If you’ve read anything about movies online in the wake of Crazy Rich Asians, you’ve probably encountered a narrative that goes a little something like this: the rom-com was dead, and Crazy Rich Asians brought it back, like a more wholesome version of Dr. Frankenstein. It’s a nice, Hollywood-esque story of an underdog emerging triumphant. And while Crazy Rich Asians is indeed an important and admirable two hours of glitzy fun, in the face of some of the hyperbolic narratives floating around it’s worthwhile to take a step back and consider a slightly more nuanced argument.
First and foremost, after seeing the film, there is a simple fact that must be addressed: calling Crazy Rich Asians a rom-com is a bit of a misnomer. In all honesty, it should be called a flat-out romance. Yes, it has funny bits, but every film worth its salt apart from the darkest of dramas has some element of comedy to it. The defining feature of a romantic comedy from His Girl Friday to When Harry Met Sally is that the couple at the center of the action is also the primary source of humor. While Rachel and Nick are adorable together, they’re not actually all that funny. The film relies on supporting characters like Goh Peik Lin and her wacky family for laughs, and when a film relies on secondary characters for humor, comedy should also be considered to hold a supporting role.
The second thing to consider is that, as I have addressed before, romance has recently been absent from big-budget Hollywood productions—and the success of Crazy Rich Asians should hopefully help turn that around—but that doesn’t mean it was dead. While Hollywood suffered temporary amnesia regarding the existence of romance, it flourished elsewhere, both here in the US in independent films and abroad.
On the indie side, the past ten years or so has produced such gems as Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, Obvious Child, Safety Not Guaranteed, and Sing Street. Note that the serious romantic drama has never, ever suffered a drought—just look at a list of any year’s Oscar nominees—so I’m not going to even try to list them all. In this instance, the prevalence of the romantic drama is the exception that proves the rule.
And then there are international releases. For those willing to put in the minimal exertion that is reading subtitles—or who are somehow unbothered by the travesty that is dubbing—there is a veritable treasure trove of recent romances to be found. Somewhat ironically, considering it looks like Crazy Rich Asians just might kickstart a new wave of Hollywood romances, the markets producing some of the most consistent romantic content are Asian. In terms of sheer output, Bollywood is hard to beat and has also released titles to critical acclaim, such as 2013’s The Lunchbox. In Japan, romance remains a staple anime genre, as indicated by recent hits such as Your Name. Meanwhile, while American productions are just catching on to the enormous potential of quality productions featuring fanfiction-worthy tropes, as Valerie Ettenhofer recently discussed here at FSR, South Korea has already mastered the art form. Yes, the Korean film industry may be better known for romantic dramas, but it’s also produced a lot of more light-hearted, but still trope-filled fare, with options featuring everything from body-swapping (The Beauty Inside) to firefighter-and-doctor (Love 911) to magician-and-girl-who-sees-ghosts (Spellbound).
Returning to Hollywood, the main thing that separates this new class of mainstream romantic films—most notably, Crazy Rich Asians and Love, Simon—from the wave of uninspiring mediocrity that hit in the mid-2000s is that, through embracing diversity, they manage to utilize the pleasant familiarity of tried and true narrative tropes while being different enough to avoid being overly repetitive. Considering Hollywood has never been on the cutting edge when it comes to things like representation and diversity, it’s hardly surprising that it took a push in the form of critical and commercial indie successes such as The Big Sick to convince the major studios to join in.
Maybe Crazy Rich Asians will beckon in a new era of Hollywood romances. Or maybe it won’t. But regardless, if one looks beyond to indie and international titles, a good new romance is never hard to find.