Krystal Hur: Examining “Crazy Rich Asians”

Monday, September 3, 2018 - 6:49pm

Krystal Hur

Krystal Hur Buy this photo
The Michigan Daily

Crazy Rich Asians has been a smash hit this summer. Not only are many of my Asian American peers hailing it as a fantastic movie that gives Asian Americans the representation they need, but it’s the first Hollywood film featuring an all Asian-American cast since The Joy Luck Club, which was released 25 years ago. It’s not hard to see why so many people are excited about it.

The stars of the film are also aware of its impact. In an interview on Jimmy Kimmel Live, Awkwafina, who plays Peik Lin Goh in the movie, said about the lack of Asian Americans in films: “If you think about it ... a 25-year-old adult is just walking around without representation.” She then went on to speak more about Crazy Rich Asians, saying that “it’s so impactful for Asian Americans. Asian Americans come out of the screenings, and they’re, you know, crying, and they don’t know exactly why. And I think it’s the power of representation.”

However, despite how easy it is to just praise Crazy Rich Asians as a film with representation, it’s important to examine the film not only from an Asian-American perspective, but also from the perspective of people who are of Asian descent, but not American.

I stumbled across a Facebook post by activist Sangeetha Thanapal, who criticized the movie. She wrote: “Singapore is a terribly racist country. The state embarked on a form of eugenics in the 1980s meant to displace its indigenous population and replace it with settler colonial Chinese people ... So when you celebrate this movie, ask yourself who you are complicit in erasing.” Her boldest statement, however, comes when she explicitly criticizes Asian Americans’ willingness to celebrate the movie’s cast: “CRA is set in Singapore and only has Chinese people in it. This isn’t new or refreshing, this is the EVERYDAY FUCKIN LIVES OF MINORITIES. It is only diversity FOR YOU.”

In an article he wrote in The Atlantic, Mark Tseng-Putterman explores the same kinds of problems with Crazy Rich Asians as Thanapal, stating that “while the cast includes a mix of Chinese, Japanese and Korean diaspora actors of various nationalities, besides Henry Golding (who is of Iban descent) it effectively excludes South and Southeast Asians despite their deep presence in Singaporean society.” He also points out that “the only South Asians that viewers can glimpse are in the roles of servants and guards.”

I admittedly don’t know anything about racial and cultural tensions in Singapore, and I haven’t even watched the movie yet. While some may argue that it’s simply a romantic comedy and such movies need not be taken seriously, it’s impossible to simultaneously praise a movie for its representation while blatantly ignoring its lack of representation in a non-American context. We can’t ignore that this film celebrates Chinese privilege and the oppression of Singaporeans in the same way that so many Hollywood films emphasize white privilege and completely disregard people of color.

It’s also incredibly problematic to praise a film’s representation by simply looking at the actors’ ethnicities: Casting a person of color means nothing if the depiction of their character serves the same purpose that excluding minorities does. People of color should not settle for simply having non-white representation. We need to look beyond an actor’s race and examine the character: Do they embody harmful stereotypes, such as the socially incompetent Asian American or “angry Black woman” tropes? Does the character serve the role of being “one of the good ones” by catering to white expectations and distancing themselves from the “bad” people of color, as Tseng-Putterman argues that Crazy Rich Asians is guilty of? Not asking ourselves these types of questions and instead mindlessly celebrating representation leaves us vulnerable to ignorance and complicity.

However, that is not to say that everyone who feels validated by Crazy Rich Asians should feel ashamed for liking it, and we certainly shouldn’t ignore the positive aspects of the movie. It makes sense that so many Asian Americans are so emotional about the film — we’re used to not seeing a single person of Asian descent in a leading role, much less an entire cast of them. We’re used to seeing Asian Americans being portrayed as unattractive characters who are almost always incredibly submissive and shy or nerdy and weird. Crazy Rich Asians defies these stereotypes with its cast of Asian American actors who all portray characters with actual personalities. It’s impossible to refer to any of them as “the Asian one” because they’re all Asian. This means that the audience has to actually see past the characters’ race and remember them for their other qualities.

Despite all of its great qualities, however, I’m wary of supporting a film that celebrates Asian Americans at the expense of other Asians. I probably will end up watching it online; still, I don’t think I’ll end up idolizing the movie like so many of my peers have done. That’s a good thing.

Krystal Hur can be reached at kryshur@umich.edu.