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Opinion: Crazy Rich Asians offers hope despite the resentment that surrounds it

Caution: Spoilers ahead

For those of you who have been living under a rock, Crazy Rich Asians is a film adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s best-selling novel that has caused a furore of excitement.

It’s a romantic comedy with a bulletproof cinderella plot no different to Jennifer Lopez’s Monster-in-Law or Reese Witherspoon’s Sweet Home Alabama. A loveable female protagonist falls in love with a handsome and wealthy Prince Charming type, only to be met with the angst of a future mother-in-law. The movie isn’t one that calls for any artistic dissection and should be enjoyed exactly as it is presented: A fun, light-hearted and glamorous romcom.

Unfortunately, it’s also the sort of film that makes me want to live under said rock. It offers a glimpse into the world of unadulterated excess, coaxing in bug-eyed audiences to crass and shameless aspirations.

A film that celebrates a gilded and lavish lifestyle is also untimely to the region that it is set in, as the public here have become bitter to the endless parade of ill-gotten wealth.

Yet the film does have some positive implications. It confronts issues of diversification in the industry and highlights the importance of representation, proving itself more an important film rather than a good one.

Crazy Rich Asians, A Novel

For a movie that I wouldn’t otherwise watch, I wanted to keep an open mind due to the incensed, flag-waving excitement conjured here thanks to its actors and locations.

Of course we love seeing our countries represented on the big screen. Of course we love seeing our own actors making in Hollywood. Yet in this aspect, it was underwhelming. The entire production felt like a bone thrown in our direction, to satiate our need for acceptance into Western cinema. “Waaah look! It’s a Hollywood film about us! It’s cast is made up of Malaysians and Singaporeans also you know!”

Sure, it’s a massive win for Singapore Tourism Board. Local actors with major blockbuster roles and the country propped up to Western audiences as more than the strict, no-gum chewing nation stereotype.

The performances were well executed, especially by Constance Wu and Awkwafina, who both provided the majority of the laughs. Even so, other notable comedians like Ronnie Cheng and Ken Jeong were underused for more slapstick roles. Michelle Yeoh shone as the tiger mother, Eleanor, though hardly the most demanding role the veteran is used to. Gemma Chan surprised with a heartfelt performance of the beleaguered Astrid, whose storyline was by far the most interesting yet over simplified.

Photo by John Salangsang: Jimmy O. Yang, Jon M. Chu, Nina Jacobson, Sonoya Mizuno, Gemma Chan, Michelle Yeoh, Henry Golding, Awkwafina, Constance Wu, Chris Pang, Nico Santos, Ronny Chieng and Ken Jeong ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ film premiere.

Yet, it’s ultimately a story about an American and framed by an overtly Western perspective. It was certainly no love letter to Singapore the way Lost in Translation was to Tokyo, Manhattan was to the Big Apple or even Rocky was to Philadelphia.

Aside from the scene where we see our principal roles feasting at Newton, Singapore was merely a backdrop to the real characters of the movie: Glamour and wealth. It could have easily been set in Hong Kong or Taipei. Being very conscious of the fact its immediate audience are Americans, the film seemed to hold back on uniquely Singaporean characteristics and instead overflowed with more watered down Asian tropes.

Take its attempts to tackle difference in perceptions of old money and new money. The Goh family household are characterised as the nouveau riche. The blinding gold decor, white alligator skin sofas, the dizzying chandeliers and the family head, Ken Jeong, dressed as Elvis, stand in stark contrast to the Young household, who were wealthy even before their ancestors even left China.

Visually, it plays out perfectly. The old adage of ‘you can’t buy class’ rings true in the comical way the Gohs carry themselves. Yet, the measure of success in the Young family does become inconsistent, as Eleanor looks down on Rachel for merely being an Economics professor at New York University.

In truth, ‘old money’ places education extremely desirable. Instead, we see Eleanor question Rachel’s actual family heritage, to the point where it begins to mirror white elitist American exceptionalism.

Awkwafina delivered a humorous performance as Goh Peik Lin

The comparisons of wealth is also tone deaf to the racial disparity that plagues the country’s classes, which is also made up of nearly over a quarter Indians and Malays. Fair criticism has been directed to the film as to why they didn’t receive any representation.

Goh Peik Lin explains to Rachel that when the Young family first arrived from China, Singapore was nothing but ‘jungle and pig farmers’ and how they ‘built everything.’ This is a quintessential stance of colonialism, as if something is owed to them for bringing civilisation to the island.

