Essays · Movies

Finding the Real Singapore in ‘Crazy Rich Asians’

Jon M. Chu’s flashy, outrageous romp doesn’t hit a home run in the Lion City, but that doesn’t mean it’s unimportant.
Crazy Rich Asians Michelle Yeoh
By  · Published on August 23rd, 2018

As a Singaporean film watcher, trying to parse through my thoughts and feelings about Jon M. Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians has been a fascinating exercise. First off, going into the facts and figures of the entire affair is blatantly easy. Crazy Rich Asians did phenomenally at the US box office over its opening weekend. The majority of film critics love it. There’s already a sequel in the works.

Crazy Rich Asians is part of a wonderful resurgence of the romantic comedy genre, too, and if its success leads to more feel-good films — particularly ones filled with all-minority casts — that’s a big win all-around. But in Singapore, reactions to the film have very much been mixed, and understanding why isn’t rocket science.

In general, the Western film industry doesn’t often bat an eye toward Singapore as it is. Even when Hollywood decides to pay attention, many conceptions of the country have been nothing but a fantasy. The first time I saw Singapore “represented” in a film that wasn’t local was in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. The vibe of the hodgepodge exoticized spa that was featured in the movie felt dismissive at best. However, to me, there was also a sense of acceptance that it was good enough for the standards of an industry that had erased us, to begin with.

That’s the unspoken, repetitive, and exhausting message that results from a lack of representation in general: marginalized groups seek out things that are just good enough. We look for proxy images to relate to even in films where no one looks or presents like us. We unearth strands of narrative meaning even in the most implicit of subtexts.

Of course, recognizing this doesn’t detract from anyone’s ability to enjoy a film or a TV show, because these products cannot tell perfectly universal stories. By that same token, we can’t ignore how movies or series that are heralded as refreshingly representative will have their limits. So, in spite of me believing that Crazy Rich Asians is a win for representation, Hollywood can and should always aim to do better.

In many ways, Crazy Rich Asians is an excellent romantic comedy. The film, which is based on Kevin Kwan’s eponymous novel that’s often touted as “Jane Austen in Singapore,” is filled with luscious set pieces. Singapore looks so different filtered through the glitzy cameras of Hollywood, and that’s not all bad.

The film is also filled with tropes galore. There are stock characters you could spot from a mile away, but that’s what makes them fun to watch. Granted, some of these depictions are more dated than others – movies seriously need to stop portraying groups of blandly catty women, period. That said, Crazy Rich Asians doesn’t lose focus on the characters whose arcs make a difference, whose jokes are both funny and amiable, and whose hearts are in the right place.

Constance Wu is electric as a leading lady; we’d already known this from ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat, but Crazy Rich Asians serves as further confirmation. Her character, Rachel Chu, is often a deer caught in headlights when surrounded by the uber-rich, uber-alienating traditions of her boyfriend’s family. Nevertheless, Rachel’s earnestness, determination, and intelligence emphasize the fact that she’s actually a force to be reckoned with. Her identity doesn’t have to exist on shaky ground because she knows her worth, and to see a Chinese woman embody that is extremely powerful.

Notably, Wu’s most enthralling onscreen relationships often don’t involve Henry Golding, whose Nick Young is a likable but serviceable love interest. Instead, Rachel’s venomous rivalry with Michelle Yeoh’s Eleanor Young is the primary driving force of the former’s quest for self-affirmation. Yeoh is a perfectly calibrated ice queen in the film, conveying the most cutting of judgments in a single pointed glance. Eleanor is no one-note character, though, and Yeoh’s penchant for subtlety is put to great use here, too.

Awkwafina and Gemma Chan are two further standouts who bring out different sides of Wu’s protagonist without being void of their own personalities. Awkwafina is a cinematic firecracker anyway, but she is absolutely vibrant as Rachel’s best friend Peik Lin; a true voice of reason as Rachel spirals into a world she doesn’t understand. Meanwhile, Chan portrays Astrid – Nick’s cousin with a heart of gold – with equal parts steeliness and compassion. Her own troubled relationship could have been put in a movie all on its own, but she still lends an important layer of lovability to the stony facades of the Young family.

