Days before the national release of “Crazy Rich Asians,” the film has attracted a lot of soaring language: “Historic.” “Landmark.” “A watershed moment for Asian representation in Hollywood.”
Compared to the typical feel-good romantic comedy, there’s much at stake for this Hollywood film, which is based on a novel of the same name by Kevin Kwan and is pitched as an Asian version of “Meet the Parents.”
It’s the first Hollywood studio production in 25 years to have an all-Asian cast and Asian Americans in leading roles. Drawing actors from across the world – including Australia, Malaysia and Singapore – the film has been praised for advancing diversity in Hollywood, an industry that rarely puts Asians in lead roles and has been chided for “whitewashing,” or casting white actors as nonwhite characters.
As the film’s Aug. 15 release in the United States nears, expectations are high – crazy high.
Despite generating a largely positive response among Asian Americans, the film has drawn some criticism. Some say it struggles to showcase diverse perspectives, falling short of adequately representing the wider Asian experience or what life is like in Singapore, where most of the movie takes place.
“It is diverse when you look at it in the scope and context of Hollywood, which is predominantly white,” said Nancy Wang Yuen, chair of Biola University’s sociology department. “But in terms of representing all of Asians and Asian Americans, it doesn’t hit that mark. It is a very specific story to a specific enclave, and even within that enclave, a specific class of that enclave.”
But Yuen adds that the expectation for a film to achieve that level of diversity holds it to a higher standard than most Hollywood films. Since stories about nonwhite characters are so rare to begin with, movies that break the mold are put under a stronger microscope.
“The problem is that we don’t have enough stories,” Yuen said. “It’s not that this film is terrible and Kevin Kwan’s book is so horrible, but that it is one story and it shouldn’t represent all of Asia and nobody wants that to happen.”
The film follows a Chinese American economics professor named Rachel Chu, who accompanies her boyfriend to Singapore to meet his family for the first time. But Rachel doesn’t know she’s dating the “Prince Harry of Asia,” who comes from one of Singapore’s wealthiest families.
When the movie’s trailer was released in April, critics noticed something was missing in the scenes showcasing the opulent lives of Singapore’s elite: South Asians or anyone with dark skin.
At just over 74 percent, ethnic Chinese make up a majority of Singapore’s population, but the island city-state is also home to Malays (13.4 percent) and Indians (9 percent).
Although viewers spotted two brown faces in the trailer, the characters weren’t guests at the lavish parties – they appeared to be in servant roles. Yuen, who has seen the movie, said she saw South Asians as guards at a mansion.
By depicting non-East Asians in this way, Singaporean writer and activist Sangeetha Thanapal told The Post that the film exacerbates existing representation problems faced by minorities in Singapore.
“Already within Singapore, minorities are finding it hard to be represented in ways that are dignified,” Thanapal said. “Now this movie is saying, ‘Hey you know what, the only people that count in Singapore are Chinese people’ and doing it on a global stage.”
Singaporean actress Tan Kheng Hua, who plays Rachel’s mother in the film, told The Post the movie is a reflection of Kwan’s “specific perspective” and that the author “is not a general Singaporean talking about general Singapore.”
“If you read the book, the book is about a specific set of characters from a specific lifestyle,” Tan said. “It’s called ‘Crazy Rich Asians,’ it’s not called ‘Every Singaporean.’”
She said the film aims to open dialogue, adding, “anything that fosters greater understanding of different cultures is something that we all could do more with today.”
At first glance, the movie is an extravagant display of excessive lifestyles, which many may find difficult to relate to. But its story goes beyond money and wealth, highlighting universal themes about love, friendship and negotiating family dynamics “that transcend ethnic and racial boundaries,” said Christina Chin, a sociology professor at California State University, Fullerton, in an email to The Post.
In addition, the movie presents an experience that most, if not all, Asian Americans have dealt with at one point or another in their lives: Struggling to feel accepted in Asia and the United States.
“This feeling of being an outsider in both worlds not only struck a deep personal cord in my own lived experience, but it could not be captured in a film with white actors,” Chin wrote, noting that she was struck by “how well the film was able to speak to the Asian American second generation experience in subtle and important ways that have been so rarely captured in movies.”
Critiques of the film’s diversity stem from a shortage of mainstream movies with all-Asian casts that focus on telling the wide range of Asian and Asian American stories, Chin added.
“There are so few films that we can make any kind of comparison to that when one does come out, there’s this heightened expectation that it’s going to be a representation of every Asian American voice and experience,” Chin said. “That’s just impossible.”
This type of criticism is most often faced by movies with all-minority casts or minorities cast in lead roles, Chin said. Films with all-white casts aren’t held to the same standard because so many exist to offer varied voices and perspectives, she said.
One of the ways to solve this problem is to support a film like “Crazy Rich Asians” not for its narrative, but for the opportunities it could create, Yuen said. If it succeeds, the film can be a signal to Hollywood that Asian and Asian American actors, and films that center Asian stories, are bankable.
“We are throwing dice to say, ‘Okay, we’re hoping that this is going to be it, and this is going to open so many more stories,’ ” she said. “It’s not guaranteed, but do we sabotage this and possibly close the door for another decade or two? Or do we toss the dice and hope that just by showing the box office dollars, Hollywood will be like, ‘Okay, at least we know Asians sell.’”
But for native Singaporeans such as Thanapal, the film’s potential to produce more chances for Asian narratives to be told in Hollywood does not justify its shortcomings.
“I know how it’s going to negatively impact us,” Thanapal said. “This vague possibility that it might possibly one day get us a big South Asian movie in Hollywood is not enough.”
She added that she’s not saying no one should watch the film, but instead people “should consume it in a critical way.”
While people have declared intentions to boycott the film due to its representation issues, Yuen said the likelihood that Hollywood executives understand the message is slim.
“For us to be like, ‘Well this one isn’t representative,’ all Hollywood is hearing is ‘Asians don’t like this,’ ” she said. “We’re looking for authenticity on a different plane than Hollywood is. They don’t even get it.”
“Hollywood is just not ready to hear the nuanced critique of Asian representation.”
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