If you haven’t heard by now, Crazy Rich Asians is the talk of the town. This blockbuster rom-com has been taken apart and discussed down to the smallest details by major editorials from The Straits Times to the BBC to The New York Times. All I have to offer in this review is the honest opinion of a cinephile who is also a “brown”, non-Chinese Singaporean and doesn’t belong to the wealthiest one per cent whose lives are being paraded and parodied in the movie.
Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), a Chinese-American professor from New York, accompanies her boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding) to his home country Singapore to attend his best friend’s wedding. She then finds out that Nick comes from one of the richest, most influential families in the region and finds herself going toe to toe with Nick’s mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh). She’s – shock horror – an elegant but stern matriarch who doesn’t think that Rachel has what it takes to be part of the Young family.
I’ll admit that, as a film, Crazy Rich Asians is rather entertaining. It’s structurally sound with its three neat acts and an assured pace. Over-the-top Crazy Rich Antics aside, there is a universal story at the core – the struggle between following your heart and pleasing your family – which is heartfelt and even satisfying at some points.
It’s funny, the actors bounce off each other well and I enjoyed seeing an ensemble cast of Asian performers who have been in films and series that I love. The legendary Yeoh has kicked ass in countless action movies, Wu pretty much carries Fresh Off the Boat on her shoulders and Sonoya Mizuno was the ultra cool but long-suffering android in cult sci-fi hit Ex Machina. Let’s not forget the numerous veteran actors from Singapore whom I watched growing up such as Koh Chieng Mun, Selena Tan, Janice Koh, Pierre Png and more.
I’m also not immune to the thrill of seeing some of my country’s national icons such as the local food and Gardens by the Bay, on the big screen and in a Hollywood blockbuster at that. But this particular source of my joy is also the one that cuts the deepest – the film fails to capture the cultural nuances of Singapore. While there is ample representation of the ethnic Chinese peoples, the other major cultures that make this unique island state whole – namely the Malay and Indian communities – are nearly invisible.
The very few Indian people I spotted played minor roles in service of the glamorous and empowered Chinese characters. And don’t get me started on the bit in which Rachel and her best friend Peik Lin (Awkwafina) freak out in the car at night when a pair of guards in turbans suddenly appear. This gag is just an uncomfortable giggle away from a racial slur.
And alas, my own crazy rich Malay heritage is almost entirely erased save for a few Malay words and phrases used in the script: Nick naming the ostentatious stuffed tiger in his home Mr. Harimau, and when he orders satay, to which Rachel makes googly eyes at her man for this casual display of multilingual ability. Gurl! All Singaporeans and their mothers can order food in the various languages. Nothing to see here. Next!
The main cast and characters are also dominated by East Asian faces and Chinese dialects, while the movie is bookended by popular Western songs sung in Mandarin. And we wonder why foreigners keep thinking Singapore is in China.
I can see why critics, fans and the industry in Hollywood are touting Crazy Rich Asians as a milestone in their ongoing fight for greater diversity in mainstream films there – it’s one of the ultra rare major studio tentpoles in which Asian talents take charge both in front of and behind the camera. It’s being viewed as a cinematic accomplishment for Asians just like what Marvel’s Black Panther has done for Africans.
But it’s important to note that Black Panther (see our review) succeeds where Crazy Rich Asians doesn’t. Even though it’s set in Wakanda, a fictional country, the movie still manages to capture a fuller spectrum of Africans and African culture with the languages and especially the elaborate costumes inspired by the traditional attire of various real-life African tribes.
Director Jon M. Chu has said multiple times that Crazy Rich Asians “isn’t the movie to solve all the representation issues.” But isn’t painting a fuller, more accurate portrait of Singapore, one that involves the other major cultures in a more meaningful way, the least one could’ve done considering the supposed Singaporean-ness of this tale’s origins?
It also feels awfully hypocritical to me that the creators of the film keep harping on how important cultural representation in film is and how crucial it is to see one’s image and voice reflected on screen, when the other Singapore ethnicities have been reduced to being nothing more than a mood board for the movie.
Ironically, it’s the very same issue that has angry Asian-Americans crying out for greater diversity in mainstream entertainment. So I ask this – how do you think a significant portion of the Singaporean masses feel not seeing their image and voices reflected in this movie?
Crazy Rich Asians is out in cinemas now. Have you seen it? Be sure to let us know how you feel below.