In spite of prob­lem­atic rep­re­sen­ta­tion, it’s the small de­tails in Crazy Rich Asians that will res­onate with Chi­nese di­as­pora view­ers 在这部好莱坞大片里,华人终于成了主角

The World of Chinese - - Ed­i­tor’s Let­ter - BY TINA XU (徐盈盈)


It is dif­fi­cult to ex­plain why a light­hearted ro­man­tic com­edy, brim­ming with glamor and op­u­lence, can bring tears to the eye. Based on Kevin Kwan’s novel of the same name, Crazy Rich Asians is most no­table for be­ing the first ma­jor Hol­ly­wood movie in a quar­ter-cen­tury to star an all-asian cast in a story about con­tem­po­rary East Asians. Ta­lented ac­tors from across the Asian di­as­pora por­tray the story of Rachel Chu (Con­stance Wu), who trav­els to Sin­ga­pore to meet her boyfriend Nick Young’s (Henry Gold­ing) ex­tremely wealthy fam­ily, in­clud­ing his dis­ap­prov­ing mother (Michelle Yeoh).

The plot is noth­ing new—girl meets boy, boy’s fam­ily looks down on girl, girl fights to be ac­cepted. What’s more in­ter­est­ing is how the con­flict be­comes a scaf­fold­ing with which to in­ter­ro­gate psy­cho­log­i­cal rifts within the Chi­nese di­as­pora: Asian and Asian Amer­i­can, in­di­vid­ual free­dom and fam­ily har­mony, new rich and old money, duty and hap­pi­ness.

Set in New York, Lon­don, Sin­ga­pore, and Malaysia, Crazy Rich Asians dis­sects

cross-sec­tions of this di­as­pora— Rachel, raised by a sin­gle mother in Queens, New York, ver­sus Nick and his fam­ily, the sub-strait of Sin­ga­pore so­ci­ety that rents out is­lands for par­ties and buys ex­otic flow­ers that bloom only at mid­night for their guests. Not just “Bei­jing bil­lion­aires and Tai­wan ty­coons,” ex­plains a char­ac­ter at a party, but the kind of peo­ple who had money when they left China in the 1800s.

It is im­por­tant to note who this movie is made for, and the canon that it chal­lenges. While the tra­di­tions of re­gional cin­ema are strong enough at Asian box of­fices that Crazy Rich Asians is just an­other drop in the bucket, the film in­cited soul-search­ing and up­roar­i­ous de­bate in the US, cat­a­pult­ing di­as­pora is­sues into the in­ter­na­tional spot­light (the movie made 94.6 mil­lion USD in the US and Canada, and just 7.3 mil­lion in other re­gional box of­fices by the end of Au­gust).

For eth­nic Chi­nese born and raised in Western coun­tries, the poignant parts of Crazy Rich Asians aren’t what you’d ex­pect: The bro­ken hearts are al­most a sideshow to ut­terly mun­dane scenes where street food is slurped, mahjong tiles flipped, and dumplings wrapped. The syn­co­pated pit­ter-pat­ter of the Chi­nese kitchen knife, minc­ing veg­eta­bles on a wooden cut­ting board, mir­rored the un­even heart­beat of in­ti­mate worlds never be­fore seen in English-lan­guage cin­ema.

A whole gen­er­a­tion has grown up since the last time Hol­ly­wood em­barked on the ma­jor pro­duc­tion of a con­tem­po­rary Asian-amer­i­can story: 1993’s The Joy Luck Club, a heart-wrench­ing in­ter­gen­er­a­tional story of women who fled war-torn China and raised daugh­ters in the US in the 1970s and 80s. Be­fore that, the first ever Asian-amer­i­can story pro­duced by Hol­ly­wood was 1961’s (now largely for­got­ten) Flower Drum Song, about a young un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grant be­ing forced into an ar­ranged mar­riage to a night­club owner in San Fran­cisco’s Chi­na­town. In both Hol­ly­wood’s only pre­vi­ous ma­jor pro­duc­tions, the Chi­nese were por­trayed as seedy and morally sus­pect, or sim­ply des­per­ate and poor.

It is a mo­ment of amaze­ment, then, to walk into a US movie theater and see Chi­nese peo­ple driv­ing fancy cars with the win­dows down, or down­ing cock­tails on the beach in the full treat­ment of a Hol­ly­wood rom­com. This time, the stereo­types are flipped: Goh Wye Mun (Ken Jeong), fa­ther of Rachel’s friend Goh Peik Lin (Awk­wa­fina) scoffs over din­ner, “There are a lot of starv­ing chil­dren in Amer­ica.” Rachel, im­pressed by Changi Air­port’s but­ter­fly gar­den, muses aloud, “JFK is just sal­mo­nella and de­spair.” The movie re­flects a piv­otal mo­ment in global power dy­nam­ics, in which the elite in many Asian coun­tries no longer feel it nec­es­sary to move to an­other hemi­sphere in or­der to pur­sue suc­cess and a com­fort­able life.

For all its jew­els and rau­cous par­ties, though, the film doesn’t un­re­flec­tively glam­or­ize the Sin­ga­porean oneper­cent. Nick’s mother, Eleanor Young, is in­tro­duced while at Bi­ble study in which she reads a line chastis­ing ma­te­ri­al­ism, even as she and her posse em­body the height of lux­ury. The pres­sures of fame and for­tune jeop­ar­dize Rachel and Nick’s re­la­tion­ship, and chip away at Astrid Leong-teo’s (Gemma Chan) mar­riage. When Rachel ad­mires Astrid’s cor­po­rate lawyer ca­reer, the lat­ter coolly replies, “Nah, just good old-fash­ioned nepo­tism.” At a cul­mi­nat­ing point, laugh­ing faces at a party are por­trayed as gaunt and ghastly. The film also re­flects Sin­ga­porean-chi­nese sys­temic racism, in which the only South Asians ap­pear in ser­vice roles and two armed guards frighten East Asian women sim­ply by their pres­ence.

How­ever, no sin­gle movie is go­ing to fix over a cen­tury of un­der­rep­re­sen­ta­tion in Hol­ly­wood, or of­fer a full pic­ture of the com­plex­ity of the bil­lions of lived ex­pe­ri­ences of Asian peo­ple. Crazy Rich Asians doesn’t tell every story, but tells one, and im­per­fectly. Even so, there’s some­thing to feel warm about the be­gin­ning of Asian and Asian Amer­i­can sto­ries on the sil­ver screen.

“We don’t have the lux­ury of fail­ure,” Con­stance Wu told the au­di­ence at a film dis­cus­sion in New York. “You can’t rep­re­sent ev­ery­one, but if you make one, and you make it re­ally well, they will make more.”

The wed­ding scene at a piv­otal point of the movie has been crit­i­cized for glam­or­iz­ing wealth

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