Deputy Culture Editor: Film & TV
Turn to East Asian content on Netflix instead
You’ve probably heard about the release of Crazy Rich Asians already. In the two years following the #OscarsSoWhite social media frenzy, Hollywood productions displaying astonishing levels of diversity have attracted an equally astonishing press coverage. In a sense, what is astonishing here is not so much the diverse casting. Afterall, Crazy Rich Asians is an adaptation of a best-seller book featuring an all-Asian cast. It says a lot about how mediocre representation is when the industry congratulates itself on not whitewashing it. What is also truly astonishing is the surprise at the success of a worldwide best selling novel (and sequels) adaptation – as if a film featuring a non-white cast could not possibly be hugely successful. The press were astonished by the successes of Black Panther or Wonder Woman – Crazy Rich Asians is the latest addition to highly anticipated and quality entertainment pieces which economic success seems unbelievable simply because their stars are black, asian or female! To me, this debate is all backwards and my question would be, as Crazy Rich Asians author Kevin Kwan asked back in 2015: “Why does Hollywood think we’d want to see this movie with white people?”.
Don’t get me wrong, the press coverage is great. Especially because largely pretentious critics are writing seriously about superhero blockbusters and hilarious romcoms. As an avid consumer of both genres, you won’t hear any complaints from me. Except maybe that it is hard for me to write about anything that hasn’t popped up on your Facebook newsfeed already!
So yes, Crazy Rich Asians is pretty good— it’s funny, it’s romantic and it’s got a lot of Asian actors in it! It is a well-executed, feel-good flick which will have you on a plane to Singapore (for the wealthiest among us). However, the press coverage of Crazy Rich Asians is far from matching the film.
I will quickly gloss over Marie Claire’s ludicrous “lessons” learnt from Crazy Rich Asians. I will spare you a read: their hot tip is that if your beau has a Black Amex credit card, you have hit the jackpot. Well done Marie Claire for covering a romcom with a strong, funny, brainy female lead with a piece on how to hook your baby daddy.
If I am honest though, I enjoyed reading that more than pseudo-controversy about just how representative the film actually is. Henry Golding is too white because he is half British, and the actual East Asian cast is still too fair-skinned. And listen, I get where these people are getting at, but what can you expect from an industry that sent Matt Damon to defend China just last year? Also bear in mind that this is a Hollywood romcom blockbuster set in the ultra-rich, Oxford-educated Singapore social scene— how can it be representational of any real-life community? And what community are we talking about? Because “Asia” is about the largest “community” you could label. To quote Audrey Cleo Yap’s wonderful column in Variety:
“There have been complaints that the film doesn’t represent the true diversity of Southeast Asia or Asia or the Asian-American experience. And they are absolutely right; it doesn’t. In fact, it doesn’t even come close. [..] But nevertheless, about a third of the way through Crazy Rich Asians I found myself tearing up — and I’m not part of Singapore’s 1%. It was an emotional experience…”
While reviewers complain about Hollywood’s lack of diversity (rightfully so), they themselves can’t help specify that the film contains no kung-fu scenes and boast formidable knowledge of East Asian cast films with two references hammered in all articles, The Joy Luck Club (1993) and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). The latter starred CRA actress Michelle Yeoh and is apparently the only title worth a mention in the Malaysian superstar’s filmography, which spans over 40 films.
The debate about representation is framed in a Western context, and Crazy Rich Asians does an admirable job at giving centre stage to diasporic populations (both Asian Americans and Asian “expats”). For that, it rightly deserves all the praises it is getting. Yet there is another thing that stems from the media coverage for Crazy Rich Asians: our inability to realise there is a whole world outside of Hollywood. If you do want to watch films with Asian casts, don’t wait for a clueless L.A. exec to realise Rachel Chu doesn’t have to be white to fill seats. Don’t wait for a New York critic to validate one East Asian film in a million as valid for the western canon.
Just turn to actual East Asia. Hannah Beech wrote a wonderful article about how vibrant and cool the Chinese film industry is In Time Magazine back in 2017; in the age of Netflix, it does not even take that much effort. You will find loads of content, including a hilarious yet touching portrayal of sibling rivalry (and a favourite of mine), Take My Brother Away, or the slightly cheesy but riveting trending TV drama Meteor Garden. What is it about? A young girl who gets dragged into the crazy rich world of her boyfriend and has to fight his family prejudices… Does this sound familiar?
Of course, Asian people are everywhere on screen… in Asia. The importance of Crazy Rich Asians is not that Asian actors are featured on the silver screen, it is that than are featured on Hollywood’s call sheets. And although I happily join the chorus celebrating this much-too-slow change, I also want to look further than this, remembering the quote which opens Crazy Rich Asians: “Let China sleep, for when she wakes she will shake the world”.