I was originally asked to write my thoughts on CRAZY RICH ASIANS and what I thought of the impact of this worldwide phenomenon. Instead, my takeaway from the film and the excitement surrounding it has centered around its hoped-for impact on changing the game in terms of on-screen representation of Asian Pacific Americans and — implicitly — other people of color. My other takeaway riffs on just who has the authority to create mainstream stories by and about people of color, and not just Asian American ones.
To start, let me get the original task at hand out of the way: I found Jon M. Chu’s adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s novel Crazy Rich Asians to be a hoot — having been to Singapore over eighteen years ago to attend the Singapore International Film Festival and having maintained friendships with folks who live and work in the “Lion Nation/State,” I found myself identifying with much of the social strata depicted in the book and its sequels. However, being most acquainted with working and middle class Singaporeans, I got right away that on a fundamental level, Kwan’s novel functions quite well as both satire and farce — after all, the book is quintessential “trash” literature, something suitable for the Book of the Month club at the local library.
And to clarify: Singapore has a long and illustrious cinema industry that is largely underexposed throughout North America. As part of my involvement with the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, Visual Communications has made a space through the years for Singaporean cinema, particularly its independent filmmaking community exemplified by the likes of masters Eric Khoo, Jasmine Ng, Kelvin Tong, and others. To wit: I still feel that the representative feature film from this Asian “tiger” remains Kelvin Tong and Jasmine Ng’s 2000 rebels-in-love indie drama EATING AIR. Conversely, the creative output of veteran director Jack Neo, as exemplified by his depictions of Singapore’s monied classes most closely approximates the extravagances depicted in CRAZY RICH ASIANS — with such loopy titles as MONEY NO ENOUGH (1998) and I NOT STUPID (2002), how could they not?
The other striking observation I took away from CRAZY RICH ASIANS the motion picture is that Singapore is a country that constantly reinvents and modernizes itself, often to the detriment of its own history. Indeed, on an evening dinner along one of many outdoor riverside restaurants during my visit, one of our hosts lamented that Singapore constantly tears down its history — historical buildings and landmarks, some a century old — and in their place erect soaring skyscrapers and luxury hotels. Indeed, during my time there I stayed at the gargantuan Raffles Hotel; today, that edifice would be dwarfed by the massive developments in and around the former Colonial District, now dubbed Gardens by the Bay and highlighted by the iconic Marina Bay Sands Hotel, the distinctive A-frame triple-tower landmark that is featured at the conclusion of the film.
In fact, vestiges of that old colonial Singapore can be glimpsed two-thirds of the way through the movie, in the scene in which Rachel commiserates with her college bestie Peik Lin after our heroine has been eviscerated by Nick’s mother, the all-controlling Eleanor Young (you know the scene — the “bawk bawk, bitch” scene. Ahh, NOW you know).
Awkwafina aka Nora Lum in Crazy Rich Asians.
And having spent time out on Singapore’s ultra-fancy Orchard Road (as part of work-related duties, I was marched over to a tailor to get fitted for a suit), I oftentimes came face-to-face with the different levels of society, from the well-heeled money class who flaunted wardrobes and jewelry I could never remotely afford, to the large (very large) numbers of migrant South Asians who belonged to the worker classes. And of course, I encountered just about everyone else in between.
So for me, there was no exoticism to be had anywhere in the movie. And for those who were wondering: of course, there were no depictions of Malays, Thais, Filipinos, and especially Asian Indians anywhere in the film. Asian Americans have their cultural blind spots too, yah know. After all, what can you accomplish in a single two-hour-long movie?
The conceit of a Chinese American woman visiting Asia for the very first time reflects themes of transnationalism, a well-worn theme in Asian Pacific American cinema. Because the “community” is in fact a collection of over twenty distinct ethnic groups with roots throughout continental Asia and select Pacific Islander nations, it’s impossible to imagine Asian Pacific America in nationalist terms as one could an African American or Chicano movement. Instead, we’ve seen a well-worn theme of “going back to the mother country” that probably started as early as 1978, when Bay Area newscaster Felicia Lowe documented a trip to her ancestral Chinese home that became the basis of her 1979 documentary CHINA: LAND OF MY FATHER.
Henry Golding and Constance Wu in Crazy Rich Asians.
