While the Hollywood blockbuster Avengers: Endgame seems set to dominate America’s box offices this year, a low-budget Asian American film, The Farewell, dethroned it in per-theatre revenue over its opening weekend.
Released on July 12 in four theatres in New York and Los Angeles, The Farewell, starring Awkwafina, who rose to fame in Crazy Rich Asians, sold an average of $88,916 worth of tickets in each venue, with total box office revenues of $2m, according to the cinema database Box Office Mojo. Avengers: Endgame, released in 4,662 theatres in the US in April, took an average of $75,075 per theatre, according to Box Office Mojo.
Directed by Lulu Wang, based on her own experiences, the film tells the story of Billi, a Chinese American woman who returns to China when her beloved grandmother is terminally ill. Billi struggles with her family’s decision to keep grandma in the dark about her disease and to stage a wedding intended to bring everyone together one last time.
The film rides a wave of Asian American content that has surged since last year. Many more Asian faces have been featured in studio movies, including Crazy Rich Asians star Awkwafina (the professional name of American actress Nora Lum), who takes on her first dramatic lead in The Farewell.
“I feel like we couldn’t have made our film three years ago,” Anita Gou, co-producer of The Farewell, told the Nikkei Asian Review.
Ms Gou, who grew up in Taiwan and the US and is a niece of Terry Gou, founder and chairman of Hon Hai Precision Industry, said the industry’s attitude toward diversity has changed “drastically”. The Farewell was well received at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year in the US and was bought for about $6m by A24, an American independent entertainment company.
Its success follows a series of films featuring Asian American leads in 2018 and 2019, including Crazy Rich Asians, Searching, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Stuber and Always Be My Maybe, which features Ali Wong and Randall Park as childhood sweethearts reuniting in San Francisco.
Nancy Yao Maasbach, president of New York’s Museum of Chinese in America, said she particularly remembered one scene in Always Be My Maybe. As Mr Park’s character, Marcus Kim, watches a poetry slam, he texts Ms Wong’s character, Sasha Tran, saying: “Wish they had stuff like this when we were kids.”
Ms Maasbach said she felt tears blurring her sight because the exchange spoke to her own upbringing in the US, where she “did not see a lot of role models”.
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Ms Maasbach, now 47, wanted to be an actress and worked for a theatre company in Los Angeles in the 1990s, where she often auditioned for one-line roles.
The aspiring actress went into investment banking in 1999, finding it “much easier” than pursuing a career in the film industry. “I wish that I was younger,” said Ms Maasbach. “If I had been in this atmosphere and I was in my 20s, there’d be no doubt in my mind to pursue acting and theatre, just so aggressively.”
Crazy Rich Asians was a milestone for Asian Americans in Hollywood, raking in $238.5m worldwide, according to Box Office Mojo. The film was applauded for many things, but most importantly it challenged the idea that Asian American actors and stories lacked “bankability”.
“It became a self-fulling prophecy because [studios] kept making certain type of movies that would reach that demographic — 18 to 35, young, white people,” said Janet Yang, an Emmy-winning producer who brokered the first sale of Hollywood films to China.
But the landscape of American society has been transformed by social media, said Ms Yang, allowing under-represented communities to tell their own stories on inexpensive platforms where young people have embraced diversity and inclusiveness with open arms.
The rise of streaming platforms such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and YouTube has also pushed Hollywood to rethink its strategy. Both Netflix and Amazon have produced and acquired locally authentic content in Asia, such as South Korean dramas, exposing US viewers to a variety of foreign content they have rarely seen.
Initially, Hollywood was slow to react, rolling out numerous so-called “whitewashing” films — in which white actors are cast as non-white characters — in 2016. Aloha, Doctor Strange and Ghost in the Shell all drew criticism for casting Caucasian actors as Asian characters. So what made Hollywood roll out the red carpet for a full-Asian cast film in 2018?
One notable influence was the social media campaign #StarringJohnCho, created by William Yu, 28, then working in advertising, who Photoshopped the well-known Korean American actor John Cho as the male lead for blockbuster movie posters.
“I wanted to start a conversation, I wanted people to share and comment and retweet and add their thoughts to it,” said Mr Yu. “Hopefully this project opened up some eyes to how they thought what a leading man should look like.”
The #StarringJohnCho campaign became a powerful movement, striking a chord with Jon M. Chu, director of Crazy Rich Asians, who revealed in an interview with Character Media, an Asian American entertainment news site, that it encouraged him to take on the full-Asian cast project.
Adele Lim, co-screenwriter of Crazy Rich Asians, who had grown up in Malaysia, said she took the job to help portray her culture, but had low expectations of its reception in Hollywood. Even after the film project received the green light, Ms Lim worried about the box office response, fearing that if the film flopped Hollywood would not give “Asian Americans a chance for another 25 years”.
The filmmakers were not fighting alone. While the film crew was busy recreating the lifestyle of wealthy Singaporean families, a group of young and “crazy rich” Asians descended from Silicon Valley to ensure the film’s success.
“I was surprised to learn how passionate they were about Asian representation [in Hollywood],” said Ms Yang, co-founder with a group of technology industry executives of Gold House, a US-based non-profit organisation aimed at increasing the societal impact of the Asian diaspora, and #GoldOpen, which supports Asian American creative projects.
Together, the Gold House group bought all the available tickets in hundreds of theatres across the US to ensure successful opening weekends for Asian American films, including Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell.
“It was a risk, [even though] the book had been quite popular,” said Douglas Montgomery, vice-president of category management at Warner Bros, which made the film, and chairman of the Japan America Society of Southern California. “Even Warner Bros was waiting to see how it did and it did very well.” Eventually, Warner Bros approved a sequel.
Mr Montgomery also cited the success of Black Panther and diverse casting in the US television show Riverdale as reasons that the studio took on Crazy Rich Asians.
“We do believe that diversity is good business,” said Mr Montgomery. “If you look at something that is a business, if you just do the right thing, it’s not necessarily sustainable . . . [But] we believe diversity [will be] sustainable.”
One of the first Asian American leads to be cast in a major network television show after Crazy Rich Asians was Desmond Chiam, who plays Wyatt Cole in ABC’s Reef Break. Mr Chiam said he literally lay down on the street in an alleyway next to a pub when he heard he had gotten the role.
The actor said Asian American friends had also been cast in various projects. “We actually have this little group chat and we said, ‘Hey, we’re all working right now’, simultaneously,” Mr Chiam chuckled. “That has never happened before.”
With Asian American films continuing to blossom in Hollywood, many believe it is also encouraging the next generation to explore their identities. “Growing up, I often felt that there are only two ways to identify — either you’re Asian or you’re American. You always felt very torn between those two things,” said Mr Yu.
“[But] you have different ways to be Asian American and there’s no correct way.”
A version of this article was first published by the Nikkei Asian Review on July 31 2019. ©2019 Nikkei Inc. All rights reserved.
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