Frankie Huang could not hide her excitement when she heard that Hollywood blockbuster Crazy Rich Asians was going to be screened in China. For the Beijing-born, US-raised writer, the story of the daughter of a Chinese-American immigrant going to Singapore to meet her fiancee’s traditional Asian family hit close to home.
“The thing that moved me most wasn’t the love story,” says Huang, 31. “The real fairy tale is for someone from the traditional culture to really understand an immigrant.”
A Shanghai resident, Huang was eager to see how the film – based on the first book of a three-part series by Singaporean-US author Kevin Kwan – would be received on the mainland. It presented, she said, an opportunity for Chinese audiences to learn about and feel a connection to the wider Asian diaspora, and “feel part of this family”.
The first Hollywood movie to feature an all-Asian cast for 25 years, the last being Joy Luck Club in 1993, Crazy Rich Asians was a global box-office smash, generating more than $230m worldwide. It has been hailed as a major step forward for Asian representation in Hollywood, with 2019 Golden Globe nominations for Best Movie and Constance Wu rounding out the trilogy’s rapturous launch this year.
But in China, where the film opened on November 30 under the title An Unexpected Tale of Picking Gold, the response was starkly different.
Since its release, Crazy Rich Asians has only grossed $1.5m in China, an “atrocious” performance, according to independent China film industry consultant Jonathan Papish.
“It ranks in the bottom half of all films released in the country this year,” Papish told Al Jazeera, pointing out that the film earned even less than Show Dogs, a US family comedy given a paltry 3.6/10 rating on film-ranking website IMDB, which made $2.2m.
And while internationally buzz has already been building over Crazy Rich Asians’ sequel – China Rich Girlfriend, which producers say will be filmed partly in Shanghai over the coming year – the abysmal performance of the first film at the China box office suggests dubious prospects for the series in the world’s fastest-growing film market.
“My advice is just to make the movie for its core market,” Papish said, referring to the sequel.
Zhao Yi, manager of Shanghai’s Premiere Cinema, said she was shocked by how few tickets Crazy Rich Asians sold. “It’s doing far worse than I expected. I saw the film in advance and thought its box office would be at least 200 million yuan ($29m).”
While most cinemas in the city have discontinued or drastically reduced screenings, Zhao says she’s been able to maintain viewings at her theatre only because “it’s popular with foreigners”.
Meanwhile, Chinese cinema lovers have sharply criticised the film online. According to popular reviews posted on Chinese movie websites mtime and douban, Crazy Rich Asians wasn’t a celebration of Asian culture – it was a demonisation of it.
Many review writers took issue with the film’s extreme materialism and promiscuity. “It shows the dregs of oriental culture,” wrote one. “A film that openly exposes the ‘ugliness’ of the Chinese is being brought into our cinemas.”
While director John Chu said the film aimed to quash stereotypes of Asians, one reviewer said it propagated them, saying “all the female elders in the film are given the most stereotypical and cliche image: serious, reserved and maintaining strict control”.
Others said Crazy Rich Asians presented traditional forces, embodied by the character Eleanor (played by Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh) as villainous and backward.
“The confrontation between Rachel and Eleanor – two women representing completely different countries and ideas about family, marriage and being female – ends with Rachel’s victory. It almost implies the destiny of contemporary China: thanks to the wind from the West, the old and unprogressive East is given a new life.”
For Huang, the overwhelmingly negative reviews felt like “a gut punch”. She says Chinese audiences simply failed to relate to the film’s main character and even felt rejected by her.
“Rachel is essentially seen [as] a race traitor. She turns up and doesn’t speak Chinese, doesn’t understand the customs etc. Because of her appearance, she’s still considered a Chinese person but one who turned her back on her culture,” says Huang.
‘Panda Express of Chinese culture’
Beijing-based filmmaker Stanley Tsang says scenes where lead male Nick Young, played by English-Malaysian actor Henry Golding, speaks Mandarin with a foreign accent, might have also been off-putting.
He says the same happened Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, a Mandarin-language Kung-fu epic directed by Taiwanese director Ang Lee which was a major global hit but suffered a similar fate at the box office when it was released on the mainland in 2000.
“Cantonese was the actors’ first language, not Mandarin,” says Tsang, referring to leads Michelle Yeoh – who also starred in Crazy Rich Asians – and Chow Yun-Fat, adding that the different accent “might have perplexed the audience at the time”.
Ultimately, the filmmaker says the film portrayal’s of the Asian culture might lead to its flatlining in China.
“Crazy Rich Asians is the ‘Panda Express’ of Chinese culture,” says Tsang, referring to the popular US-based food-chain which serves Westernised Chinese dishes. “I studied in Canada and relate to the overseas Chinese people, so I enjoyed the movie. But the mainland market has a different palate.”
“Mainland audiences prefer their ‘Chinese’ stories to come from China and their Hollywood stories to come from Hollywood; they walk away when the lines are blurred,” he said.
It’s a point Huang understands. She says Hollywood’s appeal on the mainland is based on presenting an “exotic white experience”.
“When they see this movie filled with Asian faces, that’s not really what they’re used to or want. When they see Chinese faces what they expect is a Chinese story with Chinese sensibilities,” she says.
But according to Hu Shan, a Beijing-based creative producer and self-described movie buff, the reason for the film’s lacklustre Chinese performance is much more simple: its key selling point – an all-Asian cast – was irrelevant for the world’s biggest Asian country. Instead, mainland movie-goers opted to spend money on films like Venom, a Marvel action movie released in early November which has so far grossed more than $240m in China alone.
“The novelty of Crazy Rich Asians only works for Western people who don’t know much about Asian culture and are fascinated by how ‘crazy rich’ Asians can be … and the Asian diaspora, who are mostly happy just to see their own culture presented in a Hollywood movie,” says Hu.
“For the Chinese, both of these points aren’t relevant. The love story itself isn’t even touching because it’s too distant from their own lives.”
The film’s late release date in China didn’t help either. Crazy Rich Asians hit mainland screens almost three months after debuting in the United States, giving any keen Chinese viewers plenty of time to source and watch bootleg versions online.
Hu says most of her friends hadn’t even heard of the movie. Herself, she only watched it because it was available on-board a recent long-haul flight.
But for Huang, a die-hard fan of what she described as the movie’s unique exploration of the “misunderstandings and the misgivings between Asian diaspora and the motherland”, the lack of substantial marketing in China was “lazy and ironic”.
“They should have known that there’s a big gap. You need to reach out and make an effort to establish an understanding between people in China and abroad. The movie is a great metaphor for how to attempt to do this, but that wasn’t reflected in the marketing. They just took the American trailer and gave it Chinese subtitles.”
She still holds out hope for a better result for the sequel but says one thing at least needs to change.
“If they don’t want it to be a fail from the beginning, their marketing needs to start yesterday.”