CRA and Four Decades of Independent Asian American Films
Having withstood another kooky rom-com about a big, fat dysfunctional family (MAMA MIA: HERE WE GO AGAIN), I found CRAZY RICH ASIANS to be more of the same, along with all the usual tropes of the genre. And having presented truckloads of feature-length motion pictures by Asian Pacific American filmmakers over the years as a result of my involvement with the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, I didn’t find the all-Asian cast of director Chu’s film to be revolutionary at all. Instead, I found CRAZY RICH ASIANS to be much more evolutionary than anything else. It represents a smart, confident step up a very long ladder, trodden by many others before it, leading to…what? Does it signify full enfranchisement of APA visions and voices in the mainstream arena? Does it announce a pushing of the “reset” button in light of the grand expectations and hopes fomented by director Wayne Wang’s THE JOY LUCK CLUB from over a quarter century ago? Nahh…director Chu’s movie is part of an ongoing continuum, a tradition started over fifty years ago by APA arts activists and community-minded filmmakers to make known our lives and experiences here in America. Whether it wants to be or not, the film is also an important touchstone in our ongoing process of “acculturation,” with all the benefits and pitfalls inherent in that label.
A scene from The Joy Luck Club with Tamlyn Tomita (center).
I also found the travails of Rachel Chu and Nicholas Young (and Nick’s large and catty extended family) to be something of a litmus test for us viewers: specifically, can the depiction of a non-white community in a major motion picture play to a mainstream audience the same way it does to an ethnic-specific crowd? I’ve observed that over the years, audiences who have attended APA-centric film festivals and screening events throughout the country have been exposed to (and has supported) all-APA produced/directed/acted narrative feature films since, like, forever. I mean, check out this roll-call sampling screened at past editions of Visual Communications’ Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival:
Duane Kubo and Robert Nakamura’s HITO HATA: RAISE THE BANNER (1980)
Wayne Wang’s CHAN IS MISSING (1982)
Stephen Ning’s FRECKLED RICE (1983)
Peter Wang’s A GREAT WALL (1985)
Ang Lee’s PUSHING HANDS (1991)
Mina Shum’s DOUBLE HAPPINESS (1993)
Kayo Hatta’s PICTURE BRIDE (1995)
Chris Chan Lee’s YELLOW (1997)
Rea Tajiri’s STRAWBERRY FIELDS (1997)
Eric Koyanagi’s HUNDRED PERCENT (1998)
Tony Bui’s THREE SEASONS (1999)
Philip Kan Gotanda’s LIFE TASTES GOOD (1999)
Gene Cajayon’s THE DEBUT (2000)
Rod Pulido’s THE FLIP SIDE (2001)
Justin Lin’s BETTER LUCK TOMORROW (2002)
Bertha Bay-sa Pan’s FACE (2002)
Alice Wu’s SAVING FACE (2004)
Julia Kwan’s EVE AND THE FIREHORSE (2005)
Ham Tran’s JOURNEY FROM THE FALL (2005)
Tanuj Chopra’s PUNCHING AT THE SUN (2006)
Richard Wong’s COLMA: THE MUSICAL (2006)
Jessica Yu’s PING PONG PLAYA (2008)
Sarab Neelam’s OCEAN OF PEARLS (2008)
Tze Chun’s CHILDREN OF INVENTION (2009)
Christine Yoo’s WEDDING PALACE (2011)
Daniel Park’s K-TOWN COWBOYS (2015)
Jennifer Phang’s ADVANTAGEOUS (2015)
Lena Khan’s THE TIGER HUNTER (2016)
Justin Chon’s GOOK (2017)
You know what? Multiply this list times TWENTY (my rough estimate), and over the past four decades, THIS (a conservative list of over 500 feature-length narratives, not including an equal if not greater number of APA documentary features) is the roll-call of talented APA directors, screenwriters, and producers who have produced feature-length films BY and ABOUT Asian Pacific American peoples and communities. For far too many reasons to enumerate, the vast majority of them have not enjoyed the opportunity to take that “next step” and present works made by and starring APAs for mainstream audiences. Over time, however, they set the stage for CRAZY RICH ASIANS in much the same way that an earlier generation of APA filmmakers set the table for the success of Wang’s adaptation of Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club in 1993. Bottom line: this roll-call is emblematic of “self-determined” APA filmmaking — no white saviors or side-kicks needed here.
And yah, about that “vision” and “voice” thing: I purposely left off another boatload of works created, produced, and directed by Asian Pacific Americans that eschew facile nods to “representation” because I feel that it’s just as important to assess the factors and issues that drive our individuals and collective artistic visions and voices. In other words, it’s vital to “check our heads” from time to time and see what’s driving us to get out of bed each morning. Anyone ever hear of Gregg Araki? How about a reclusive Philadelphian named M. Night Shyamalan? How would you react if I served up hapa director/screenwriter Karyn Kusama for your consideration? And before CRAZY RICH ASIANS even turned up on his doorstep, director Chu’s nod to fully diverse on-screen depictions could be described as lukewarm, at best.
