cast. Justified mutterings about biracial castings and Asian ethnic diversity aside, CRA was a success among not only the Asian-American community, but also the general film-going public.
While a non-Asian-American movie-goer might see another romantic comedy, it resonated with Asian-Americans in ways that other pieces have beat to death. Simply put, it was surprising and empowering to see Asian-Americans onscreen as symbols of power, wealth, and sexual desire. And though an orgy of wealth isn’t perhaps the best way to combat the wave of Yellow Peril stemming from wealthy migrants, it has resonated with Asian-Americans who were tired of being relegated to comedic relief and comedic accents.
Like how the 2013 adaptation of The Great Gatsby forever shaped my visualization of Fitzgerald novels, there was a warranted hope that this could begin to change the perception of Asian-Americans not only in casting decisions, but also in society as a whole. This was the importance of Crazy Rich Asians to Asian-Americans, and the key to its success in the American market.
Despite this, there is still the presence of othering, particularly the antagonists of the piece who are shown as less Westernized. This did not bother the Asian-American audience, who would like to be seen as far removed as possible from their Asian-Asian counterparts, but led to the film’s poor performance in Asia. Perceived racist stereotypes and vulgar spending habits combined with a template romantic comedy script, minus the gratification from seeing attractive Asians with agency (hint: all Asian movies have them) conflicted with the elevated expectations, causing its ultimate lack of success.
Quick digression: As someone who understands Chinese, I was infuriated with how bad Constance Wu’s Chinese is. COME ON. YOU”RE AN ACTRESS. I hope that was the character she was going for. I feel like even Randall Park speaks it better.
Issues aside, CRA did what the Asian-American populace hoped it would do. It wasn’t necessarily its success that led to an increase in project approval of films with Asian-American leads (though in certain cases it probably did), but it led to an increase in recognition of the films that came out at later dates. From more romantic comedies like Always Be My Maybe and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, to more drama based films with “artistic merit” like The Farewell and Tigertail, I noticed each receive attention within the Asian-American community that wasn’t present before. There was a sort of rallying behind these works in an effort to support Asian-American representation.
Another aside: This wave of media, coinciding with the emergence of Subtle Asian Traits, really led me to hope for an Asian Renaissance of sorts, the Asian-American’s own reckoning with their identity similar to the African-American’s. That’s also a topic for a later piece I think.
Back to Mulan. My concern with Disney’s live action remake of Mulan was the lack of a clear target audience. I understand that the intention of the movie wasn’t so much to “pander” to the Asian-American audience as CRA did, but as much as art can transcend cultural barriers, commercial successes generally needs a target market. Therein lies the issue.
Though originally a Chinese folk tale, I can think of nothing but the 1998 Disney animated film when I hear the name Mulan. I don’t know if it was a triumph for the Asian-American community at the time, but it would be certainly empowering to see an Asian Disney princess, and one that did her own fighting. In addition to being a #girlboss, Mulan was also open to many other progressive interpretations, and did feature several Asian voice actors.
So the hype for the live-action remake was well warranted. Ultimately however, Mulan landed flat on its face because Disney decided that it wanted to have its cake and eat it too.
Strike one: confusing Asian-American representation with Asian people. In an effort to pander to the Chinese market, big name Chinese actors and actress were cast for the lead roles. Granted, some roles were given to the Asian diaspora, but the majority of the speaking roles all carried some trace of an accent. There is no shame in having an accent, but Asian-Americans don’t empathize with people with accents in their generation. They speak English fluently, and have seen enough unfunny Asian accents on the screen. And like CRA, the Asian markets constantly see Asian actors, usually with more localized stories.
Strike two: neither the writers nor director were of Asian descent. This is important for some of the same reasons as representation, but moreso because the movie got more than a few things wrong. Not only were Asian audiences upset at the misrepresentation of their culture, but so were Asian-American outlets. Disney it seemed, would have to contend that the 1998 Mulan flopped in China not because of the terrible one-party state, but their writing.
Strike three: walking the centrist political line. Questionable writing aside, a part of the failure could be attributed to politics. Liu Yifei, the Chinese actress cast as Mulan, came out in support of the Hong Kong police during the riots, leading some fans to boycott the movie. Not unexpected from a Chinese actress whose livelihood is based on the Chinese populace. What was interesting was that filming in the Xinjiang region caused a lack of viewship on both sides of the culture gap. Western audiences were upset that the movie credited the authorities in the Xinjiang autonomous region, and Chinese authorities took issue to the attention, preventing media from reporting on movie.
In the end, Disney tried to appeal to both audiences, but failed to win either. Western audiences weren’t sated with a mediocre plot and unfamiliar actors, while Chinese audiences perceived the movie as a pastiche. Asian-Americans didn’t the representation they were hoping for either, deflating their expectations of another hit from a big studio.
And therein lies the difference between the Asian-American community and their ancestral cultures. Painting every one with a single brush is ill-advised when I feel like I have more shared experiences with Kevin Nguyen from Scarborough than Bo Li from Beijing. I speak Chinese, get along with my grandparents in China, and know how I’m expected to behave at a Chinese restaurant. I speak English, get along with fratboys, and know how I’m expected to behave at a networking session. My place rests between the two cultures, not one nor the other, but comfortably with my peers in our own culture.