There is wealth and there is fashion. It’s a movie Jack Neo could never make, but is Crazy Rich Asians any good?
By Mao Shan Wang
I want to like Crazy Rich Asians; I really do (desperately even), if not the crazy part or the rich part, certainly the Asians part. But, I do not. The Kevin Kwan novel-turned-movie is not nearly crazy enough (I did not laugh), not roundly rich enough (what’s with the fake first class of a fake Pacific ASEAN Airlines?), and not closely Asian enough since this is supposedly about Singapore, which is not, to borrow our northern neighbour’s marketing catchphrase, Truly Asia.
This is ultimately an American film, seen through American eyes, written and directed by Americans, and made for Americans, exotica-seeking, Singapore-is-in-China Americans. CRA, as we like to call it here (now, that’s Singaporean—abbreviating a linguistic pastime!), may have spoken to Americans, but it did not say anything to me, the born and bred. According to media reports, it has become the “most successful studio rom-com at the box office in nine years since 2009’s The Proposal” (USD117 million in the US so far, as reported). By now, we also know that it is the first all-Asian-cast Hollywood production in 25 years since 1993’s (predominantly Asian) The Joy Luck Club.
Do not for a moment think that CRA is anything like The Joy Luck Club, a film on such a different plane, with such an emotional pull that it makes CRA look like a Mediacorp drama on a good day. And, to be sure, Jon M Chu is no Wayne Wang; he wasn’t aiming for a little movie with a lot of heart. It is understandable why CRA’s Asian-ness is now especially appealing in America, the birth place of chopsuey and fortune cookies. Given the United States’ current social issues—inclusivity and cultural appropriation et al, an all-brown cast is a big deal, just as an all-black superhero film recently was. But here in Singapore, and indeed Asia, a film featuring mostly Asians is nothing so new that it is heart-thumping revolutionary. The Americans may not be aware that we have consistently enjoyed Chinese/Asian-centric motion pictures that are not stories about the destitute, such as Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman (饮食男女), Ann Hui’s A Simple Life (桃姐), or Feng Xiaogang’s If You are the One (非诚勿扰), just to add a rom-com for good measure. Funnily, many here waited with such bated breath for CRA to open, so much so that Warner Brothers may believe we are as deprived as the Asian-Americans.
Before I go on, a disclaimer: I have never read CRA, the book. Er, to be more specific, I have not read it in its entirety. I apologise; I did judge the book by its corny cover and, with prejudice-stained hands, could not venture beyond the third page of the prologue, set in London (but shot in Penang’s E&O Hotel in the film) in 1986 when cousins Nick Young—then eight—and future fashionista Astrid Leong arrived in a hotel as soaking sods. The cliché of a hotel general manager “over-enunciating every word” and the “Chinese woman”—the formidable Eleanor Young— rejoining “in perfect English” was too much to bear. There was something so bordering on the trite about the opening pages that I found myself longing for, gasp, Catherine Lim!
Still, a movie about how the upper crust of the Lion City lives and loves, and lashes is intriguing enough for me to want to part with the price of a McDonald’s Classic Angus Cheese Meal to watch it. Imagine, Singapore Tatler page-fillers come to life! Nearly two weeks after CRA opened, the film is still enjoying packed halls, and those who flocked to GV at Plaza Sing, where I chose to go to for my CRA acquaintanceship, did not look one bit like they move in the circle that forms the Young family and clique. Do the wealthy even go to the movies in a cineplex? Not those Crazy Rich Asians!
On the screen that afternoon, the wealthy, for a change, isn’t Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark, or anyone so rich they have a second job fighting villains. Nick Young, played by the affable Henry Golding, looks unlike the vilely moneyed son he would normally have been if this were a Channel 8 soap. Nor does he dress or accessorise like one (he and his buddies look like they only go to Kevin Seah). Perhaps he’s so used to all the wealth that he does not have to show it by, say, having money stuffed in a Birkin that is left opened and posted on IG for all to admire. In fact, apart from the suggestion of extreme riches, the prosperous and preposterous bunch in CRA are rather like you and I: jealous, insecure, and needy. The only difference is that we are not targets of private bankers and our front gates are not guarded by Sikh sentries.
