‘Crazy Rich Asians’: Addressing Mixed Reactions

September 21, 2018

Between international and domestic showings, “Crazy Rich Asians” has now grossed an estimated $167 billion since its release date back on Aug. 15, making it one of the highest-grossing films of the summer. The film has already earned a 93 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and an A on CinemaScore, as well as numerous positive critiques for its representation and artistic creativity by Rolling Stone, ScreenRant, and other news organizations. “‘Crazy Rich Asians’ possesses a sprightly, optimistic tone that pushes every pleasure-button of inveterate rom-com fans, including a fabulous [multilingual] soundtrack of Chinese language pop covers,” a reporter from the Washington Post noted.

The romantic comedy models the stereotypical challenge Hollywood couples face while fighting for love against familial intervention, and at the same time displays the difficulties of a relationship in which economic classes clash. Moreover, director Jon M. Chu explained in numerous interviews that his film models life within an ultra-rich extended Singaporean family, as expressed in Kevin Kwon’s 2013 novel, “Crazy Rich Asians,” except it integrates aspects of the cultural struggles Chu faced as a California native and the son of a Chinese father and Taiwanese mother immigrants.

Unsurprisingly, the film has been praised for defying stereotypes and expanding public perception of the Asian narrative. The small presence of Asian characters in Western media has led viewers to expect Asians to be depicted as intelligent (if old-fashioned) “model minorities,” or occasionally domineering and backstabbing, but “Crazy Rich Asians” defies these stereotypes. Likewise, with a full cast of Asian characters, “Crazy Rich Asians” more effectively humanizes the Asian community. As the first film to do this since Wayne Wang’s 1993 drama “Joy Luck Club,” the film represents a major breakthrough in representation and hopefully will inspire both more fully representative films in the future and more underprivileged minorities to fight for a position in media. Especially in America, where white perspectives dominate film culture, diversified representation can improve interracial relations by helping members of different races to see each other as equals.

Despite its advancements for the Asian community, however, many viewers have problems with the balance of Asian identities represented. Singapore’s racial demographic includes Chinese, Malays and Indians, yet only the Chinese, the most dominant ethnic group, accounting for 76.2% of the population, is focused upon. The film portrays members of other minority Asian cultures as inferior, taking up domestic positions such as guards and drivers, which has caused debate as to whether or not Chu’s film is making a statement about the power of the Chinese as their own group, or as a member of the Asian community at large.

A member of China Daily, the only English-language daily newspaper published in China, critiqued “Crazy Rich Asians” as a “white-bread film that follows tired old western tropes,” which undermines the film’s credibility as a paradigm of actual life in Singapore. Singaporean freelance journalist Kirsten Han similarly challenges the idea that telling a story of absurdly rich citizens is important. She contends such a story, which ignores Singapore’s civil and political struggles, will cause non-Singaporean residents to ignore those issues.The focus on “crazy rich” Asians may affect the US as well. While the 2018 median household income in the Asian community is the highest among all racial groups, Asians also face the largest wealth gaps in income inequality. Asians in New York are the poorest immigrant group, according to the New York Times, with the amount of Asians in poverty having grown by 44% to 245,000 in 2016, from 170,000 citizens in 2000.

When asked about such unaddressed aspects of Asian life, Chu acknowledged that “the film is called Crazy Rich Asians, but it’s really not about crazy rich Asians. It’s about Rachel (the lead character) finding her identity and finding her self-worth through this journey back into her culture.” Considering that Chu does not come from an ethnic background representing all possible Asian minorities, I believe he should not be held accountable to represent them all in his works; he does not have the credibility to portray cultures he was not raised with.

Likewise, viewers ought to keep in mind that “Crazy Rich Asians” is not a documentary about the juxtaposed conditions of Singaporean life. It is a romantic comedy featuring a fictional storyline, and thus is bound to forego certain elements. The presence of other Asian minorities occupying stereotypically inferior positions could arguably be coincidental, as I find it unlikely that Chu would create a film featuring an Asian-American narrative while establishing an inner racial hierarchy that suggests the Chinese are most superior. However, given the debatable implication of “Asian” in the film’s title, perhaps he could honor Asians of all ethnicities and present them occupying all economic class levels in future renditions to ensure complete inclusivity.

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