The Singaporean faction of the Crazy Rich Asians cast thankfully doesn’t melt into the background of the film either, although it’s a shame that none of them play big roles. Tan Kheng Huaa national treasure — is excellent as Rachel’s mother, bringing ephemeral warmth to the chaos of the movie. Pierre Png plays Michael’s smarminess fantastically. However, the actors that truly inject the most Singaporean flavor into the film, namely Selena Tan as one of Nick’s aunts and Koh Chieng Mun as Peik Lin’s mother, are the ones that do it for me.

Crazy Rich Asians Constance Wu

Frankly, it’s because of the accents. One of the most immediately jarring things about Crazy Rich Asians is the film’s lack of obviously Singaporean-sounding people in general, which already felt like the elephant in the room when its otherwise excellent trailer first dropped.

Depicting characters who speak in British and American-tinged accents does reference an upper-class status. Regardless, when those with Singaporean roots (such as Nick and Peik Lin) only sound plainly English or American, an immediate disconnect still forms. Overall, a stronger presence of Singapore’s unique accent and creole would have done the film wonders, lending modulation and nuance to its setting and grounding it more firmly in the distinctive locality.

As such, Koh’s blatant use of Singlish and characters like Michael, whose accent is comparatively toned down but still present, are a comfort to have on screen. Especially with regards to Koh’s Neena, hearing local rhetoric and intonations come from one of the film’s more likable supporting characters is fantastic too, because her accent is normalized to an unexpected degree from a Hollywood film. She’s a gaudy woman with a big heart, and there should’ve been more people like her in the film.

Moreover, Crazy Rich Asians could have done with at least addressing Singapore’s diverse cultural makeup, too. Again, much can be narratively forgiven due to the obvious enclosed bubble that these affluent characters live in. Rachel doesn’t seem to do a lot of “typical” touristy things once she touches down in the Lion City, and her interactions with a more full-bodied, culturally rich Singapore are very limited. We only really get a brief hawker center montage (where the food at least looks accurately delicious) before she is whisked off to private beaches and mansion soirées to mingle with light-skinned Asian people.

Yet, the fact that the East Asian dominance of Crazy Rich Asians isn’t challenged by anyone in the film is a problem from the perspective of a Singaporean audience. To a city comprising Chinese, Malay, and Indian demographics — among others – such a portrayal is distancing rather than relatable. If you’re setting your movie in a melting pot of a city and want to include characters who call it home, there is an onus to acknowledge this fact. Crazy Rich Asians‘ Chinese-dominant gaze has a dulling effect on a movie with so much heart and hope.

Of course, Chu is careful to ensure us that Asian(-American) representation will not and should not stop at his movie featuring opulent happy-go-lucky Chinese folk. Furthermore, as a fervent consumer of Western media, for me to see a major Hollywood movie with an all-Asian cast within my lifetime is a stellar notion to grapple with. The Joy Luck Club is as old as I am, and Crazy Rich Asians becomes a film I can own because these people who look like me are no longer the butt of a joke or a non-speaking side character. They can instead be multifaceted human beings.

The emotional content of Crazy Rich Asians rings so true. Chu made a good film that does its genre proud. Yet we’re still compromising with “good enough,” and recognizing that is vital for representation to matter most. The film is an imperfect first step, but if nothing else, it is one so obviously slathered in a glossy varnish of escapism that hopefully, you can look past it to see the joy it can bring through the emotional depth of its characters.

That on its own makes me suspend belief for the two-hour runtime of Crazy Rich Asians; to shriek with laughter and cry tears of joy that someone that looks like me is the hero of her own story. It also makes me check my privilege and know that there is plenty of work to be done yet.

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Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)