'Crazy Rich Asians' Producers Must Tread Lightly With Their 1MDB Scandal Movie

Frankly, a movie based on the ongoing kleptocracy scandal should dull down the glitz.

Billion Dollar Whale
Hachette Books

We’ve had a bit of time to calm down from the record-breaking success of Crazy Rich Asians. However, another story with roots in Southeast Asia is evidently already coming to fruition for the big screen. This one will hardly be as feel-good in comparison, though.

Michelle Yeoh — best-known domestically for her roles in Crazy Rich Asians, Star Trek: Discovery, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon — aims to turn the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) political scandal into a movie. Per Deadline, she is working through her newly inked deal with SK Global Entertainment to produce the feature with Ivanhoe Pictures. For its source material, Yeoh and team garnered the film rights to Tom Wright and Bradley Hope‘s exposé Billion Dollar Whale: The Man Who Fooled Wall Street, Hollywood, and the World, which centers on the purported ringleader of the globe-trotting 1MDB operation: the financier Jho Low.

The shameless exploits of high-rolling uber-rich folk come alive in Wright and Hope’s strangely engrossing recap of the 1MDB affair, and the book ensures that you’ll get both the hard-hitting facts and the discomfiting, infuriating experience in one engaging read. The kleptocracy scandal, which is still ongoing, involves the siphoning of billions of dollars from the eponymous government-run strategic development company set up by former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak in 2009. Since its very beginnings, Low began orchestrating the illegal transference of those funds to personal accounts through opaque transactions and fraudulent shell companies.

Most notably, Razak and his family received gargantuan portions of the cash, which has subsequently led to his loss in the 2018 Malaysian general election. He was eventually arrested for criminal breach of trust and abuse of power as well. Moreover, many other finance groups worldwide have found themselves caught up in the saga. Frustratingly frivolous uses of the stolen money went to a life of luxury, including expensive parties, real estate, and yachts. And of particular relevance to film fans, Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street was said to have been funded by the scandal.

At the time of writing this piece, the man at the eye of this financial and sociopolitical storm remains at large. As of November 2018, the US Department of Justice revealed that Low faces criminal charges, but he is nowhere to be found. There is no doubt that his disappearance coupled with the sheer scale of his giant caper sets him up to almost be an urban legend of sorts. He had connections with the financial elite, including Hollywood celebrities, princes, bankers, and government officials. There’s just something incredulous about Low, his unceasing extravagance, and his friends in high places. Amazon’s listing for Billion Dollar Whale even describes him as a “modern Gatsby.”

Superficially, adapting Low and his mysterious identity is understandable. With so many moving pieces to the puzzle, anchoring the exposé and film on the common denominator is expected. But the mere announcement of the film raises numerous concerns, the most of all being that the potential to mythologize Low and his escapades on screen would be truly bothersome. If we take ourselves back to The Wolf of Wall Street reference for a second — because it’s laughably relevant due to its similarity in subject matter — the darkly comedic undertones of Scorsese’s film don’t actually absolve it from addressing the fallout of Jordan Belfort’s actions. And yet the movie doesn’t adequately hit the mark in focusing on the victims scammed by its protagonist. An adaptation of Billion Dollar Whale, a book explaining a tale of financial and political ruin that hasn’t even completely run its course yet, must ensure that Low — and indeed, anyone closely involved in the scandal — isn’t glamorized in the slightest.

Then there’s the matter of reception in Malaysia itself, which has been mixed, to say the least. Specifically, it’s noteworthy and perhaps concerning that earliest reports of Yeoh’s involvement in the project has already sparked intense criticism over her alleged political affiliations with Razak. For the time being, the movie is short on a creative team and with no writers on board to flesh out the project right now, its narrative is difficult to predict. That said, Ivanhoe CEO John Penotti describes that this translation of Billion Dollar Whale will dissect cultural clashes that reportedly led to the scandal’s global reach, saying:

“…this is about preconceived notions of how foreign cultures and wealth generation works and how Asian and Western cultures just don’t understand each other. That gray area allowed smart people on this side to not question some of the clearly obvious signs of odd things that happened.”

Either way, this is a particularly dangerous adaptation for Hollywood to tackle; it is certainly no admirable heist of the century. If the movie industry is that determined to put its glossy spin on this horrific story of real-life crazy-rich Asians, it has to make it air-tight.

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