Gatekeepers and Walled Citadels
A quarter-century after the release of THE JOY LUCK CLUB (a film that promised to open the doors of Hollywood to a generation of talented yet frustrated Asian Pacific American movie workers both in front of and behind the camera), the landscape for films (and filmmakers of color) has changed dramatically. A whole new generation of university-trained African American, Chicano, Asian Pacific American, and Native American filmmakers have emerged and, in concert with a concomitant groundswell of LGBT and women filmmakers, have begun a long-delayed paradigm shift in how people and communities of color are depicted in popular mass media. Add in the democratizing effects of the online “multiplex” as seen by the rise of YouTube, and one can see that people of color have pioneered a true “alternative screen” where their stories can find their audiences without the interference of white Hollywood gate-keepers.
What hasn’t seemed to change has been who gets to authorize and encourage mainstream stories about underserved communities. We know the code-words for this ongoing erasure — “your film would better appeal to a wider audience if you changed the ethnicity of your lead character to a white one.” “There are no marketable Asian American actors available, so we have to alter the storyline.” “Asian American heroes aren’t relatable to mainstream audiences.” And, “There are hardly any competent Asian American directors out there working in Hollywood.” It’s little surprise at all that the same Hollywood gate-keepers are hard at work, using coded language to inhibit the full participation and enfranchisement of a “colored” creative class. It’s an environment in which director Chu’s eighth feature-length film lands, carrying with it the same hopes, expectations, and burdens as its snake-bit predecessor of over twenty-five years prior.
“Representation” vs. Representin’
For me, it’s far more concerning if the voices who drive and realize Asian Pacific American works are NOT APA. That’s where my Spidey senses go into hyper-drive — what are your motivations? Who are you speaking for? And, can you even empathize? And the kicker: are you exercising your “white privilege” on our stories? Yah, I know, that last one is a little presumptuous, unless you consider how badly Spike Lee (NOT a white guy) fucked up a never-shoulda-done-DID-that remake of Korean director Park Chan-wook’s touchstone work OLDBOY. See, I TOLD you so.
This also motivates my refusal to accept any works that merely feature Asian and Asian American “side-kicks” as canon, without the necessary ingredient of authorship. In spite of all that “Asian August” hoo-hah, artistic vision, perspective and authorship is, to me, everything. That is why I cannot accept the recent Netflix adaptation of YA novelist Jenny Han’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, a feature-length film NOT principally created by a filmmaker of APA descent, as an “Asian American” production. In much the same way I discount DRAGON: THE BRUCE LEE STORY as truly “Asian American,” the authorship of the story dictates how “representation” will be perceived by its target audience. End of story.
Journey from The Fall by Ham Tram
In another couple of months from now, I’m sure we’ll all be pondering the Oscar® prospects of director Chu’s movie (okay, I’ll cop to it — if the production design, art direction, and editing of CRAZY RICH ASIANS aren’t recognized, then crime pays). Then, we’ll have moved on to scouting out the Next Big APA Feature to Support. It’s at this point that we have to remind ourselves that somewhere under our radar, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are busy pumping out stellar, heartfelt new and upcoming feature-length works that deserve NOT to be consigned to Netflix or Hulu purgat
I expect APA cinema aficionados will await these and many other upcoming works with bated breath. Lynn Chen’s I WILL MAKE YOU MINE. Tanuj Chopra’s STAYCATION (which will world-premiere by the time this story hits the internet). Patrico Ginelsa’s LUMPIA WITH A VENGEANCE. Evan Jackson Leong’s SNAKEHEAD. Emily Ting’s GO BACK TO CHINA. Laurie Tsou’s RUSSIAN RED. Not to mention the multitude of upcoming documentaries produced and directed by APAs that we all will be seeing this coming film festival season, quite likely starting at the upcoming Sundance Film Festival in mid-January. This just scratches the surface of a veritable beehive of activity that also includes a growing online presence due to the “Netflix” effect, but it all points to a definitive reality: that love it or hate it, today we’re all celebrating, to one degree or another, the triumphs and successes of “Asian August.”
Tomorrow, we — APA cinema artists, cultural workers and fans alike — are going back to work. There’s a lot more to be done.
Abraham Ferrer is a staffmember at Visual Communications, an Asian Pacific American media arts organization based in Los Angeles Little Tokyo. Web: tricky13.blog; Twitter: @AbrahamFerrer
Great piece Abe. Honestly didn’t think I’d be interested in another review of CRA (despite thoroughly enjoying the movie), but your contextual analysis is more thoughtful and interesting than anything else I’ve read about it so far. Kudos!