"Crazy Rich Asians:" Is It Enough Of a Step In The Right Direction?
After hearing my friends talk about the book Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan for quite some time now, I knew it was time I finally looked into the franchise. Being Asian myself, I love seeing us represented in complex ways in entertainment...which doesn't often happen in this country. So off I went to the theaters to watch the film adaptation. And it gave me a lot to think about.
From the good to the bad, this movie definitely made an impression. While it took many steps forward in terms of being progressive and inclusive, it also at times took a step back in terms of stereotypes, tropes and its refusal to challenge its audience. I felt like I was doing some sort of a Hollywood trope square dance of sorts.
And don't get me wrong, I am more than happy that this movie exists, just as I was happy when the book became a best-seller. I am not blind to the fact that this moves the industry in the right direction in many ways, which I will discuss. I just also want to be honest about the risks I wish that it would have taken for the sake of the chick flick and also Asian representation in film.
To give you context as to where I'm coming from as I review this film, here are some things you should know about me. I am an Asian-American woman of Japanese and Filipino descent. My father came to the US from Manila when he was 17 and my mother was born and raised in a heavily Japanese community, on the Big Island of Hawai'i. I am not Chinese or Singaporean.
I have also not read the book, although I soon will. I have done research on Kevin Kwan and respect his knowledge on the subject of the "crazy rich Asian." What you are getting in this review is the analysis of someone who is new to this franchise and is only looking at what they're trying to convey in this first portion of the series, based on what they're giving its moviegoers. I always believe that if you're going to adapt a book to a film, while you of course need to make changes here and there, you have to thoroughly make your most important points for the portion of the audience who hasn't read the book.
A STEP FORWARD
The All Asian Cast
The casting of this film gave me so much hope that we may never have to see Scar-Jo with her eyes taped back Miss Fame-style portraying yet another character that was originally meant to be Asian. We finally have an American movie for an American audience with an all Asian cast for this generation. And it did incredibly well at the box office, showing that the people have spoken, and are really interested in Hollywood diversity.
I was so worried this whole movie that one of Lena Dunham's rich girlfriends would play a character coming out of the woodwork like "Hi Rachel! Remember me Jamie Lynn from high school? Well now I'm in Singapore blogging. Lemme hijack this film for a combined 25 minutes and explain to you all why it's better to use the thicker end of the chopsticks to pick up food." But that never happened. Praise God.
A STEP FORWARD
CRAZY SEXY ASIANS
Whenever I see Asian women portrayed in films, I can usually place them into one of several categories: Shy sexy mysterious virginal type with no opinions, FOB, or nerdy socially-inept busy-body who gets on everyone's last nerve. (*Cough cough* Rose Tico. But that's another story.) And when it comes to Asian men in films, they're either a pathetic nerd, a silent spectator who watches white people having fun from afar, or let's be real...non-existent. And they are absolutely never portrayed as sexy or desirable.
And that's part of what made this movie stand out. You had sexy Asians, soft-hearted Asians, popular Asians, gay Asians, player Asians and comedic Asians. And you wouldn't think in 2018, that it'd be so important for Hollywood to show that they all exist, but that's unfortunately the case. As soon as I leave the Bay Area, I tend to run into people who still think all we do all day is yell at our family members about dishonor, do math, pinch pennies and pray for a sex life. And the moment they run into an attractive, confident or outgoing Asian person, they say things like "Well you're not that Asian. You're pretty Americanized."
And this is part of why having so many of the characters in this movie be from Asia and not just from America, is important as well. While Americans have a lot of great traits unique to them, being confident, funny and sexy is not exclusive to being Western.
A STEP SIDEWAYS
"Gawking at materialism" is one of the biggest stereotypical elements of a chick flick or rom com. Often, the characters have apartments, wardrobes and disposable incomes that would require the bank account of a Saudi princess to support them. And this film follows suit. The first class plain ride, the limitless shopping sprees and the massive mansions are all visuals we've come to expect from any fantasy film geared toward women. And I love to look at beautiful things just as much as the next girl. But Steven wasn't wrong when he turned to me and said "I feel like I'm watching an Asian version of Fifty Shades of Grey. What's the sequel called? Crazy Rich Darker?" And judging by all of the close-up shots of Louboutin heels in the trailers for A Simple Favor which played before this film, I can see that this formula of extreme luxury and beauty in the chick flick universe isn't going away any time soon.
While I do think it's time to come up with more movies for women that don't always pander to materialism, I can't say I blame this particular movie for doing it for two reasons. One: It's showing Asians in luxurious and fashionable settings, which is a step forward for the community. And two: That's kind of the whole point of the franchise. The point of the entire book series is to look into the lives of these mysterious people I see all the time casually wearing $900 worth of clothing, stepping out of a custom decal-covered Hummer and getting dropped off at the Academy of Art, who I don't really know anything about. And whether we know them well or vaguely see them on Instagram, we all know about crazy rich Asian people, and want to know more about them and what their world is like. This is supposed to be that beginners window into their world. Just like The Devil Wears Prada, where our protagonist works at a women's fashion magazine, this movie gives us a good reason for the materialism and wealthy imagery. So for that, it gets a pass in this realm.
