SEPTEMBER 7 ― The negative reaction some Singaporeans have towards Crazy Rich Asians, which puts happens to put Singapore on the world map as it continues to top the United States box office, is surprising.
Jon M. Chu’s US$30 million (RM124 million) romantic comedy by Warner Bros earned US$117 million (RM485 million) in its first 20 days of release in the US. Crazy Rich Asians is set to be the biggest rom-com in unadjusted domestic earnings since The Silver Linings Playbook in 2012 at US$132 million (RM547 million).
One might think that Singaporeans would be happy with the exposure of their country to a Western audience eagerly lapping up the motion picture adaptation of the novel by Kevin Kwan.
As I watched the film ― which featured Malaysian locations like Carcosa Seri Negara, Cheong Fatt Sze Mansion, and Langkawi, as well as Malaysian lead actors Michelle Yeoh and Henry Golding ― I was disappointed that Malaysia did not have a similar cultural product with mass appeal that could be exported to Hollywood.
Instead, America just knows Singapore now.
So it was a little surprising to read vitriolic reviews of Crazy Rich Asians that denounced the film’s lack of “true” Asian representation for excluding dark-skinned people, i.e ethnic Indian and Malay minorities in Singapore.
Pooja Nansi declared that “Crazy Rich Asians is one of our saddest moments“ as she criticised the use of dark bodies in positions of servitude, like opening car doors for a glamorous fair-skinned East Asian woman.
Jerrine Tan wrote that Crazy Rich Asians was all about worshiping money.
Of course, ethnic Chinese are the majority in Singapore, even if Asian Americans are the minority in the US. However, Crazy Rich Asians should be seen from the lens of promoting diversity in Hollywood and America and, for once, shining the spotlight on South-east Asia.
Focusing on the absence of dark-skinned south Asians as main characters in the film seems to be missing the point. It is not as if south Asians do not have their own shows and movies, like Aziz Ansari’s delightful Master of None and Mindy Kaling’s The Mindy Project show. Kaling also starred in Ocean’s 8.
If Crazy Rich Asians is guilty of portraying dark-skinned south Asians as inferior to light-skinned East Asians, why not lambast the film for not featuring other minorities as well, like a lesbian, a trans woman, or a person with disabilities?
Would the ideal character be a poor, ugly, dark-skinned, working class, queer woman who chooses to stay indigent because of some holier-than-thou values in her ill-defined fight against capitalism?
And if Singaporeans really hate so-called Chinese superiority in their country and want to advocate minority rights, how do they reconcile that with how they see Malaysia, their poor under-developed racist “Malay” neighbour?
I like Crazy Rich Asians because it puts women, the biggest minority in the world, front and centre. The men in the film are almost invisible or relegated to eye-candy, a role typically assigned to women in Hollywood flicks.
Even though it is a romantic comedy, Rachel Chu’s (Constance Wu) relationship with Nick Young (Henry Golding) is secondary to her interactions with Nick’s mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), that dissect Asian and Western values of individualism vs family and, to a certain extent, classism and wealth.
The other characters that drive Crazy Rich Asians forward are all women ― Rachel’s friend Peik Lin, Rachel’s mother Kerry, Nick’s grandmother Su Yi, and Nick’s cousin Astrid.
The last time I enjoyed a movie with a predominant female cast was the 2011 comedy Bridesmaids. Ocean’s 8 was nice, but it wasn’t as good as I expected it to be.
Crazy Rich Asians does not have a particularly incisive analysis of the uber-rich, as the film plays out like a typical Cinderella story of a woman meeting her billionaire Prince Charming and overcoming obstacles along the way to a happily-ever-after ending.
In that sense, Crazy Rich Asians isn’t that much different from films like Fifty Shades of Grey, with a plucky heroine from humble beginnings whose courage and selflessness win her the ultimate prize ― a sexy handsome husband with oodles of money.
Except that the heroine in Crazy Rich Asians is Asian. And that makes all the difference.
Poverty should not be confused with virtue. If our goal is to help everyone make a better living, why do we abhor money and act as if being rich is a moral failure?
If we have money, we can do lots of things. We can run for office to implement policies that improve the lives of minorities and the disenfranchised, without having to beg for donations from corporate bigwigs. Or we can fund the campaigns of politicians who promise to protect civil rights.
Possessing wealth is not about spending lots of money on silly immaterial things like couture, which the “real” crazy rich Asians disgustingly describe as “wearable art”, but about the ability to do the things you want, whether it is organising human rights movements, campaigning on gender equality, or saving a dog shelter. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g01YnqH-2ek)
It is about assuming power and influence to promote change yourself, since other people can’t be arsed to do the job.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.