The Bogus Backlash Against ‘Crazy Rich Asians’
Crazy Rich Asians is a huge box-office success, an audience favorite (93 percent Rotten Tomatoes score) and the film is already green-lit for a sequel.
As the first major studio film to feature an all-Asian cast since The Joy Luck Club 25 years ago, Crazy Rich Asians is, for many of us, a moment. Watching the film in a packed theater, not far from where I grew up as the son of Vietnamese refugees, the largely-Asian audience’s applause at the end felt like a thank-you, and a confirmation that my experience is real.
So bring on the inevitable backlash. Pundits are finding fault in the rom-com’s inability to capture the entirety of the Asian-American and Asian experience, break down class issues and income inequality, and tell an adorable international love story on a $30-million-dollar budget within 121 minutes.
The film is about a young Asian-American immigrant female professor navigating a relationship and the world of the Singapore’s Chinese elite 1 percent. One of the most common critiques is that it is a poor representation of Singapore, or as The New York Times chose to phrase it, “‘Crazy Rich Asians Is Not Asian Enough.” Ian Chong, a political scientist at the National University of Singapore, writes that the film “represents the worst of Singapore” for erasing the ethnic minorities that make up a quarter of the city-state’s 5.6 million population.
The lack of screen time for ethnic minorities can mostly be attributed to the screenplay based on the book of the same name written by Kevin Kwan, who drew inspiration from his childhood growing up in Singapore. While this limited scope leads some reviewers to conclude that the film is not “really about us,” what they miss is that the film introduces a different diversity in its casting, which includes Filipinos, Koreans, Malaysians, Japanese and Chinese from across the diaspora.
It’s easy to forget that up until the release of the film, the conversation was about whitewashing, with Asian roles in Aloha and Ghost in the Shell filled by Emma Stone and Scarlett Johansson. The conversation has now shifted to how to fit more Asian characters into a film. That’s progress.
Another critique is that the movie glamorizes wealth and does not call attention to the immense economic inequality among Asian ethnic groups. It’s surprising that critics were shocked to find gross displays of wealth in a film titled Crazy Rich Asians, and they seem to have missed the many scenes in the film that criticize and satirize this wealth.
Class representation comes not just from the characters the actors portray on screen, but also from the actors themselves. It was not so long ago that the film’s star Constance Wu was waiting tables, and other cast members struggled to find roles in major Hollywood films.
Crazy Rich Asians gives away the defining line of the film in the trailer, when the central character Rachel Chu (played by Wu) is told by her boyfriend’s mother: “you will never be enough.” Never being enough sums up how immigrants in the U.S. so often feel. It’s how Asian-Americans see themselves in the eyes of their relatives from their ancestral motherlands or, as in the plot of the movie, how women worry about the families they may be joining.
It’s troubling to see that same never-enough pressure in now being placed on a breakthrough movie.
Decades ago, similar criticisms were lobbed against The Joy Luck Club, which is as despised as it is loved within the Asian-American community. In either case, you can only put so much expectation onto one film.
The perceived blind spots of Crazy Rich Asians should point us back to the broader conversation stemming from #Oscarstoowhite and the growing recognition of the lack of diversity in people and experiences in contemporary storytelling.
The fact that the film doesn’t speak to all audiences is the very reason it is needed. Crazy Rich Asians adds to the representation that is sorely lacking, creates opportunities for groups that are historically ignored in film, and does it with style and substance. That is enough.