I just hope Hollywood can start making movies for young women where the faces aren't always beat for the gods and the jackets aren't always Chanel.
A STEP BACKWARD
The Bizarre Racial Undertones
Something I couldn't ignore in this film that bothered me the whole way through was the merciless stereotyping. I could tell there was going to be a lot of it after the very first scene. When Eleanor Young first enters the hotel with her children, the token dumb racist concierge pretty much says "I am Reginald Walsby Ruxford Winifred Vanderbilt Delano Roosevelt Salamander the third. And you Asians are not welcome here even though you're wearing fur coats and clearly have a reservation. Now go back to Chinatown!" It was cringeworthy. And I'm not saying that if a fellow Asian stepped off the street and told me that this happened to them that I wouldn't believe them. These racist idiots exist. But they laid it on so thick that I was squirming in my seat. We get it. White people can be ignorant! But if you write them as subtly ignorant, or maybe just passive aggressive or slightly impolite, you can create more tension in a scene, thus making the sick burn of telling them off more satisfying. When they're a caricature, it's not satisfying to watch them get shut down because there was never anything intimidating about a bumbling idiot, to tell off in the first place.
After that I saw stereotype after stereotype. And I don't mean hilariously true ones like the news of Nick's love life getting around to every Asian he knows in the span of time it takes for one to finish dessert. That was great. I mean the fact that the less sophisticated Asians and comic relief characters all have the Chinese accents while the sophisticated and educated characters have American and English accents. I understand that everyone had a different accent based on their background story, but you could have thrown in a few more sophisticates with Chinese accents or maybe given a few dumb or comic relief characters the English accent. It just felt like a step back.
Not to mention when the characters are finally faced with their second interaction with a non-East Asian (the first being Mr. Salamander,) they are met with Indian guards at the Young mansion and treat them like animals. And in real life there is actually a ton of racism against Indian people in Singapore. Many times they are the ones working the menial jobs, and get treated by the rich like they're second class citizens. So when the guards just grunt at Rachel and Peik Lin, and they just kind of wince and try to get away with them as fast as possible, I thought they were acting that way because they were going to go into social commentary about the race relations. But that never happened. All that happened was we ran away from the "scary" Indian guards. And I wouldn't ask the movie to talk about such heavy topics if it didn't bring the Indian guards into it in the first place! I could have either done without that odd interaction, or had a discussion about it. But the way it was done left me wondering what its intentions were.
A STEP BACKWARD
A CINDERELLA STORY
It was during this particular dress-up scene in the movie that I realized that Rachel Chu is supposed to be Cinderella. All the signs were there, but I couldn't quite see it until they put her in her flowing blue dress. Rachel, like Cinderella is a hard-working well-meaning woman with a lot of potential, who plans to attend a certain event meant for those above her class. But the only thing holding her back is she has no dress and is being held back by an evil motherly figure who doesn't think she's good enough for the people around her. But with the help of some comic relief friends, she will find the perfect pale blue gown and win herself a man. Not to mention, things go awry at the event, and she is forced to storm out and abandon her prince. Someone even calls Rachel "Cinderella" as she leaves the wedding reception.
I love a good Cinderella story as much as anyone, but I was a bit sad to see that Asians have such little representation in American film, that when we make our first American made all-Asian casted film in 25 years, we are still forced to start at square one of storytelling. This is not as much a criticism of Kevin Kwan's story, as much as it is a criticism of how Hollywood has done this community wrong and is still obviously timid to show them in more complex stories.
A STEP FORWARD
asian inspired fashion
With all that said, I didn't mind the dress-up scene at all. Everyone loves to see the leading lady in different designer dresses. It's a weakness for many of us. And the biggest problem I usually have with those scenes is that the person is trying on outfits that are completely inappropriate for the event they're attending and never in a million years would have looked good. They always walk out of the dressing room in a clown costume and a rainbow wig with a red nose strapped to their face and ask their friends "Why aren't any of these outfits working out?" But Rachel instead just tries different legitimate outfits until she finds the right one.
And the one she chooses just screams Asian luxury. It's not what Blake Lively or Taylor Swift would wear to an award show, because it's not about American style. More than anything, it's a staple of Asian couture and a style that really would help Rachel prove herself to Nick's family. Mixed with all of the other totally chic and Asian-inspired looks, I was very pleased with this movie's sense of style.
A STEP BACKWARD
Protagonists With FEW FlawS
One of my least favorite tropes in chick flicks is the lack of flaws in the protagonists. And unfortunately this movie fell into that trope as well. For me, Rachel and Nick were just a bit too perfect. This is the problem with writing protagonists. Many people think that the protagonist should be flawless and an example of the ideal person. While others want the protagonist to be bland and lacking in personality so that they can more easily put themselves into the shoes of the blank canvas. And Rachel and Nick very much so felt like ideal people with good intentions who really don't screw up in the film or in their relationship. In fact, for a moment I thought we would get some humanity with Rachel lying to Nick about her past. But then we find out she in fact never lied to him because she had no idea about her mother's troubled past. Dodged a bullet there. Our hero was almost...flawed. In the end, I found this couple bland and hard to relate to. I found myself identifying more with Peik Lin and Rachel's mom because at least they had flaws that they rolled with. And maybe Rachel and Nick show more depth in the book or later in the series. But when it came to this adaptation of the first book, I found them to be quite a snore.