The film unintentionally exploits the issue for cheap laughs that were downright racist. When Rachel and Peik Lin got lost searching for the Young mansion, they are spooked and terrified by two Sikh guards who are portrayed in a stereotypical fashion. For a movie being praised as championing the fight against racial discrimination, this scene was distasteful.

Henry Golding at the Crazy Rich Asians Premiere

One of the more interesting character criticisms is how Nick Young, Henry Golding, failed miserably in standing up for his beloved, never once supporting her in the face of his mother’s disapproval. Here, the film trumps for its accurate portrayal for those of us who were educated abroad and straddle the dichotomy between Western and Asian identities.

Having grown up at British boarding schools and living overseas for the majority of my life, I felt odd pangs of sympathy for Nick as he dealt with the introduction of an ‘outsider’ to his family as well as his ongoing reluctance to move back home. His lack of reaction was one of the more well-represented aspects of the film, as I, too, would have cowered in equal measure against my own mother’s unimpressed nonchalance.

Similarly, I was forced to face my own inner battles of identity. I felt more British than I did Asian throughout my early years, failing to understand why I would be forcibly paced through certain ceremonies or time honoured traditions when I returned for the holidays. I was better equipped with the conjugations of Latin and Ancient Greek, than I was with Bahasa. Therefore, I empathised with Nick as he was berated for not having visited home more or when he had to face up to the respected elders who lecture him on how he has lost his way.

Personal opinions aside, it is a film that delivers hope because of what the significance of its release entails. After Black Panther, conversations surrounding underrepresented minorities flooded Hollywood forums. The film was touted as proof that more diversity in cast and production members could prove just as, if not, more successful than initially believed. Crazy Rich Asians had been burdened with similar expectations of success. This was the first time in 25 years that Hollywood produced a film starring an all-Asian cast with an Asian director since 1993’s The Joy Luck Club.

Michelle Yeah does not disappoint as tiger mum, Eleanor Young

According to the Hollywood Reporter, the USD 30million budget movie has already smashed through those expectations as it earned USD 35.3 million since opening last Wednesday, with USD 26.5 million of it over the weekend. It is undoubtedly a success for both the producers and the Asian-American community that have deserved far more representation on the big screen. 

One exceptionally poignant part of the movie, that sums up this success, came right at the end. After winning over the acceptance of the tiger mum, a lesson learned over a perfunctory game of mahjong of course, the final moments of the the movie play out to a Mandarin cover of Coldplay’s ‘Yellow’ as the principal characters celebrate their engagement. At first, I was struck by the outward racist undertone. Then it became clear that the purpose of the music was an attempt to ‘own’ the racial slur. After researching this, a rather touching story emerged that indeed the moment very nearly didn’t make it into production.

Director Jon M. Chu was turned down by Coldplay, who didn’t want to risk being associated with such full frontal racism. The band had already received criticism for cultural misappropriation for the music video of ‘Princess of China.’ Chu penned a letter to the band, now published online, stating  “[The word ‘yellow’] has always had a negative connotation in my life — until I heard your song.

It immediately became an anthem for me and my friends and gave us a new sense of pride we never felt before.” Once the majority of the cast and production team signed it off, Coldplay gave them the thumbs up within 24 hours of receiving the letter. “If we’re going to be called yellow, we’re going to make it beautiful,” Chu told the Hollywood Reporter.

Crazy Rich Asians author, Kevin Kwan with Michelle Yeoh

Even though, the film is a massive victory to Asian-Americans, and justifiably so, unless you’re on the more comfortable side of the alarming Malaysian or Singaporean wealth gap, it is certainly not one that pertains well to the grassroots here. With corruption rampant amongst the political elite in the region, the lavish, gaudy lifestyles displayed in the movie aren’t one of aspiration but resentment.

More hopeful is that it also stands as evidence that Asian cinema has far more to offer in terms of substance and quality in the art of film. We, as Southeast Asians, should be far more proud of the variety of homegrown cinematic achievements we have accomplished, instead of seeking validation from a defunct and out-of-touch Hollywood fairy tale. Chinese investments, that make up nearly 30 percent of all Hollywood production, has steadily been diminishing the past couple of years. We should take note of such trends and direct our support of more regional productions with equal enthusiasm. Or maybe I am indeed just being a miserable git and can’t seem to ride this wave of excitement as ardently as I should like to. Go see the film then. Have some fun.

Crazy Rich Asians is out now and playing at theatres nationwide.

Opinion: Crazy Rich Asians offers hope despite the resentment that surrounds it

Tengku Muzhaffar Petra

Watches and Culture Editor

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