Three months ago, “Crazy Rich Asians” took the film industry by storm, with Asian-American moviegoers and media critics alike hailing it as a long-overdue celebration of talent from an ethnicity that has been severely underrepresented in media. But this week, the film will be released in a market in which it will be much harder to find success: China.
Regardless of how it does there, Jon M. Chu’s romantic comedy is already a success for Warner Bros., with $236 million grossed worldwide against a $30 million budget. But when the Chinese film board announced last month that it had approved “Crazy Rich Asians” for release on November 30, it surprised some observers.
Stanley Rosen, a political science professor at the USC US-China Institute, told TheWrap he didn’t expect that “Asians” would get a China release at all, and that expectations should be kept low for its box office potential there. While a film with an all-Asian cast was a huge breath of fresh air in the U.S., it’s not as special in a country with a growing film industry that’s releasing hundreds of films made by China, for China every year.
And then, of course, there’s the extravagant wealth that’s on display from start to finish.
“The Chinese government won’t explicitly endorse the sort of life they show in this movie, but obviously, looking at the current culture, there is a certain amount of wealth and luxury they will allow,” he said. “So the film might gain some interest in major cities like Shanghai where that sort of elite lifestyle is common.”
But Rosen points out that China is on the verge of supplanting the U.S. as the largest moviegoing market in the world because movie theaters there are rapidly expanding into more rural parts of the country. In these areas, going to the movies is often the one luxury outing that families can regularly afford. Many of the Hollywood blockbusters that have become hits in China, including the Marvel and “Fast & Furious” franchises, have been successful because they’ve found a foothold in those small but numerous markets.
The challenge for “Crazy Rich Asians” is that instead of offering superheroes or high-octane action, the film focuses on a romance between a couple from two walks of life. The first is the Singaporean elite that Nick Young and his family come from, full of extravagant parties held on remote islands and in enormous mansions.
The other is that of the film’s protagonist, Rachel Chu, the daughter of a Chinese expat. Although the film doesn’t focus on Rachel’s mother and her life in China as much as Kevin Kwan’s novel does, it’s still a topic of discussion. While Rosen notes that the Chinese government didn’t object to this the way he thought it would, he’s still not sure that Chinese moviegoers in those rural areas will be interested in seeing a movie that looks at modern Asian culture through the eyes of a foreigner.
“It may be set in Asia, but a lot of this movie is about the American dream,” he said. “A pregnant woman who is suffering from domestic violence leaves to America with her child, who goes on to become the youngest professor at NYU.”
That said, there is one theme “Asians” has going for it: the theme of family. The conflict that threatens to drive Rachel and Nick apart is whether Nick will have to choose between his mother and the responsibility he has to his family and its traditions, or his love for Rachel and his desire to start a new family with her. Ultimately, it’s Rachel’s ability to show her respect for the importance of Nick’s family that saves the relationship.
Outside of the blockbusters that can provide spectacle, the foreign films that do well in China tend to be those that espouse the importance of family. Last year, the Pixar film “Coco,” while dealing with Mexican traditions, was able to overcome that cultural barrier and become a huge hit in China because of that message. In 2016, the Bollywood film “Dangal” made $193 million in China, winning praise from audiences who embraced the true story of a family of wrestlers, including one who became the first Indian woman to win a wrestling gold medal at the Commonwealth Games.
“We can only speculate what the film board was thinking when it approved the movie, but perhaps it approved of the film having a message of family coming first,” Rosen suggested. “A film with that message can become a hit in China regardless of where it comes from.”
Even if this weekend’s box office numbers aren’t big for “Crazy Rich Asians,” this won’t be the last time China and WB’s newest hit series will cross paths. Plans are already underway to adapt the next installment of Kevin Kwan’s series, “China Rich Girlfriend,” in which Rachel and Nick come into contact with China’s elite while traveling to the nation in search of Rachel’s father.
Production on the sequel won’t start for a while, as many of the film’s top stars are involved in other projects over the next two years. There’s also no guarantee that Jon M. Chu will return to direct, as Warner Bros. already has him attached to direct the adaptation of the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical “In The Heights.”
But at the Chinese-American Film Festival last month, producer John Penotti said that when production does begin on the sequel, he wants to film it in Shanghai. “Crazy Rich Asians” screenwriter Adele Lim was asked at the festival whether she thinks the film could become a hit in China, and she said she had “no idea.”
“We tried to make it true to our culture,” Lim said. “We knew we couldn’t make every Asian happy, we can’t make every Chinese happy.”
Rachel Chu certainly couldn’t make everyone in Nick’s world happy, but she triumphed nonetheless. We will soon see how China’s moviegoers take to her and her story.