When I attended two book readings with Kevin Kwan for his newest release, Rich People Problems, in the summer of 2017, I wasn’t too surprised to see rooms full of Asians. There were others among the crowd, but primarily what I saw around me were young, Asian females - though there were a handful of other age groups, men, and a sprinkling of caucasians. Shared by everyone in the audience was the sheer excitement for Kwan’s presence and for the world of Crazy Rich Asians. As everyone shifted to the edge of their seats, asking pointed questions and making long-winded statements about the importance of the trilogy, I felt a surprising flurry of wide-eyed excitement. One of the readings was held at the high-end Decade Vintage on Melrose, and as Kwan recounted his own experience in a wealthy Singaporean environment and his experience in the fashion world, framed by rows of vintage pastel Chanel suits, my thoughts fluttered to imagined scenes of my socialite grandma in the 60’s bossing around various help as she planned one of her lavish parties.
Kwan’s novel Crazy Rich Asians, and his follow up sequels, China Rich Girlfriend and Rich People Problems, have landed on the New York Times bestsellers list since 2013. The highly anticipated big budget hollywood film adaptation of the first installment is having its wide release this week. Set between New York and Singapore, the story follows a humble, Asian American woman being whisked into the immaculately rich world of her Singaporean boyfriend. Without combing through the story's themes and highlights, I can tell you this film represents a lot for the Asian American community. It’s the first time a major Hollywood studio has made a majority Asian cast film in 25 years (anyone remember the Joy Luck Club?), and it marks a new wave of Asian and Asian American talent rising up in the entertainment industry.
The kind of bated breath in anticipation for CRA reminds me of the anticipation for 2017’s Wonder Woman, the first female led and female directed super hero film. An interesting mix of celebration, hesitation, and preemptive criticism led up to what ended up being a compelling and record-breaking release. Many people, friends and critics alike, were critical about Wonder Woman for not being feminist enough. The wardrobe, love interest, narrative, and certainly the writing fell short of some's expectations. Personally, when female pleasure was mentioned within the first 30 minutes, I was at once satisfied with the whole film - plot holes, outfit changes, and even the politics of an Israeli actress representing an American super hero became less of a pressing thought. As much as I would have liked to see an Amazonian’s body hair while engaging in a sapphic sex scene, I don’t expect Hollywood to have come so far so fast.
It's worthwhile to keep in mind there simply is a higher standard for women, minorities, and marginalized groups. We are expected to be exceptional because we are the exception, and that is unfortunately not just within entertainment.
Looming over the excitement for the release of CRA is the palpable fear that the film will fall so short of expectations, it will in turn narrow the future of Asian-led media in the western world. The other fear is that the content of the story will backfire, driving in old stereotypes of Asians. The proliferation of articles criticizing the cast, director Jon Chu, Kevin Kwan, and the story itself even prior to the first trailer is staggering. The disapproval surrounding the casting of bi-racial Henry Golding as the male lead and ensuing debates over his “authenticity” pervaded Twitter for much of the last year. Of course I have thought about the intricacies of the casting, advertisement, and story line of the film as I do with most films I’m interested in. However, I’m willing to let those hesitations go in order to enjoy the momentous occasion for what it is. It’s not an unproblematic story, but it is unreasonable to go as far as demeaning someone’s “Asian experience” simply because they are mixed, in Henry Golding and Sonoya Mizuno’s cases, or because they are privileged, in author Kevin Kwan’s case. To me, the mention of someone being “full blooded” is far more troublesome than a good looking, mixed race actor being cast as Singaporean ethnic Chinese. It is worth noting that much of if not the majority of this criticism is coming from Asian people. Even if CRA somehow bombs at the box office, it is still some form of opening for other Asian led, high budget productions in the Western hemisphere. With an increasing Asian and Asian American population, the demand for more Asian visibly will in turn increase. As our sense of American culture shifts, those most steeped in the old constructs have a growing sense of fear associated with change. Frankly, the general public need to be spoon fed in many ways, even when it comes to a light hearted film.
Crazy Rich Asians is a romanticized fantasy of wealth and wealthy people, sharply written and hopefully as sharply portrayed in the film. The story certainly does not represent the whole of many diverse, complex Asian experiences and cultures. But that’s ok, and it’s a fallacy to expect so much of what is in the end, a fictional romantic comedy spanning all of two hours. I’m not expecting to watch the quintessential Asian American or Asian experience on the silver screen when I attend CRA partly because there is no one way to encapsulate all of those experiences, and partly because it is just a movie. But before you completely write it off, consider that although the story may be far-fetched, the deep-rooted, seemingly extreme family dynamic of Asian culture is not. Even the criticism around the story and film are reflections of this culture; filial duty, pureness, elitism, the obsession with perfection, duty, and keeping face are traditional foundations that younger generations of Asians and Asian Americans come in conflict with all the time. For non-Asians, perhaps this story and film function as a glimpse into pieces of Asian culture that may be unknown. For Asians, perhaps it is a reminder that the unsaid weight of family obligation is worth dissecting.
I plan to attend a week after the release with my mom and grandma, living examples of the constant discord between confucian traditionalism and American exceptionalism. In the meantime I’ll avoid any reviews. Instead I’ll probably re-watch Ali Wong’s Netflix specials and finish reading Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Refugees. My only expectation in watching Crazy Rich Asians is for a few laughs and a wistful longing to vacation in southeast Asia. I’ll save my harsh judgment for another day.