While that seems to be a problem for some viewers, who charged that the film shows nothing about the non-affluent among us, it isn’t that terrible to me that there is a story on the big screen about how our one percent live and consume. Jamie Chua would not gripe that Jack Neo does not spotlight her in his films; she makes her own YouTube videos! There’s nothing enviable about the Young clan and their friends and their wealth-protection problems and, frankly, juvenile insecurities and shenanigans. The more I looked at the story line and its telling after the protagonists left New York, the more I saw that this is no different from the slew of spring break movies that are a uniquely American genre. A bachelor party in an inter-modal container of a cargo ship? Only Crazy, Rich, and Bored Americans would think of that!
The Singaporean cast in their dismal dresses doing their obligatory publicity rounds may try to convince us that this film is as much about love as luxury fashion, but those hoping to see a Sex and the City sartorial moment set in this city may be disappointed. Yes, there were quite a lot of clothes (and a walk-in wardrobe Carrie Bradshaw may love), but their ability to influence how Singaporean women dress is doubtful. If what they wore on screen is fashion, they’re irrelevant red carpet femininity that money is attracted to, not taste. The clothes worn on CRA will not cast us in the same light as fashion-forward cities such as Tokyo or Hong Kong. We are, at best, wannabes, if that word is still of popular usage.
Still, we should thank the film-makers for making us appear as a nation of fashionable tribes, with a penchant for tacky, OTT weddings. That’s certain about this film: “truth is not the truth”, to quote Rudy Giuliani. New Yorker Rachel Chu, played by the plain-looking Constance Wu, has no fashion sense despite living and working in a hub city with a major fashion week. She comes to Singapore seeking not sartorial rectitude, but potential in-law approval, and yet she is willing to be dressed by her loud—in more ways than one—university mate. Goh Peik Lin, played by the bawdy Awkwafina, has, at best, dubious taste, yet Rachel could trust, without question, her royal flashiness to style her to meet the Young family for the first time, in a dress that showed off her lack of mammary assets?
To confirm that the weather of Singapore is no friend of sleeves, Rachel Chu wore mostly Forever 21-looking dresses that do not cover the arms. In fact, many of the women she meets are similarly dressed. The only character that lives up to her fashion goddess reputation, as per the book, is Astrid Leong. Played by the lithe British-Hong Kong actress Gemma Chan, Nick Young’s chic cousin glide through the film as if she was born to wear those clothes. Our Singaporean actresses, on the other hand, try so hard not to be heard as heartlanders and not to carry themselves like a housing estate dweller that they neither sound posh nor look loaded. Could it be because they have never played characters in couture? Their lack of appeal—forget about poshness—is compounded by the absence of subtlety in their performance, the lack of meaningful dialogue, and the utterance of appalling dialects.
I wonder, as I write this, if the story would have worked better by shifting the action to New York instead, with the Youngs and their coterie going West to visit Nick and Rachel, wintering in the Big Apple, perhaps. But then the American audience would not get to see a Singapore in such stirring light! The token shots of Singapore’s tourist hot spots may help with the tourism board’s KPI, but it barely showed the city state beyond what it wants visitors to see, never mind that jiaozi is not our culinary highlight and there are no mahjong palours here, not legal ones or in Ann Siang Hill, nor any place that resembles the Cheong Fatt Tze—also known as the Blue—Mansion in Penang. Malaysia is where they shot the palatial Young residences, which, together with the Malaysian leading man and costume consultants, allowed our Equanimity-rejecting neighbour to gloat that without their handsome resources, Singapore would not be able to appear enviably upper class and exaggeratedly genteel.
While this was still turning out to be a massive coup for STB, Mindef quickly threw red wine on the former’s shirt, as Rachel did on Nick’s, by announcing a day after the glamourous Singaporean premiere that author Kevin Kwan is a potential fugitive for not honouring his national service obligations, which quickly became an international headline. I was befuddled. Why was Mindef such a wet blanket? Could they not have waited until the film’s popularity waned (they said nothing when the book hit the New York Times bestseller list)? Or were there officials at each side not talking? I don’t know—maybe this, as with Crazy Rich Asians, was simply Passion Made Possible.
Film stills: Warner Bros