With Fresh Off the Boat and Master of None on TV and the hit book Crazy Rich Asians and a live-action adaptation of Mulan heading to the big screen, is Hollywood on the verge of a breakthrough, or is this yet another blip? Entertainment Weekly looks into the state of Asian representation this week.
Critics may have panned Suicide Squad, but one thing is clear: The film shattered box office records when it opened in August to $133.7 million in its first weekend, later topping the $700 million mark at the worldwide box office in September. The tally made the film the eighth-biggest movie of the year in domestic grosses, and the third-biggest of the summer, behind Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War and Disney’s Finding Dory.
Greg Silverman, Warner Bros.’ president of creative development and worldwide production, credits a diverse cast for expanding the film’s already wide fan base. “Our feedback showed that Hispanic audiences were excited that there was a Hispanic lead in a superhero movie, and there were multiple African American leads in a superhero movie, and there was a Japanese character,” he says, citing Jay Hernandez’s Diablo, Will Smith’s Deadshot, Viola Davis’ Amanda Waller, and Karen Fukuhara’s Katana, among others. “It really resonated and succeeded. Diversity is good business. It really is.”
Which is why, Silverman says, the studio was eager to greenlight Crazy Rich Asians, an adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s crazy bestselling 2013 novel and a project he says Warner Bros. had been chasing for two years. But can box-office success be sustained when it’s a film with an all-Asian principal cast? Silverman thinks so. “It’s a win on every level, and it’s going to be a huge hit,” he says. “[Diversity] is a really important part of our business plan.”
That business plan, of course, requires international support. But while Hollywood has been wooing the Asian box office — note how many Asian film stars appear in recent tentpole films, from Angelababy in Independence Day: Resurgence to Fan Bingbing in X-Men: Days of Future Past — Asian audiences may not respond enthusiastically. “I’m sure Hollywood hopes to some degree that they can make money at the China box office with these projects [like Crazy Rich Asians], but Asia is such a different animal than Hollywood,” says Joan Huang, a Taipei-based producer at Cherry Sky Films, which helped produce Justin Lin’s 2002 breakout, all-Asian indie Better Luck Tomorrow. “Each country has a whole set of different stars, different senses of humor, different distributors, different tastes. And people in Asia don’t care about Asian-American representation. There’s no need since in Asia, there’s no shortage of seeing their own faces and stories on-screen.”
Still, casting obviously goes a long way — and a story like Crazy Rich Asians could make a dent in not only Hollywood, but also Asia box office numbers. “There’s a lack of comedies and romantic comedies these days, and this has the fan base and the story,” Huang says. “Crazy Rich Asians is perfect for casting a fun mix of Asian-Americans and Asians and introducing that world to the screen, if done right, the same way Gossip Girl and Sex and the City did.” That said, she warns that Hollywood can’t forget to support those actors afterward, no matter the box office results. “After Better Luck Tomorrow, all the actors went for meetings around town and faced answers like, ‘We love you, but we don’t know what to do with you,'” she says, citing cast members like Sung Kang and John Cho as the few who found consistent roles afterward in Hollywood. “Why can’t you cast them in an ensemble? Why can’t you keep them in mind for other projects? Why didn’t all of them ‘break out’?”
Though Masi Oka, the Heroes star and a producer on Netflix’s Death Note film, agrees (“It’s like muscle memory, the more Asians you see on screen, the more you realize that’s part of the movie landscape”), he also defends the casting of white leads for Death Note, an adaptation based on a Japanese manga, as a necessary decision. He argues that it wasn’t a business decision to cast Nat Wolff and Margaret Qualley in lead roles that have been previously portrayed by Japanese actors in a Japanese live-action film. Instead, it was a creative one, borne out of the story being moved to Seattle and out of the team wanting to approach the story from a different angle than those of previous adaptations. “Our casting directors did an extensive search to get Asian actors, but we couldn’t find the right person, the actors we did go to didn’t speak the perfect English… and the characters had been rewritten,” he says. “They could have gone [with an] Asian [actor], I can’t deny that. The studios were adamant about trying to cast Asian actors. I mean, this was a difficult one. It was something we were definitely conscious about.”
He pauses. “I do think it’s case by case… It’s not, ‘Oh, we’re definitely not going to hire Asians.’ Sometimes, someone just walks in and it’s like, ‘That’s the guy’ or ‘that’s the girl’ or sometimes it’s a totally different interpretation, and that’s amazing,” he says. “At the end of the day, you cast what’s best for the role and what makes sense for that adaptation.” But on the other hand, Huang argues that filmmakers need to invest more time and energy into the search overall: “Ideally, [they] can network with Asian-American producers, Asian-American film festival organizations, diversity showcases.”
Though it remains to be seen whether Death Note or Crazy Rich Asians (or neither) succeeds financially, Silverman is confident that diversity can only be a positive factor. “[If it fails], it’ll be another movie that didn’t work for a bunch of different reasons, but it definitely won’t be because it’s an all-Asian cast or because it’s an Asian filmmaker,” he says. “If this movie does what I think it’s going to do and connects with people, it’ll work. If it doesn’t, it won’t, and it won’t be because of the color of the skin of the actors.”
And Huang says she’s optimistic as well. “I always cross my fingers that projects will succeed, because if it doesn’t, it becomes an excuse for Hollywood to say, ‘See, we tried, and it didn’t make money,'” she explains. “We don’t get as many chances.” Even so, she hopes more filmmakers continue to step up to the plate, regardless of earnings, to expand the Asian storytelling. “As exciting as Mulan and Crazy Rich Asians are, they are still stories set in Asia, not America,” she says. “We need to see more of both.”
This is the fourth in a series of stories this week on EW focused on the state of Asian representation in Hollywood. Read the first, on how the industry’s approach to Asian actors is at a crossroads, here; the second, an interview with actress Ming-Na Wen, here; and the third, on casting directors’ perspectives, here.