Is it possible to separate the viewer from the viewed? A difficult question, but one which nonetheless appears when I think of this film. For me, so much of Crazy Rich Asians (2018) exists outside the confines of the screen that sometimes I feel like I’m not so much as commenting on this film but rather the cultural context around it.
Is that fair to Jon M. Chu’s piece of work? Is it fair to view the film not as an individual piece of art, but something embedded into the cultural zeitgeist of the time? I’m not entirely sure. One cannot deny that this film attempted to challenge the preconceptions surrounding the Asian ethnicity. The opening scene with the matriarch; Eleanor Sung-Young (Michelle Yeoh), was very much a giant middle finger to the feelings of cultural alienation that Asians have felt in Western culture for decades, if not centuries. The cartoonish Caucasian men rudely denying Eleanor a place to stay at the luxurious hotel for no explicit reason is understood to be a racist (or even possibly sexist) attack at her: Conclusions which the audience came to because of ‘reasons’ outside the screen. Once again, the question must be asked, “Should we see Chu’s film as an independent piece of work, or does it lose a lot of its significance once it is removed from its context?”
At the beginning of this year I made a promise to myself to refrain from consuming ‘mediocre art’. Yet, why did I watch Crazy Rich Asians if I expected it to be a somewhat generic romantic comedy? I’ll be honest, if the cast were not a majority Asian and if it wasn’t a big milestone for Asians in the West then I would not have watched it.
“Is it possible to separate the viewer from the viewed?”
Is the promise of seeing yourself represented positively, a good enough reason to consume a piece of art? It’s not like my love of the Godfather was tainted by the lack of Asians, nor did the lack of diversity make The Dark Knight any less enjoyable. Maybe, watching a film to see your ethnicity portrayed in a more appealing light isn’t a solid philosophical justification but it is also important to recognise that all attempts to separate the art from the context is impossible as both parties shape each other.
Was it wrong to watch Crazy Rich Asians because it was cultural comfort food? Entertaining and fun but definitely not intellectually challenging. I don’t know. But I watched it anyway.
There were quite a few moments which Crazy Rich Asians made me pause, not because it was showing anything which was revolutionary but rather because it just portrayed an Asian lead like the protagonist of any romantic comedies; attractive. Near the beginning of the film, there was a scene where an absurdly muscular Michael Teo (Pierre Png) walks out of the shower and approaches his wife; Astrid Leong-Teo. It was quite an exploitative scene and very objectifying. But there was no small penis joke, nor did a calculator fall out of his pocket nor was he being bullied for getting good grades.
He was just an attractive male, who also happened to be Asian.
Likewise, I was also shocked that a lot of the music in this film was Chinese, with a few classics from Teresa Tang (甜甜密) and a few additional catchy tunes sung with Mandarin lyrics (我要你的愛). Even if this was a film that was located in Singapore with an all-Asian cast, it still stunned me that the director was going so far as to insert Chinese songs. It also made me a little uncomfortable, not because the songs didn’t fit, I thought the jazz-infused tunes were catchy and fit the city of Singapore; an Asian city with Western influences. But because I had subconsciously expected an English or French song to signify love.
None of these directorial choices are intellectually significant but culturally they are. So how do we judge this film’s merit as a piece of art?
Crazy Rich Asians heralds the rise of East Asia and the increasing influence that economic powerhouses like Korea, Japan and China wield upon world culture. The Asian demographic has become such a financial lucrative draw that even Hollywood is making films which specifically tell the Asian narrative. Maybe because of this, Hollywood green-lit a story that glamourises wealth and excess hedonism. This is a story about the 1% of the 1%; the gorgeous Astrid buys a pair of million dollar earrings nonchalantly and Bernard Tai rents a cargo ship for a bachelor party. Maybe I wasn’t the target audience since I was never impressed by the unchecked capitalism on display and soon the dialogue about bank accounts and designer cars started to irritate me.
I’ve heard it be argued that this film doesn’t celebrate excess wealth because Nick married a girl who was significantly poorer than him. But that always seemed to be a comment on Confucianism; the tension between filial piety and individualism. Rachel (an embodiment of Western thinking) earns the respect of Eleanor because she forgoes love (Nick’s proposal) for reasons greater than herself; his relationship to his family. This selfless act wins the Young family’s trust and thus she is welcomed into the house. However, for me, the ending reflect this film’s stance on wealth; crazy rich Asians celebrating an engagement on top of a crazy rich high-rise in Singapore. I understand that part of the reason for the cartoonish display of opulence was to juxtapose the Young family to Rachel’s docile upbringing; but as someone who thinks East Asia is already too obsessed with money, the celebration of excess seemed jarring.
Another moment that urked me more than I would have expected is the little fling between annoyingly-arrogant Bernard and the gold-digging Kitty. The pair get touchy during the celebration of Colin and Araminta’s after party and get caught out for their faux pas, much to the delight (and squeals) of the people who were attending. It felt odd for a film which attempted to expose how stressful Asian family dynamics can be due to gossiping to then make a joke about characters acting inappropriately. This was the Asian equivalent to a fart joke, it got a little chuckle from the audience but it seemed counterproductive for a film which seemed to be highlighting the overbearing elements of filial piety.
The question remains; “Should one attempt to see Crazy Rich Asians without factoring in the context around the film?” If this is even possible, it is certainly a hard task. The quotes from various important individuals within the film industry praising the film’s success whilst emphasising the financial risk that Warner Bros. took to produce a film with an all-Asian cast inherently reflects the cultural glass ceilings that Chu had to break before production had even started.
For me, it’s not possible, at least not in 2018. As someone who rarely see Asian representation in Western media, supporting this film went beyond just a question of artistic merit. And I think this film understands this, Chu carefully crafted this film in order to break the cultural assumptions of its time. Will this story be as widely received or ‘unique’ in a time where tales of attractive Singaporean bachelors and wealthy Hong Kong mansions are the norm? Most likely not. Maybe, this film’s power comes not from what is depicted within the camera, but the cultural assumptions it challenges outside it. Maybe this makes Crazy Rich Asians a propaganda piece or a mediocre piece of art, I think both cases could be argued. But as someone who got a celebratory message from a close friend for watching a film which explored an Asian narrative in the Western world. Maybe Crazy Rich Asians was the right film at the right time to break the mould.