Crazy Rich Asians sem­i­nal rom-com

Movie brings mi­nor­ity Chi­nese view to the main­stream, writes Jamie Liew

Ottawa Citizen - - FRONT PAGE - Jamie Liew is a Hokkien-speak­ing Chi­nese-Cana­dian pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Ot­tawa, Fac­ulty of Law, who has roots and fam­ily in South­east Asia.

Why is an all-Asian cast rom­com get­ting so much buzz this sum­mer?

Crazy Rich Asians opens Aug. 15 and peo­ple are call­ing it a water­shed mo­ment in Hol­ly­wood. Based on Kevin Kwan’s novel, the movie is about a Chi­nese-Amer­i­can eco­nom­ics pro­fes­sor who falls in love with a Chi­nese his­tory pro­fes­sor who, un­be­knownst to her, is from one of the wealth­i­est fam­i­lies in Sin­ga­pore. The story has all the trap­pings of a good Hol­ly­wood chick flick — drama on the back­drop of a flashy wed­ding, mean girls, fash­ion, and the crit­i­cal meet­ing of a girl and her boyfriend’s mother for the first time.

Much of the hype has fo­cused on the fact there has not been a movie with an all Asian-Amer­i­can cast since The Joy Luck Club in 1993 that does not rely on the favoured Hol­ly­wood trope of kung fu. This is an im­por­tant ac­knowl­edg­ment; that Asian-Amer­i­cans don’t have the same rep­re­sen­ta­tion and op­por­tu­ni­ties in show­biz as oth­ers.

But, I think there is some­thing else just as sig­nif­i­cant hap­pen­ing with Crazy Rich Asians that many may not re­al­ize. While I cel­e­brate with my fel­low Chi­ne­seCana­di­ans and Amer­i­cans, I am cel­e­brat­ing for the Chi­nese who speak Hokkien (a Chi­nese di­alect that is dis­ap­pear­ing) and the Chi­nese who have roots in Sin­ga­pore, Malaysia and Brunei — the cul­ture de­picted in the film.

I have to ad­mit I was skep­ti­cal this film would sat­isfy me. For too long, I would see Asians on film that were wa­tered down or sim­pli­fied to feed an au­di­ence used to a par­tic­u­lar for­mula. When I went to the early screen­ing, how­ever, I was pleas­antly sur­prised that di­rec­tor Jon Chu did not hold back and gave his au­di­ence credit that they would “get it” and en­joy it. He gave us au­then­tic­ity. I saw and heard fa­mil­iar Sin­ga­porean ac­cents, phrases, and Hokkien Chi­nese. I didn’t see an era­sure of what makes the story unique in Kwan’s novel.

Grow­ing up as Chi­ne­seCana­dian, my fam­ily and I were eas­ily lumped in with those who speak Man­darin or Can­tonese; those who come from China and Hong Kong. Some­times I would not fight the dis­tinc­tion, while other times I would try to tease out the dif­fer­ences to any­one who would lis­ten. And that is why Crazy Rich Asians is more than just about Asian-Amer­i­can rep­re­sen­ta­tion in Hol­ly­wood. It’s about un­der­stand­ing the nu­ance, the di­ver­sity and the rich­ness in the va­ri­ety of lan­guages and cul­ture that make up us Chi­nese. It is a story about how even while we may look like one an­other, we see and cel­e­brate the dif­fer­ences among our­selves. In­deed, one of the film’s cen­tral axis turns on the dif­fer­ence be­tween those who im­mi­grated and those who stayed “home.”

For me, the movie is not just about Asian faces, but watch­ing what I have al­ways felt to be a mi­nor­ity Chi­nese view be­come main­stream on the big screen. In one movie, I saw many fa­mil­iar sights: how at fam­ily gath­er­ings, there would be at least three Chi­nese di­alects fly­ing across the room, de­pend­ing on who was talk­ing to whom; how my aun­ties would speak to me in per­fect English, hav­ing been raised in the for­mer Bri­tish colonies, but with the fa­mil­iar lilt of the Sin­ga­porean ac­cent pep­pered with the re­gion’s sig­na­ture “lahs” and Chi­nese mixed with Malay words.

Then there was the food. I’m sorry to my Chi­nese brethren, but Chi­nese food from Sin­ga­pore and Malaysia’s hawker stalls are the best. The sa­tay, kuey lapis and oys­ter omelettes all fea­tured in the film hail from the fu­sion be­tween Chi­nese, In­dian and Malay cook­ing in the re­gion.

Most of all, with its main char­ac­ter, you see the pull be­tween your cul­tural home and the home you have in North Amer­ica and how you may not fully be­long in ei­ther world.

And so, it is with pride that I urge you to go see Crazy Rich Asians. At the very least, it is a charm­ing rom-com. But if you want the truth, this rom-com is a bril­liantly dis­guised study on Chi­nese in South­east Asia. I cried at the end not be­cause Hol­ly­wood de­liv­ered on the ro­man­tic front, but be­cause I couldn’t have been prouder.

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