Soft Power: Chinese American films offer necessary perspectives on belonging

Rachel (Constance Wu) has to grapple with different cultural values when she meets her boyfriend’s (Henry Golding) family in “Crazy Rich Asians.” Photo from IMDb.

I loved “Crazy Rich Asians.” I loved “Crazy Rich Asians” for the story and the music and so many of its other qualities but primarily because its protagonist, Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), was a Chinese American facing conflict over her identity. I loved “Crazy Rich Asians,” the way I loved “The Farewell,” which similarly featured a Chinese American woman, Billi (Awkwafina), as the protagonist grappling with different cultural values. I loved both films in a way that only Chinese Americans can love films about what it means to be Chinese American. 

Looking at hard statistics, it wasn’t just me who loved these films. “Crazy Rich Asians,” according to The Hollywood Reporter, was the most successful rom-com in nine years at the United States box office. According to Forbes, “The Farewell” was a U.S. box-office success as well, demonstrating the extent to which a Chinese American film telling a uniquely Chinese American story can achieve economic success in America.

Yet “Crazy Rich Asians” was a flop in mainland China. So was “The Farewell,” which accounted for only 1% of China’s total screenings on opening day. In essence, the failure of both Chinese American films to appeal to Chinese audiences speaks to a larger question of cultural belonging. Chinese reviewers labeled “Crazy Rich Asians” as “insulting the Chinese.” 

Others implied that “Crazy Rich Asians” was clearly an “American” film and that the story was much too “foreign” for Chinese audiences. Despite the fact that Chinese American filmmaker Jon M. Chu directed it, Chinese viewers largely derided the film for what they perceived to be its lack of “authenticity” for Chinese identity. 

“The Farewell” experienced a similar response, with Chinese audiences finding the film’s rendering of Chinese American identity challenging to relate to and not genuinely Chinese. Yet “The Farewell,” for all its success in the United States as a Chinese American film, didn’t seem to be “American” enough for the United States either. The film was nominated as “Best Motion Picture, Foreign Language” in the 2020 Golden Globes. 

Director Lulu Wang expressed her thoughts on the categorization, stating that when she originally pitched her idea for the film, she was told that it was “too Asian” to cater to a U.S. audience and “too Westernized” for an Asian audience. She was asked to change the film according to which audience she wanted to appeal to. Such conflict, Wang reflected, demonstrated a willingness to conform to a reductionist view of Chinese American identity.

Others had similar thoughts. “Wow,” wrote Twitter user @robotpotatoes, “The Farewell as Foreign Language Film? I know qualification includes % of the film spoken in English…but context here absolutely matters when the story revolves around a Chinese AMERICAN family.”

Given the intersection of Chinese American identity with art, the question of a film’s “foreignness” and global appeal appears to reflect a larger disparity in international box offices. Yet it’s also a question of the authenticity of transnational storytelling, and how in many ways, the debates over audience, culture and storytelling parallel the debates over what it means to be Chinese American. 

When I see debates over a Chinese American film’s “foreignness” in both China and the United States, I’m reminded of these feelings I have about belonging and not feeling “enough.” In many ways, popular discourse surrounding these films parallels discourse surrounding Chinese American identity. It’s an established concept for Chinese Americans that one often feels either too “Chinese” to be American or too “American” to be Chinese, never truly fitting in anywhere. 

It’s no surprise, then, that this conflict has projected itself onto the nature of films. When Chinese Americans are constantly made to feel “foreign,” no matter what country we’re in, that same line of thinking takes shape in responses to the stories we tell. We are told to consider our “audience” and to choose a side when in reality, we belong to both cultures and countries — to choose one would be to lose part of ourselves in the process. 

Instead of asking whether or not a film appeals to either Chinese or U.S. audiences, debates over the perceived “authenticity” of a film must consider the unique audience of Chinese Americans. If we consider authenticity as a form of truth, then we must also realize that truth is inherently subjective. Chinese Americans have our own truths about how we see our “Chinese-ness” and “American-ness.” Chinese American films are authentic in ways that only Chinese American films can be. We have our own ideas of what it means to belong, and I would argue that there is space to tell true stories just as Chinese Americans see them for Chinese Americans. 

My intention isn’t to invalidate criticism of both films, as to do so would undermine the very cultural differences that I’ve grown up questioning. However, nothing is ever truly one-dimensional, and we need space for Chinese American stories. 

Maybe it’s unlikely for a Chinese American film to truly resonate with both Chinese and U.S. audiences, to somehow have that quality that perfectly appeals to both cultures. The fact that we still haven’t gotten to that point yet shows Chinese Americans that there might never be a perfect balance between both of these parts of ourselves, and maybe that’s OK. We can learn so much about ourselves when we’re still questioning who we are, and that might just be what belonging is: having that possibility to define ourselves just as we want, without fear of whether or not we’re appealing to one side or the other. 

It’s because, not in spite of, our identities that Chinese Americans have such dynamic ways of seeing our own truths through storytelling. As such, we need Chinese American films for Chinese Americans because these films can teach us what it means to belong. Most importantly, though, Chinese American stories let us see ourselves for ourselves in all our nuances, as brilliant and complex as Chinese Americans are.

Valerie Wu is a sophomore writing about the arts and pop culture in relation to her Chinese American identity. Her column, “Soft Power,” runs every other Monday.