83.9 million dollars.
That’s how much money Crazy Rich Asians has made, as of this writing. If there was any doubt that an all-Asian film can pull in the money, it has since fizzled with the massive success of this romantic comedy that follows the triumph of The Joy Luck Club, 25 years after the latter was released.
Over the weekend, I caught the film together with some friends who found the film undeserving of the hype. To be frank, I understand their lukewarm reception. At a superficial watching, the story is quite simple: girl meets the boy’s family; boy’s mom thinks girl is not and will never be enough; girl proves her worth; true love wins.
The highlight on culture and tradition—together with socioeconomic class divides—is what enriches the story further.
(To digress: when is someone “enough”, anyway? Is one’s worth determined by one’s lineage and wealth? But these need to be discussed at some other time.)
Not a few reviews have celebrated Crazy Rich Asians for diverting the Western gaze on Asians—not as caricatures or token characters who exist as footnotes to Western narratives, but as empowered people who live in the modern world. In an interview with the Daily Mail, Michelle Yeoh (who played Eleanor Young in the movie) said: “This is a good representation of who we Asians are. It’s not a period piece, it’s not a martial arts piece; it’s contemporary, it’s today, and it’s inclusive.”
Kris Aquino, in her Instagram post, has even gone to claim that her portrayal of the fictional Malaysian princess Intan was a point of Filipino national pride.
One would think that these discussions of representation should be passé in this day and age, but it was only a few years when an Asian character was portrayed by a non-Asian in a blockbuster film. (There was Mexican-American actor Clifton Collins Jr. who starred in 2013’s Pacific Rim as the Chinese-American Tendo Choi; and Scarlet Johansson in 2016’s Ghost in the Shell, if you count the protagonist Motoko Kusanagi as Asian.)
Granted that representation is well and good, it is interesting to note that this representation may not have happened at all had it seemed unprofitable for the Hollywood producers. So, don’t expect that Hollywood will bankroll a movie about Filipinos anytime soon: it frankly (and sadly) just doesn’t make good business sense, yet.
And this is where pragmatism sinks in: that perhaps, the stories that will be told are those that will rake in money.
Quoting Hannah Beech’s 2017 Time article, “How China Is Remaking the Global Film Industry”:
“China’s ascent is the economic story of the 21st century, and the entertainment industry is no exception. An average of 22 new screens were unveiled in China in 2015—each day. That year, the Chinese box office surged by almost 50% over 2014, and Hollywood is counting on an expanding Chinese middle class to make up for vanishing audiences at home. Over the next couple of years, the Chinese box office may well surpass that of North America as the world’s biggest, even if last year’s China numbers fell—as has box-office revenue in Hollywood—amid a general economic slowdown in the country. Still, even Hollywood movies that bomb in the West can be redeemed by Chinese interest. Last summer’s World of Warcraft, which cost $160 million to make, managed less than $25 million at the U.S. box office on its opening weekend. But the video-game adaptation scored $156 million in its first five days in Chinese theaters, on the back of intense gaming interest in China.”
It’s not a secret: when money talks, people listen.
To share a related story, we at the Philippine LGBT Chamber of Commerce understand that the way to get companies to support SOGIE diversity and inclusion is by building a clear business case. Guided by our mission to champion LGBT contribution in Philippine business, we always present data on that LGBT-inclusive policies and practices contribute immensely to a company’s growth.
Social justice is a compelling reason, but what gets people (businessmen, in particular) to open the door for us is the monetary benefits they stand to gain should they invest on inclusion, diversity, and representation. A key learning from this is that if we want the powers-that-be to listen, we need to prove that we are worth the attention.
(While I still believe that calling for acceptance instead of respect is a poorer goal for people in the fringes, because it assumes that our existence is not seen as equal to those who we are seeking acceptance from, we have to recognize that pecking orders are a dismal reality.)
We have to throw our weight in, put our money where our mouth is, and hopefully, tilt the balance to our favor. This does not mean, however, that their attention is what validates our truths.
As Crazy Rich Asians’ lead star Constance Wu tweeted:
“So for those of you who don’t feel seen, I hope there is a story you find soon that does represent you. I am rooting for you. We’re not all the same, but we all have a story.”
Our unique stories are all important—even if it doesn’t earn millions of dollars.