A STEP FORWARD
The Protagonist Must Earn Respect
Something I really stressed on when I dragged Wonder Woman, is the fact that her character was respected and oohed and aahed over the first time she met anyone. She was the most beautiful person in every room, plus she had magic powers and strength. And that's part of what made it an awful film for women. Wonder Woman didn't have to learn how to gain anyone's respect because she already had it due to her God-given looks and talent. What is that supposed to tell young women? Be hot and have natural abilities in order to gain respect?
What I appreciated about this movie was that Rachel was beautiful, intelligent and kind and people still had no respect for her for arbitrary reasons: Who her family was, how much money she had and the fact that a marriage to her would bring no new resources to the Young family. And that sucks, but that's life. Some people won't respect you because of your race, gender, sexual orientation, physique, social standing etc. And you have to either fight the power or leave it behind you. That's a good lesson to show a generation of kids who think if they get an education and share the right posts on Facebook that everyone has to like them.
Was the mahjong scene incredible, and do I think it was strong in showing how Rachel won over Eleanor? Honestly, no. But I do think Rachel's rejection of Nick's proposal did prove she wasn't in it for the money and fame. And I understand why that might gain Eleanor's respect.
A STEP BACKWARD
PROBLEMS FIXED BY CIRCUMSTANCE
One of my least favorite aspects of the film was Astrid and the plot line of her husband Michael cheating on her. She's presented to us as a gentle and kind soul who acknowledges random children, hides all the lavish things she buys from her husband who is always out of town and reads to her child in French. And when she discovers her husband is cheating on her, we are supposed to feel incredibly sorry for her. But in the end, when she finally confronts her husband about it, the conversation ends abruptly and they are all of a sudden split up. Then at the end, she has her girl power moment (as every movie has to have one nowadays) where she tells him to take a hike. When he asks her where she plans on going, she says to one of the 14 places she owns. Is this the part when I'm supposed to pump my fist in the air and say "Yaaas queen you tell him"?
What kind of end to that subplot was that? Now I know their relationship is more complex in the book series, particularly the later books. But by God that was a bad way to end things in the movie. I'm not one for sympathizing with cheaters, but if you're going to make someone cheat, you have to give a good reason for them doing it. Falling in love with someone else, having no respect for their partner, only feeling validation from sex with many partners etc. But I feel like I didn't really get to find out why he was doing it, because they were trying to hurry and get to the girl power tell-him-off scene.
And what is that supposed to tell women who are being disrespected by their partner? "Leave him, no questions asked, as if every situation is black and white and never look back. Just go stay at one of your 14 homes and live off your family's wealth. Wait, your family isn't rich? Oh, then girl you stay put." Women stay in manipulative relationships for so many reasons from wanting to keep the family unit together for the betterment of their kids, to the shame of divorce, to a lack of resources, being madly in love with their partner or fearing being alone. But Astrid seems to have very little problems leaving Michael. She has the resources to do so, and I guess the emotional stamina to as well. This in the end made me feel like it was a missed opportunity to show the audience that you can leave despite the actual difficulties life presents when splitting from your partner.
A STEP BACKWARD
And Everything Just Sort of Worked Out
I mentioned before that Rachel had to really prove herself to Nick's mother and that I appreciated that. But in the end when Eleanor gives Nick her ring to propose to Rachel with, it seems like everyone in the entire family decides they're cool with her too. The same people who put a dead fish in her bed like this was the damn Godfather and chased her out of the wedding reception. Asians are like elephants. They don't forget. And if they had reason as a community or unit to not like you, it takes a damn long time for them to get over that. That's the kind of prejudice that takes years for the whole group to overcome. In the meantime, they'll let you into their family gatherings, but they'll look at you the way Queen Elizabeth looked at Meghan Markle at Harry's wedding. Maybe it would take days for Eleanor to like Rachel, but the whole family wouldn't be cheering them on the next day at their engagement party. I don't hate happily ever after endings per se, I just think they need explanation. Like maybe if many months had passed, or it showed Eleanor having discussions with different parties to tell them of why she now respects Rachel. It just all seemed rushed.
When it comes to all the points I've made about this movie taking a step forward or backward, I don't consider each facet to be worth 1 point each. I consider them to all have varying weight. And I think it all depends on the viewer and on both the chick flick-loving, and Asian communities to decide whether or not this is offensive or incredibly revolutionary. I think a lot of people find it to be the latter. But I think it's important as moviegoers to look at any film trying to start a movement from an objective standpoint. And voice what we loved about it, as well as where we would like to see changes made. All in all, I'm glad Crazy Rich Asians is doing well at the box office, and I look forward to seeing what doors it opens in Hollywood, but I do think it could have challenged its audience with more difficult subject matter and fewer movie tropes. Their audience can handle it.