The movie, Crazy Rich Asians, has given Asian Americans something to talk about. I think it has generated more conversations than most other movies that come from Hollywood for all kinds of reasons.
In my book, er, on my blog, that’s a good thing. We need more conversations.
And I’d say that we need more conversation about real life, not only what happens on the big screen of entertainment.
Here’s what people are saying:
Filmmakers hardly ever get this right and usually don’t make the distinction between Asian-Americans and mainland Asians. It’s just easier to lump us together and think we all like karate, K-Pop, math and want to be doctors. Nothing further can be from the truth. However, while I am so different from my Asian counterparts, you wrong one of them and you wrong us all. It’s a strange symbiotic relationship that I can hardly articulate but it’s as thick as blood. This movie masterfully and beautifully illustrates that.
In fact, as a white person accustomed to being the catered-to audience, I find that there is something profound in learning to immerse yourself in someone else’s story. Watching movies about people who do not look like you or speak like you or have the same narrative as you teaches empathy and imagination. As academic Jenny J. Lee told Deadline, “As much as we may want to dismiss TV [and movies] as simple entertainment, it undeniably contributes to our cultural landscape and our understanding of the world.”
[ed.note: emphasis added]
But why, then, have I been largely silent myself about this movie? I have experienced such a range of simultaneous and conflicting thoughts and emotions; I can be glad about all the things that my other Asian American friends are glad about, while also experiencing discomfort with the cultural elements that were on display.
After all, not all Asian Americans think alike!
Here is one example: one of the challenges that all Asian Americans face here in America is a phenomenon called “perpetual foreigner syndrome.” This is the mindset that results in some people still being surprised that I speak English and assuming I am “from” somewhere outside of this country despite my being born in the U.S.A. Since the CRA story is largely one of Singaporean-based Chinese, the movie cannot help but present the Asians as foreigners, not to mention the showcasing of an extravagant lifestyle that I would imagine is foreign to most anyone reading this article.
Moreover, the book and movie’s title use of the word “Asian” is quite misleading, as the story told is only about Singapore Chinese, with a nod to Hong Kong Chinese and Shanghai Chinese. That leaves out many Asians all over the world, most of whom are poor, working class — or middle class at best. Even before the movie is released in Singapore, where it is set, non-Chinese Singaporeans — Indians and Malays — have complained that the movie and book don’t include them.
The real shame is that Crazy Rich Asians, a movie unique for its Asian star power, depends on an unsettling devaluation of actual Singaporeans.
Besides the fact that it was the brainchild of a Singapore-born writer, the Singaporean setting presents a possibility for visibility for East Asian faces in a way that America cannot.
… Yet what Crazy Rich Asians fails to acknowledge is that every hegemony, including the one that prevails in Singapore, relies on the erasure of less dominant cultures, even those indigenous to the city itself.
… some critics have decried “Crazy Rich Asians” for not being all things to all Asians.
There have been complaints that the film doesn’t represent the true diversity of Southeast Asia or Asia or the Asian-American experience. And they are absolutely right; it doesn’t. In fact, it doesn’t even come close.
The richness and complexities of the Asian diaspora cannot be tackled and addressed in a rom-com that takes place in a country that’s two-thirds the size of New York City.
Some viewers worried the movie ignored the reality of everyday life on the ground. “Not everyone is rich here, a lot of people live normal lives,” said retiree Irene Ee, 65. “Now everyone will think we have so much money, we should pay for everyone else’s needs.”
However, the film does have its critics. The most convincing of these are perhaps those that highlight how the film is good for Asian-American representational politics but not great for Singaporean or broadly Asian politics.
The film centres on the lives of extremely wealthy Chinese-Singaporeans. As Kirsten Han has pointed out, the film erases the problems of poverty in Singapore, and also ignores the racial hierarchy within that country. “Chinese Singaporeans — especially the superrich ones — are the “white people” here,“ she writes.
One of the most glaring examples of this hierarchy at play in the film is its only significant representation of South Asian people. Soldiers, who work as servants guarding the mansion of the “Crazy Rich Asians” …
While the film may challenge racial politics in the US, it’s blind to the racial politics in Singapore. Indian people are seriously marginalised within the context of Singapore, and are often used as cheap labour.
“Crazy stereotypical,” wrote the user Drown (link in Chinese), whose Douban profile says she’s from Jiangsu province.
“My ABC friends all love it while my Chinese friends hate it,” wrote the reviewer Mr.Charles (link in Chinese), who lives in Washington DC. His shorthand “ABC” refers to American-born Chinese, who are culturally different from Chinese people…
One user criticized the film for its lack of authenticity, comparing it to Americanized Chinese food. “As a native Asian, I feel it’s like eating General Tso’s chicken in a Chinese restaurant” in a foreign country, chimed in someone in Los Angeles who goes by the moniker Durian Cake Brother (link in Chinese). “It looks like a film about Asians, but the spirit of it is American. The leading actress is an ABC. The story is about how Asians look in the eyes of the Americans.”
I will be the first to admit that “Crazy Rich Asians” has its problems with representation. The movie fails to address the lack of darker-skinned Asians in the cast and classism in Singapore, but to expect one movie to do all of this would be impossible.
Where Crazy Rich Asians succeeds as a watershed moment for Asian-Americans in Hollywood, the same accomplishment in representation cannot be said for the actual Asians in Singapore, especially so for the substantial population of non-Chinese folks born and bred here. And strangely, after watching the film, I kinda get why director Jon M. Chu made certain decisions that ruled out a more nuanced portrayal of Singapore and Singaporeans.
When it came to marketing Crazy Rich Asians, Warner Bros. global marketing boss Blair Rich and her team began with an outreach to Asian audiences, offering them ownership of the movie before the studio even began to promote to a broader audience. This weekend an amazing 38% of Asian Americans turned out to watch Crazy Rich Asians per ComScore/Screen Engine’s PostTrak versus 39% Caucasians.
The sell here was that Crazy Rich Asians was more than a niche film, but something larger. Warners screened Crazy Rich Asians as early as six months ago (unheard of for any film even in the lead-up to awards season) to Asian audiences so that they could get behind it and champion it as their superhero movie.
Recently, digital media entrepreneur Bing Chen seized on Chu’s comment that “Crazy Rich Asians is more than just a movie, it’s a movement” and bought out 100+ theaters to give the pic a #GoldOpen with a number of affluent Asian industry leaders and celebrities following suit. In addition on Aug. Warners had 354 nearly sold-out sneak peeks generating around a half million at the box office. In the wake of all this, a chorus rose on social media outside the Asian community supporting the film including Ava DuVernay, Chris Pratt, Reese Witherspoon, and Lena Waithe to name a few.