September 4, 2018

Crazy Rich Asians

A few thoughts after this weekend’s viewing of the movie “Crazy Rich Asians”:

  • The movie is, on its surface, a very uncomplicated romantic comedy set in a beautiful and lavish environment. From this perspective, the story plays by the numbers while jolting the viewer with a few unique elements that keep them plugged in. This is a brilliant play, as this is what allows the rest of the world—those who are not in some way familiar with (an) Asian culture—to plug into what is, at its core, a movie by Asians for Asians. Draped around that basic and uncomplicated framework is a rich array of Asian concepts, practices and cultural patterns so intricate and layered that it nearly matches the lavish outlay of money and designer branding that is a basis of the movie (an, in many cases, Asian culture). If representing culture could be done in a way that mimics the nouveau riche, this would be it.
  • Did I say a movie for Asians by Asians? I should be more accurate. This is a movie by Chinese for Chinese. Here is the danger of heralding Crazy Rich Asians as a step forward in diversity: it isn’t. It’s a ham-fisted concession that reinforces to anyone not Asian (or not paying attention) that Asian = Chinese. Singapore, where the movie is placed, has government-mandated accommodation that wrestle with the complexities of the country’s diversity. It’s national anthem is in Malay. Chinese students learn Tamil in school. But in this movie the only faces that aren’t the C in Singapore’s CMIO are security guards, boat captains, and servicepersons. I only recall hearing one “lah” in the whole movie, which isn’t Singapore at all. The romantic comedy may not have set out to tackle these harder issues, but that doesn’t give us permission to champion a movie that didn’t really do much except be in Asia.
  • The irony of a party-line rom-com that reinforces the mean of Asian perception (crazy, rich, chinese) taking a stab at advocating for the abandonment of “traditions for tradition’s sake” is not lost on me. Be the ABC that topples the matriarchal barrier to your dreams! But do so in a way that allows everyone to save face! I felt similarly about the storyline of Coco, which I adore, but I think Crazy Rich Asians did a better job of reflecting everyone involved taking a progressive step forward. In Coco, nothing really changes beyond Miguelito getting family-approved cause to play guitar for a living.
  • Walking out of the theater, Fru and I discussed how well this movie was able to display (without much pointing out) the circles of asian culture. They differ from culture to culture and demographic to demographic, so in this Sino-Singaporean environment, those selected for presentation are:
    • the money-burdened: those of old money who ostensibly honor where their money came from and thus must be austere
    • the moneyed: those not of old money yet who are also very loaded. They strive to be associated with the money-burdened yet have less obligation to strictness and more desire to celebrate wealth
    • the shallows: an undefined mass of people going beyond their means to look like/be with wealth. They want to appear rich and experience a “rich” lifestyle, to the chagrin of the moneyed—whose attempts to infiltrate the old money circles can be burdened by flashiness of these hangers-on
  • Thus a hybrid game of “tag” and “keep away” emerges, with groups chasing and avoiding each other to complicated effect. Friendships and associations can almost never be taken at face value, and thus having the protagonist operate as an expert in game theory was a perfect setup to analyze these patterns. To be honest, the movie didn’t analyze this at all—standard rom-coms have a way of not being too analytical—but I hope the book delved into this a bit more.
  • Selecting these circles rather than others was a smart move, as there’s something similar almost everywhere you go around the world. There’s some manifestation of class, standing and pretense to which all viewers can associate to their own culture except, perhaps, black Americans. We just have “athletes/entertainers” and “the rest of us.” The closest to Crazy Rich Asians is Willow and Jaden Smith, which is a relatively new phenomenon (hurry and grow up, Blue Ivy!) This makes me weirdly wistful, hoping for a day where success for black Americans is broad enough that our community matures to the level where we can be classist to each other and flaunt a vapid-yet-austere post-money lifestyle that embraces, rather than rejects, our difficult heritage. I’m certain there are better things to wish for, but it would be nice for it to not be someone else’s story for a change.

All said, a fun weekend watch.