Review: Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

High SES -The Motion Picture, or better known as Crazy Rich Asians, opens here in Singapore on the 21st of August to major buzz. It’s the first Hollywood film featuring an all-Asian cast since The Joy Luck Club, and in 2018, Hollywood has finally learnt that representation matters. Or more accurately, representation sells.

Still, the film is groundbreaking watershed stuff, in what it means for society and culture. Contextually.

The actual film, is in itself quite rote. Asian American Rachel Chu, an economics professor at NYU, because nothing says ‘woman of the people,’ than being an academic from New York, flies to Singapore with her Lifeless Ken Doll, Nick Young played by Henry Golding and discovers he’s crazy rich and rubs shoulders with the elite of the elites whilst having to contend with his imperious mother Eleanor, played by the imperious  Michelle Yeoh. Cue a fish-in-NeWater story.

So the film works for the most part, as a light, frothy, rom-com. Outside all the talk of representation, it functions the way you expect. There are definitely issues, but definitely I don’t think it will derail the film’s ambition – because they hit that particular bar once the cameras stopped rolling. Heck, maybe even before then, because deciding to make the film was the watershed moment.

The film will work for many, who want to see representation – in particular Asian Americans and those East Asians who in any shape way or form, wished they were white, because of racial discrimination. To see yourself on screen, in a positive light, this film is going to be for you.

For everyone else Asian, it’s not. To be clear, the film cannot bear the weight of representation for the biggest continent in the world. But, it should and could have done better, particularly for Singaporeans. Representation will mean different things for different people. It will feel like a step forward for some, and step back for others.

Because if you’re not Chinese and not upper-class, and part of Goh Chok Tong’s ‘mediocres’, the film is impressively humiliating. Minorities are reduced to being backdrop brown people of servitude, and then we have to sit through 2 hours worth of wealth worshipping, whilst understanding minorities in general will never get there because of the policy/fallacy of meritocracy and racialised systems of exploitative wealth…It is hugely debilitating and rubs salts in wounds.

The film could have honestly avoided some of this but it’s not in any form self-reflexive. It doesn’t even try. That’s why there are many outspoken critics taking shots at the film’s position as a win for Asian inclusivity.

As a Malay person, I guess I’ll  have to wait for Malaysia to make a film about Rosmah Mansor before I  get some sort of parity. Hopefully it’s a rom-com though understandably it’ll come with some political… baggage.

Should we be surprised that intersectionality goes out of the window when it comes to racial progress? It did take feminism several waves. And we are asking a lot from Hollywood, a cynical, paranoid machine, that thought Scarlett Johansson was an appropriate choice for Ghost in the Shell.

But for the most part, I think most will find the fact that Singapore isn’t accurately depicted a little uneasy, but it won’t break the fantasy. Because if there’s one thing Singaporeans love, it’s affluence pornography. And the issues will be glossed over with various money shots. It’s this absurdity and glorification of wealth combined with the tried and tested story of Cinderella, that makes clear the film is an escapist fantasy refusing to burden itself with the heavier racial stuff.

This makes it a joy ride, and a hollow film. These two things can be true at the same time. I think audiences are smart enough to get that the Singapore on screen is fake, but fun. After all, we are allegedly an island of pirates historically and on the web.

And that’s where the frustration comes from. The film is happy to exist because existing in itself is a victory for some. However thematically it refuses to overreach itself and speak of larger things. That is why comparisons with Black Panther is laughable and talk of the Oscars is far fetched. (Then again, they did introduce that insulting Popular Film award.) Black Panther actively went into the politics of existing as a black person in its story and did it in a nuanced way.

Crazy Rich Asians' themes are… confusing. I mean, there’s a plot about game theory, except that game theory is intangible and more of a concept so it feels and plays as if it is a key theme when in reality it’s more of a Chekov’s Gun. However it doesn't feature anywhere else except in the the climax. It's  utilized in a game of mahjong, and it’s honestly a great scene but primarily because it focuses on just great acting, which greatly fluctuates depending on if Michelle Yeoh is involved. She and Awkwafina who plays Peik Lin, often steal the show.

Then you’d think the theme about passion versus duty, simply because Eleanor repeats this multiple times. And it’s probably true, except for the fact that Rachel’s other adversaries do not continue in the same theme, choosing to tangent into the other themes such as being foreign or about class disparity.

So you’d also think it’s about true love versus money, but that isn’t true at all. It keeps alluding to it, but nobody gives up any money for love. Does anyone really lose anything or change aside from Eleanor? We are led to believe this is Rachel's story, but she just reverts back to her position of marrying into a rich family.

Which is why the film seems to sag whenever Eleanor's not around, not just because Michelle Yeoh is effortlessly running circles around the other actors, but because she faces the ultimate change and we want to see that transformation, that choice. Definitely more than Henry Golding’s bachelor party or Pierre Png brooding plot line. 

The only other way was for Rachel to give up Nick and stick to it, but the film isn’t bold enough and the feel good intent and worship of wealth (with sequel prospects included) is too strong. It ends on a pool party atop Marina Bay Sands. So, I guess that scene was to convey true love wins in the face of riches and traditions, but money is still pretty awesome so let’s not discount it?

So the film has several themes, but none of them rise up enough amongst the noise to be clear. Which again is why the film is going to feel just a little bit hollow. Crazy Rich Asians is a busy movie that moves at a brisk pace helped by a tacky showcasing of extravagance, but there’s enough good intent surrounding it that it admittedly, begrudgingly becomes hard not to be swept up in it just a little.

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