Katie Smith-Wong examines how Asian culture has poured fresh life into the romantic comedy.
Dominated for a while by Nancy Meyers, Richard Curtis and the late Garry Marshall, the romantic comedy genre is an enduring one, even if regular reports surface suggesting the romcom’s demise. The quest for love is – obviously – central: stories between teenagers coming of age; mature adults reaching across social divides; and singletons looking to replace lost or denied love. With a quality director and a funny script, romantic comedies can create the ultimate feel-good film.
Yet whilst the range of characters looking for love is eclectic, all the notable, profitable romcoms tend to focus on Caucasians. The 90s and noughties saw the modern peak of the genre, but to a large degree the predictable narratives have now become stagnant. Romcoms are in need of a ‘makeover’ for modern audiences, and one of the key issues they need to address is their lack of diversity. So, with Crazy Rich Asians and To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before becoming romcom highlights of 2018, are Asians changing the genre?
Directors, studios or scriptwriters cannot be solely blamed for the lack of diversity in romcoms. A number of societal factors have all played into the trope that you have to be blonde and beautiful to win at the game of love. Whether as outwardly benign as giving a young child a Barbie to play with, efforts to recapture the success of iconic films such as Grease, Rear Window and Barbarella, or the blonde, white and busty screen idols of Marilyn Monroe and Jean Harlow, different social aspects have all reinforced this idea of ‘perfection’. And there has been little deviation in Hollywood. Asians have made a name for themselves within cinema through martial arts films or historical dramas, but in Hollywood they have long been seen as ‘outsiders’, with no room for them in films other than as the best friend, sidekick, nerd or exotic women to be seduced. Hardly the most appealing characters in cinema.
Over the last 20 years, Asian-American actors have slowly started to more prominently appear in mainstream cinema, but always without any trace of an accent that marks them as different. Combined with the persistent issue of whitewashing, this allows bigger, more established and, again, Caucasian actors to take centre stage. History has proven that Hollywood never presented ample opportunities for Asians to lead a film, let alone a romantic comedy, which further denies Asian-Americans representation in a key area in Western entertainment. But times are changing.
Audiences are recognising the lack of diversity in cinema, and interracial relationships are now becoming a key plot element. Films such as The Big Sick, Hitch and Away We Go have proved that mutual attraction and desirability are no longer a matter of race. But this modern approach hasn’t fully developed to include Asians in the romcom world. When Crazy Rich Asians was released last year, it revived the interest in contemporary Asian narratives, previously dismissed after the respective releases of The Flower Drum (1961) and The Joy Luck Club (1993) due to a lack of well-known Asian actresses in Hollywood. It also represented a giant leap in highlighting underrepresented audiences, as well as reminding Western audiences – regardless of race and gender – that Asians are part of the world and they have their own stories to tell.
Whilst the ultimate goal in most romcoms is to find love, Asian-American romcoms enhance this concept with endearing protagonists, whose struggles with balancing their Asian and Western identities make them relatable role models for audiences. Though not a romantic comedy, Sandra Oh’s first major role is as Asian-Canadian character Jade in 1994 drama Double Happiness. Jade is forced to keep her passion for acting and Caucasian love interest Mark a secret whilst her parents wish to marry her off to a ‘good Chinese boy’. The fact that her brother was disowned for getting involved with a Caucasian woman instils this inner fear of losing her family, forcing her to re-evaluate her life.
In Crazy Rich Asians, protagonist Rachel Chu is an economics professor unmotivated by money. However, she is also an only child of a working class immigrant – qualities that don’t sit well with not only the family of boyfriend Nick but also Singapore’s elite. Despite being seen as lower class, she retains her dignity and personality amid the pettiness of the other female characters.
For younger audiences, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before offers a relatable tale for Asian-Americans living in the digital age. When mixed race high school student Lara Jean Covey pretends to date jock Peter Kavinsky, her insecurity about their ‘relationship’ causes cracks in her confidence, even after he admits his feelings for her. This is exacerbated by the machinations of popular blonde Gen, who is Lara Jean’s rival and Peter’s ex-girlfriend.
As protagonists, Rachel and Lara Jean offer a sense of familiarity and real life. They go against the idea of someone sacrificing their own identity, whether it be looks or family, to capture a love interest, and the fact that they embarrass themselves comes across as charming – if a blonde character were to do the same, it would be treated as karmic humiliation. They also aren’t demeaned by relying on their sexuality or appearance to find love and are quite selfless. For instance, Lara Jean dismisses her crush on neighbour Josh to spare her sister’s feelings, whilst Rachel dumps Nick so he wouldn’t lose his family. Although it sounds like they are sacrificing their happiness, they show they aren’t afraid of being alone and value their integrity over their relationship status.
Earning more than $230m at the global box office, Crazy Rich Asians has become one of the highest grossing romantic comedies of all time. It has also secured the future of the film series, as back-to-back sequels will begin filming in 2020, which will also see the release of To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before 2. However, the real triumph of these films is encouraging other Asian-Americans to undertake similar projects. Fresh Off The Boat showrunner Nahnatchka Khan is set to make her directorial debut Always Be My Maybe, a romcom that notably stars two Asian-Americans in the lead roles. At the moment, this new wave of diversity is rewriting the rules on romantic comedies. With modern attitudes to appease, it’s moving in the right direction. And not before time…