Asian Representation in Hollywood Movies

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I know that almost everyone I know on Facebook loved and praised Crazy Rich Asians for its Asian representation in a Hollywood movie. It was groundbreaking I guess, even though I personally think The Joy Luck Club pioneered it all… But I must say Always Be My Maybe, a new rom-com on Netflix featuring Asian leads, is far better at representing Asian and deserves more recognition than the former.

For the record, my comparison of the two excludes plotline, but rather focuses on how each movie incorporates soundtrack into the respective movies.

What I found frustrating about Crazy Rich Asians was how mediocre it tried to show its “Asian-ness” through the music. It ticked me off especially when the majority of the soundtracks were Mandarin covers of American pop songs. I understand that they want to make a multilingual soundtrack and I understand the intention behind it, but to me, it seemed like Hollywood’s failed attempt at “representing Asian.”

Of course, the problem goes beyond mere usage of the soundtrack, but let me elaborate and show a larger picture with soundtrack alone. 

Granted, the experience I had with the movie may have been weird for me especially because I’ve been living in Korea for so long, where naturally all the movies made here use soundtracks from local artists.

But having a Mandarin cover of Coldplay’s “Yellow” playing at the very last scene felt very out of place, and seemed like a failed attempt at appealing to both Asian-American population and non-Asian Americans.

Same applies to almost all American songs that were covered in Mandarin in the rest of the movie. It’s not even a nuanced way of showing representation, but rather a half-assed attempt.

From the way I see it, there are two ways Crazy Rich Asians, or any Hollywood-made movies claiming to represent Asian, can go about their soundtrack to make the movie overall seem more… seamless.

  1. Actually use original Asian songs
  2. Just use American pop songs that aren’t covered in Mandarin… (In fact, Mandarin does not even remotely cover all Asians)

With the first method, I think Hollywood could show the audience that it is comfortable using materials other than the ones produced in the US, to give it a more local vibe, and a truer representation of something they’re trying to achieve.

With the latter, Hollywood could show that it CAN make an Asian-leading Hollywood movie a norm without alienating other viewers. I believe the latter is a better option Hollywood should take.

I think Always Be My Maybe in some ways achieved the latter. It introduced the main characters who are Asian-Americans, but it did not flaunt that by over-emphasizing the movie with Mandarin covers of American pop songs, which in my opinion is just trying too hard.

I loved the fact that the movie just used normal pop songs. The storyline and scenes reflect the choice of the soundtrack by showing subtle Asian-American details that are not over the top. (Granted there are still some stereotypes they displayed that were a bit far-fetched like Koreans using scissors for everything… I think they’re trying to make it relatable for the viewers but no, we do not use scissors to cut scallions. We also have knives.)

Here’s the thing. Using normal songs and soundtracks other Hollywood movies would also use makes this particular movie seem more natural. It’s as if you can replace the main characters with any other actors of different races and it would still be a movie that works. That, to me, is a better representation and a more respectable way of showing diversity in Hollywood.

I think a Hollywood movie that reflects Asian representation should not necessarily shove everything Asian available, even going so far as to cover American songs with Mandarin. Like I said in the beginning, either go all out by using actual Asian songs, or just make the soundtrack be like any other Hollywood movies.

I’m not saying Crazy Rich Asians was too Asian, and not Hollywood enough. Rather, I think if it wanted to go all out with its Asian representation, they should not have half-assed it by doing covers of American songs. I wouldn’t even complain if the movie actually just used local Singaporean or Mandarin songs. The fact that they used covers of American songs just absolutely ruined it for me.

Another problem I had with Crazy Rich Asians is that people assume it’s a Hollywood-made movie that represents Asian, but it doesn’t even remotely cover the diversity within the Asian population.

If Hollywood wants to achieve diversity, either go all out, or it should just make it feel like any other Hollywood movies. Let it feel normal that Asian American leading movies are similar to any other Hollywood-made movies you watch on Netflix.

With that said, I really appreciate how seamless Always Be My Maybe is, and this is the type of Hollywood movie representing Asian I would gladly pay to watch. It is also a better way for Asian-Americans living in the US to feel like they’re being represented on the big screen.


Photo credit: Netflix

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