HONG KONG — “Crazy Rich Asians,” the first major Hollywood studio release in 25 years with an all-Asian cast, has been hailed as a breakthrough in the United States, one that has topped the North American box office three weekends running. It has been dominating in other markets with large ethnic Chinese populations as well, including Taiwan and Singapore, where the film is set.
With its cast of mostly ethnic Chinese characters, a soundtrack featuring a number of Chinese artists and story notes that emphasize Chinese culture, it would also seem assured of success in China, the world’s second largest film market, which is playing a growing role in Hollywood’s calculations. The movie even opens with a quote from Napoleon: “China is a sleeping giant. Let her sleep, for when she wakes she will move the world.”
And yet the film has not resonated with the “sleeping giant” and may not even be released there. Reached for comment this week, John Penotti, one of the film’s producers, said the application for official release in China was “still ongoing.”
Under China’s strict quota system, a limited number of foreign films are approved for import every year and some experts are skeptical about the movie’s chances. The depictions of profligate spending and vast wealth inequality in “Crazy Rich Asians,” they say, might not sit well with Chinese officials amid the country’s growing push for positive “core socialist values.”
“China has Hollywood working for them in terms of films that pander to China or at least make China look good,” said Stanley Rosen, a professor at the University of Southern California who studies Chinese society and cinema. “It’s ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ — not the message that China wants to send at all.”
Even if the film were to be released in China, it would not necessarily be guaranteed success. Among the relatively few Chinese who appear to have had a chance to see it outside the country, the response so far has been lukewarm.
The movie had a rating of seven out of 10 stars based on more than 4,600 reviews on Douban, a Chinese website (compared to an audience approval score of 86 percent on Rotten Tomatoes). One Douban reviewer compared the viewing experience to the pleasant surprise of “finding a decent dish in a popular American Chinatown restaurant.” Another panned it, calling the movie “crazy stereotypical.”
Dong Ming, a Shanghai film critic, said: “Maybe the content of the film wouldn’t get censored but it’s a question of whether the film would even be popular in China.”
“Chinese people really dislike this kind of westernized Chinese culture,” he added, comparing the movie to American Chinese food staples like General Tso’s chicken and fortune cookies. “The flavor is not authentic.”
The stark contrast speaks to the wide gap between the mainland Chinese experience and the Chinese diaspora experience — and in particular, the experience of ethnic Chinese communities who are minority populations in Western countries.
In America, many Asian-Americans have spoken out about the emotional impact of feeling represented onscreen in a major Hollywood film.
The director, Jon M. Chu, even wrote a personal letter to Coldplay asking for permission to use the band’s hit song “Yellow” in the movie. In the letter, he explained that he wanted to reclaim the term “yellow” — which has long been used as a racist, anti-Asian slur — as an emblem for ethnic pride.
“It will give a whole generation of Asian-Americans, and others, the same sense of pride I got when I heard your song,” he wrote in the letter that was shown to the Hollywood Reporter. “I want all of them to have an anthem that makes them feel as beautiful as your words and melody made me feel when I needed it most.”
However, in China, where Han Chinese constitute over 91 percent of the population, the term “yellow” has no such connotation. Many Chinese would most likely recognize the song in the movie, which is a Mandarin cover sung by the Chinese-American singer Katherine Ho. But far from seeing it as an anthem for ethnic pride, they would know it more as the song that was made popular in the early 2000s by the Chinese rock singer Zheng Jun and later featured in the hugely popular Taiwanese TV drama “Meteor Garden.”
Such differences highlight the difficulties that Hollywood and the Chinese film industry face as they continue to seek ways to make content that appeals to both mainland Chinese and American populations. They also underline the challenges that the widening cultural gap poses for Beijing, whose growing efforts to exert influence over China’s diaspora communities run the risk of falling flat or igniting a backlash that would only see them drifting further away.
“Crazy Rich Asians” showed “Chineseness at its most potent,” said Ying Zhu, a professor of cinema studies at City University of New York. By evoking a more nuanced vision of diaspora culture, she added, the film “galvanized the diaspora Chinese in a way that the mainland film industry — under the tight grip of the Communist Party — has not been able to deliver.”
The challenge of navigating complex racial sensitivities on both sides of the Pacific was again evident in 2016 with the release of “The Great Wall,” the high-profile, China-Hollywood coproduction. The decision to cast Matt Damon in the lead role was denounced by Asian-American actors as “white savior complex ” and “whitewashing,” referring to the practice of casting white actors in roles originally conceived as Asian or nonwhite.
Filmmakers were caught off-guard by the criticism. In their mind, the film, if anything, was conceived as an effort to avoid another diversity problem: pandering.
Chinese audiences had become irritated with Hollywood studios for perfunctorily dropping Chinese actors and Chinese elements into movies in what appeared to be a blatant effort to pander to moviegoers. Making a movie with a mostly Chinese cast that was set in China was meant to solve that problem.
To many in China, where audiences are accustomed to seeing Chinese stars on screen, the concept of whitewashing was completely foreign. They may have shared a common goal — to see more meaningful movie roles for ethnically Asian actors — but their reasons for wanting it were totally different.
“In America, where race-conscious education is so deep that it penetrates the hair, to film a politically correct movie requires remembering all different points of view,” read a 2017 editorial explaining the whitewashing controversy in the Beijing Youth Daily newspaper.
There is, however, at least one area of cultural exchange that seems to be resonating with both mainland Chinese and the diaspora population in North America. Chinese up-and-coming hip-hop artists and rappers are finding crossover success, with substantial and growing fan bases both in China and abroad.
The “Crazy Rich Asians” soundtrack features one of those artists, an up-and-coming female rapper named Vava.