I walked into the cinema last Saturday, expecting to be blown away by Crazy Rich Asians, a movie that’s been hailed for breaking barriers for Asian representation in Hollywood.
I’d never read the books and knew nothing about the show’s premise, apart from the general excitement that it was somehow set in Singapore, and the fact that several local actors were part of the production.
Hollywood? Here in my Singapore? Now this is something I needed to see.
Two hours later, however, the romcom had fallen flatter for me than a taitai’s updo sans hairspray, whatever Rotten Tomatoes says. (Crazy Rich Asians scored 93 per cent there – a definite A* by PSLE standards.)
Contrary to the fawning reviews everywhere, I thought the film’s characters were one-dimensional and its storyline insipid and predictable.
The thrill of knowing that the story is set in Singapore also wore off very quickly, as it grew apparent that the Singaporean-ness of Crazy Rich Asians goes little beyond telling its audience that its characters are Singaporean, and using our tourism ad-worthy landmarks to remind us that the film actually takes place in Singapore.
The film, and the books by Singapore-born author Kevin Kwan that it was based on, drew sharp focus on the lives of a network of very rich, very elite Chinese Singaporeans, as told through the perspective of a Chinese American protagonist who struggles to find favour with her prospective tiger mother-in-law.
Some Singaporeans have voiced their disappointment that the film has “Chinese-washed” Singapore, thanks to its complete lack of substantial non-Chinese characters.
Local poet Pooja Nansi pointed out that Singaporean minorities were only glimpsed in positions of servitude in the movie, seen in wordless roles opening the protagonist’s car door as she arrives for her red carpet debut. In one particularly tasteless and casually racist scene, they were also used for comedic effect as the security guards she encounters.
Nansi criticised the film as “an unsettling devaluation of actual Singaporeans”, its failings made especially glaring as it’s commonly played up in the media as a watershed moment for Asian representation.
Meanwhile, journalist Kirsten Han underscored its clear disregard for the nuances of issues like Chinese privilege, racism and inequality that exist in Singapore, demonstrated through the blatant lack of diversity in the type of Singaporeans portrayed in the movie.
If the film had positioned itself as a realistic telling of what Singapore society is like, then it should bear the scrutiny of these hard questions, because it would have failed miserably.
But the representation of Singapore was never Kwan’s agenda. Instead, the colourful, scandalous portrayal of the lives of filthy-rich Singaporean Chinese, was written as a satire of some of his own experiences, a treatment that the writer has described as “high parody”.
Kwan, the great grandson of the founder of OCBC, has often detailed in interviews that he drew inspiration from his own social circle as a young boy growing up in Singapore up till the age of 11, when his family immigrated to the US. The characters are loosely based on people from this closed circle, individuals whom he has said lack self-awareness because they live in an impenetrable bubble of luxury and wealth.
Where the film has sought to fly the flag for representation is framed instead from the undeniable lens of the Asian community in America, who has often felt unseen and unheard in the predominantly-white mainstream.
You can’t read an article about Crazy Rich Asians by American press without it taking pains to highlight that its cast is all-Asian (or to be more specific, majority Chinese, with a handful of actors with mixed-ethnicity), or an interview with its stars without them being asked how they feel to have Asian actors leading a Hollywood film for the first time in decades.
And overwhelmingly, the Asian-American community has come together to celebrate the film’s portrayal, as a vehicle that paints a picture of Asians as just as wealthy, just as high-class, just as elite as the best of them – a narrative that is important to them.
Nobody there seems to really care that the story is centred on solely Chinese characters. They mostly see it as a victory for the community as a whole, whether they are Viet-American, Filipino-American, or Chinese-American themselves.
Amid its shouts about representation, it was never a priority for Crazy Rich Asians to give Singaporean minorities a face and a voice. It doesn’t even try to capture the stories of average Chinese Singaporeans, the vast majority of whom would see the story and its characters’ lives as pure fiction.
Would it have been better if the filmmakers had recast characters to be non-Chinese, to better demonstrate the diversity of Singapore? It would have been a progressive move, and one that Singaporeans would have surely welcomed.
But is it obliged to, when its fictitious source material is built solely around the closed and insular network of the super-rich Chinese Singaporean Young family?
Would that non-Chinese character have been relegated to a cursory sidekick role, reduced to convenient tropes, or worse, used for cheap laughs, just as some of the Chinese characters were heavily caricatured?
Short of rewriting the story to introduce a strong character that belongs to a minority race, or recasting its protagonist as such, the film would most likely have set off landmines whichever way it went.
So yes, we should call out the film for its lack of sensitivity at some parts, most notably with its display of casual racism, and make it heard loud and clear that the movie in no way speaks for Singaporeans at large.
Because in its essence, Crazy Rich Asians is about as authentically Singaporean as the Singapore noodles touted by restaurants overseas that we laugh at. Despite its generous use of our city skyline and locations like Marina Bay Sands and Changi Airport, it is intrinsically Singapore-lite. Even if the film were set in another country like Hong Kong or China, I’d venture to say that it would not have missed a single beat.
The film’s story is about a very specific group of privileged folks who live in a bubble, and it would thus be unrealistic to force its filmmakers to treat this work of fiction as they would a documentary.