Based on the critically acclaimed and best-selling of the same name by Kevin Kwan, the highly anticipated movie adaptation of Crazy Rich Asians has enjoyed a successful opening. It’s topped the US box office for the past couple of weeks (taking an estimated $86mn so far) and is also a worldwide smash hit, filling cinemas across South East Asia. Fortune reported that it’s been the most tweeted about movie in the month of August, with Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore three of the top five countries tweeting about it.
The first major Hollywood production to feature an all-Asian cast in a quarter of a century, Crazy Rich Asians was always going to attract the headlines, but with box office receipts exceeding forecasts, some impressive performances from key cast members and some stunning locations all too rarely seen in Hollywood movies, it has continued to attract attention. A strong storyline, a step forward for diversity and a visual feast, what’s not to love?
Well, not all the reviews and blog entries for Crazy Rich Asians have been so positive. Its highly-publicised all-Asian cast was always going to attract a lot of attention around the area of representation in Hollywood, as did Black Panther. While many have simply been happy to see Asians taking the starring roles, rather than some comic, nerdy minor characters, others have taken issue with the representation question. One of the lead characters, Nick Young is portrayed by Malaysian-born actor Henry Golding. With a British father and Malaysian Iban mother, Golding is what would be described as Eurasian in either Singapore or Malaysia. Not Asian enough, some say.
Then there is the storyline. A window into the world of the super wealthy Singaporean elite, many have argued that this is hardly representative of the average Asian, more a bit of wealth porn. “Nothing but a disgusting materialistic pageant of glistening abed remote control greed zombies, totally devoid of any heart or heat”, says one IMDB review. Regardless of the cultural context, anyone who finds the portrayal of wealth and materialism distasteful is not going to enjoy either the book or the movie. As a depiction of this part of Singaporean society, however, Crazy Rich Asians has been described as reasonably accurate. These characters are crazy rich, not the average Asian.
It seems the title itself has also been cause for complaint too. “Went in because the title said “Asians” but it was not about Persians/Iranians at all,” writes another IMDB user. Why the fake advertising? Where are the other Asians??” The first reaction to such a comment may be one of amusement, but with Asia being the largest, most populous and diverse continent on the planet, it’s easy to see why a large number of people across Asia may take issue. Asian, but not ‘my’ Asian.
Even on a more local scale, representation is an issue. Singapore is a small, but diverse island, yet the characters in Crazy Rich Asians are all wealthy Chinese. There is no screen time for the island’s Malay or Indian population aside from some extras who play servant roles. Again, Asian, but not ‘my’ Asian.
And then, there are the accents. Not only does Crazy Rich Asians, a story stet in Singapore, not have any Singaporean actors in the main roles, most of the characters speak with Western accents. Not enough lahs, alamaks or shioks or other aspects on Singlish. However, with many of the main characters having had Western education, a broader spectrum seems justified. In fact, it’s easy to see how charges of stereotypical Asians would have been levelled if all characters constantly spoke Singlish, something which is comically dealt with when Rachel first meets her friend Peik Lin’s house. Crazy, lah.
One of the problems with representation and diversity in the modern age, particularly in the mainstream media or large corporations, is that you can never satisfy everyone. There will always be those who feel things have been under-represented or misrepresented. And others will see a portrayal skewed because of an establishment (i.e., non-authentic) viewpoint, or will be suspicious that it’s just motivated by the desire to score some credibility points rather than a genuine interest. The criticisms aimed at Crazy Rich Asians are examples of all of the above.
But what about the film itself? Well, the first thing to say is that it’s a remarkably faithful adaptation of the book. Due the rich cast of characters in the novel, though it’s inevitable that some parts get trimmed down. In order to focus more on the romance between Rachel and Nick, characters such as Edison and Bernard are reduced to little more than minor comic cameos, and Astrid’s story is changed slightly. In general, though, fans of the book will love this adaptation. Whereas the novel is a social satire with touch of romance (Pride and Prejudice in 21st century Singapore if you will), the movie adaptation is a romantic comedy with a bit of social satire on the side. Constance Wu is great in the role of Rachel, as is Michelle Yeoh as Nick’s mother Eleanor, and Henry Golding (in his first film role) portrays Nick with sophisticated charm. Credit is also due to Awkwfina, who adds a huge dose of comedy as Peik Lin.
Interestingly, Crazy Rich Asians has inspired a variety of articles, going beyond the film’s merits or the arguments around representation. One piece warns of the risks growing wealth inequality in Asia, while Forbes has been purring about the branding strategy behind the movie.
One thing is for sure. Crazy Rich Asians is one of the most talked about films this season. And rightly so.