Why ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ might flop in mainland China, through no fault of its own

Society & Culture

Crazy Rich Asians took Hollywood by storm this summer, winning critical praise and inspiring moving essays about the power of representation. It elevated the likes of Constance Wu and Awkwafina, among others in its all-Asian cast, into household names. Since its August 15 release, the movie has raked in more than $230 million worldwide, and is the highest-grossing romantic comedy in the U.S. in 10 years.

But the reception hasn’t been universally positive. In Singapore — where most of the film takes place — audiences have criticized the movie for not acknowledging the city’s (and, by extension, Asia’s) racial diversity. It has been called tacky, full of stereotypes, and overhyped.

In China, the movie scores a tepid 6.8 out of 10 on Douban, the country’s closest version to Rotten Tomatoes/IMDB, with user comments such as, “It feels like going to a popular Chinese restaurant in America and having some General Tso’s chicken that tastes not so bad.” In contrast to the U.S., where there were stories of moviegoers leaving theaters in tears, Chinese audiences who have seen the film (mostly pirated versions online) have, at best, been mildly supportive, and, at worst, accused it of being American propaganda.

All of this is to say: I’m intrigued by the news on Tuesday that Crazy Rich Asians will be getting a mainland Chinese release, scheduled for November 30 — a surprising development, considering the movie’s depiction of wealth and decadence, which clashes with the Chinese Communist Party’s promotion of “core socialist values.” Just last month, the New York Times quoted Dong Ming, a Shanghai film critic, as saying, “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.” (Of course, whether parts of the movie do get censored is still up in the air. Warner Bros. has not said.)

If Jon Chu’s rom-com is popular in China, it’ll be for reasons that are entirely different from what made it succeed Stateside. For one thing, the Chinese title is “An Unexpected Gold-Digging Romance” (摘金奇缘 zhāijīn qíyuán; it’s been translated elsewhere as “Tales/Legends of Gold Digging”), which seems to mischaracterize the main character’s motives, since Rachel Chu (played by Constance Wu) is unaware of her boyfriend’s wealth at the start of the film. She remains in love with Nick Young (played by Henry Golding) because of who he is, not because of his money.

Having done research and produced videos about the Chinese diaspora myself, I personally question whether there’s significant enthusiasm from Chinese audiences to see a film about overseas Chinese primarily speaking English. There are also cultural differences, and American-centric references that will be hard to translate, and subtleties that will be lost.

Also, I don’t think I’m giving too much away here, but the movie’s ending might well be interpreted as a triumph of “American values” over Chinese philosophy and traditional ideas of family. It’ll be important for audiences in China — and Asia at large — to understand that ultimately this isn’t a movie about China or Singapore, but a romantic comedy about love bringing together different cultures. American audiences, who grew up with stories of Cinderella and Prince Charming, understand the formula, and take it for granted; it’s not the case here.

The other major reason for concern is how people in China perceive the overseas Chinese community (those who are of Chinese ethnicity but a different nationality are called 华裔, huáyì). The fact that this film portrays ethnically Chinese people from Singapore and America acting so differently from those in mainland China might conflict with the idea — one that many Chinese hold, benighted as it is — of a “united” Chinese race, in which ethnicity (Han Chinese, specifically) takes precedence over nationality. The film negates the notion of a unified or monolithic Chinese culture. This fact might be celebrated elsewhere, but one reviewer on Douban accused the movie of promoting “colonizing values” and criticized the characters for “trying to act white.”

Or, Crazy Rich Asians could fail because Chinese audiences prefer action movies, and quite obviously have different tastes than American moviegoers. For instance, the blockbuster Warcraft (based on Blizzard’s game of the same name) was panned by critics in the U.S. but was a hit in China, where it grossed $220.8 million (compared to $46.6 million in the U.S.) and scored a respectable 7.7 on Douban. Also, China has pretty much single-handedly kept the Transformers and The Fast and the Furious franchises churning. Among the 50 highest-grossing movies in China, 20 are from the U.S., and not one of them is a romantic comedy.

But regardless of how Crazy Rich Asians is ultimately received in China, that it even has a release date — again, November 30, for those lining up for tickets — is encouraging. Beyond the surface of its Asian cast, it is, at its core, a love story focused on the negotiations between traditional culture and contemporary romance. It’s a story of the dual heritage that Asian Americans grow up with, and about accomplishing mutual understanding through values that are ultimately universal.

Maybe China’s film censors understand that. Or maybe they’ve just bought into the hype. Regardless of how the movie performs at the box office here, we’re looking forward to the conversations it’ll inspire.

UPDATE, 12/3/18: The film made a meager $1.2 million over its opening weekend in China.

‘An American-made Asian movie’: Chinese moviegoers on ‘Crazy Rich Asians’