It’s been about a month since Warner Bros released Crazy Rich Asians, powering to runaway success domestically and staggering the rollout internationally. With the global box office now over $167M, $28.6M has come from 23 overseas markets through last Sunday. There is plenty of play ahead, including the UK release on Friday, but there is also a big question mark over whether the Jon M Chu-directed smash makes it to China. And if it was facing an uphill battle to begin with there, a local scandal could indirectly influence its chances while state media took a pointed punch at it today.
Chinese authorities are understood to still be mulling a yea or nay on giving the film a quota slot, but while WB is playing up the theme of family and acceptance, depictions of outsize wealth may be an issue — and that was highlighted in the China Daily op-ed today. We’ll get to that below.
In the meantime; Warner Bros submitted the movie for consideration a while back, and, I hear, has not heard back. When a response takes this long, it can be seen as neither a positive nor a negative. But if the censors don’t pass it, that’s that.
It would certainly not be the first film to miss a China slot, but given the subject matter, one has to wonder: What’s the hold up? And there are several potential factors.
In North America, the movie began its first weekend playing mightily to the Asian-American demo before seeing distinct crossover. Internationally, the film is expected to play with word of mouth and the curiosity factor boosted by CRA’s domestic success. It has already fared well in parts of South East Asia, including Singapore where the story is partially set. Australia, which has a large Asian population, has also seen sustained success at No. 1 for two weeks in a row.
However, there are several factors that may make this a harder sell offshore, and there are particular stumbling blocks when it comes to getting over the Great Wall. All-Asian casts are not a novelty in major markets like Korea, Japan and of course the Middle Kingdom. The originality of the prospect therefore could lose some of its cachet since representation in those areas is not an issue. In Asia, says one observer, “People walk out the door and see what we call diversity. Crazy Rich Asians is not diverse to them.” Those markets also have their own solidly performing homegrown romcoms which travel in the region. Do folks there need to see a Westernized version of a genre that is already tailored to their tastes?
Western romantic comedies are hit-and-miss abroad, performing best in English-speaking markets or those that have some affinity for a film’s star or origins — and they don’t typically work in Asia. One major caveat is Richard Curtis’ 2013 pic About Time which made an outrageous $23.4M in Korea. Korea’s Crazy Rich Asians date is as-yet unspecified but expected in late October.
In China, local romantic comedies work, but Hollywood’s don’t play. The only pure studio romcom to gain access in recent memory was Bridget Jones’s Baby which did just about $750K.
Conversely, this summer’s local pic How Long Will I Love U was a breakout, making over $135M in China. Other examples include 2017’s The Ex-File 3: Return Of The Exes ($300M+), 2014’s Breakup Buddies ($188M) and The Breakup Guru ($106M), 2013’s Finding Mr Right ($83M) and the Tiny Times franchise at a collective $285M.
Some have suggested to me that Middle Kingdom authorities balk at ostentatious displays of wealth and would thus frown upon CRA. But one person notes that the Tiny Times movies were okayed by the local censors, even if the films were criticized by audiences for a “money is everything” theme.
An opinion piece in today’s China Daily, however, takes a pointed shot at Crazy Rich Asians and compares it to local summer smash Hello Mr Billionaire ($370M+ local box office, though not a romcom). Noting that both movies “poke fun at the insane, inane lifestyles made possible by extreme wealth,” the piece criticizes CRA as “a white-bread film that follows tired old Western tropes.”
The op-ed further suggests that CRA “makes money look good.” Hello Mr Billionaire, on the other hand, “is bitter, better and more biting.” The Chinese film is in fact a remake of Universal’s 1985 Richard Pryor-starrer Brewster’s Millions and sees a goalie at a level C football league receive a challenge to spend up to RMB 1B in a month. It’s not the joy and happiness he was expecting.
The scathing takedown of CRA in the state-backed China Daily continues, “There is enough conspicuous consumption in China for the glitter and bling to find an audience, but when it comes to the identity politics of a US-directed English-language film celebrating Chinese culture of the diaspora (the film has nothing to do with China except as a troubled homeland that had to be escaped to achieve personal and financial success) it might disappoint more than entertain; more of the same-old, same-old from Hollywood.”
The question of the portrayal of wealth onscreen comes at a pivotal time for the Chinese industry which has been cracking down on star salaries and alleged tax evasion off screen. That brings up a current scandal in China which may have a ripple effect on CRA.
Notably, the whereabouts of megastar Fan Bingbing (who is entirely unrelated to CRA) have become a mystery after she was first mentioned in relation to the so-called practice of yin-and-yang contracts in early June. That same month, a group of Chinese government organizations issued a notice seeking to curb “unreasonable pay” with a directive to cap “astronomical” star salaries. Also in the cross-hairs were tax evasion and other issues which they said must be managed in order to promote the healthy development of the business rather than “distorting social values.” This week, Fan was graded as having 0% social responsibility in a widely circulated poll, and the status of her upcoming projects is in limbo. Her reps have not responded to repeated requests for comment.
A source familiar with the Chinese industry says, Fan’s situation “combined with the extravagance and stereotypes used in Crazy Rich Asians may be an issue for the censors.”
But Warner Bros is also focusing on the importance of family in Crazy Rich Asians, and being accepted whether rich or poor, which are themes that resonate on a universal level. Regardless, given the situation surrounding Fan, and the subject matter of the film, the unfortunate timing may be part culprit if China doesn’t see fit to rubber stamp a release.
Still, a China source tells me that local box office analysts are keen to see how a movie about Western Asians would perform in the Middle Kingdom. But another reason it may not fly, I’m told, is that the Chinese are “very sensitive about Asian and Chinese characters” in Hollywood films and “any difference could be seen as insulting.”
China expert and USC professor Stanley Rosen agrees there could be sensitivity to stereotypes. The movie, he told me recently, “is, at least in part, meant to be a response to previous Hollywood films that cast Asians in stereotypical roles. Well, given that China has the largest number of billionaires in the world; Japan used to buy up everything in the U.S. until its economy went south; and at least some people think the Chinese economy will allow it to surpass the U.S. as the richest nation in the world in the not too distant future, it seems that making a movie about the Asian super rich is also building on a stereotype. To be sure, the film tones down the book so that, for example, Michelle Yeoh’s character is less manipulative and more sympathetic in the film, but the film’s representation of Asians does in a sense feed on a stereotype.”
And yet, as the film has paved the way for a franchise, it would be unfortunate for the movie not to play in the world’s second-largest box office market. But the sequel, China Rich Girlfriend, which is in the works at WB, doesn’t on the face of it offer a message the Chinese government wants to convey, says Rosen. He allows that creative changes could be made to eliminate religion and at least some forms of opulence, but, he says, “If I were a Chinese censor, I’d be wary of opening this particular Pandora’s box.”