If Crazy Rich Asians (Film) is intended as a satire on the Singaporean mentality, then it deserves full marks.
Crazy Rich Asians (Film) Synopsis
Rachel and Nick are a loving young Chinese-American couple working in New York. Accepting Nick’s invitation, Rachel travels with Nick to his home country of Singapore to attend the wedding of Nick’s best friend, Colin. During the journey, Rachel realizes that Nick is not the guy she thinks he is, following which she learns with great shock that he is actually the scion of one of Singapore’s richest families. Things then take a dark turn when Nick’s domineering mother, Eleanor, openly exhibits her disapproval of Rachel. Before long, the rest of Nick’s snobbish clan also descends on Rachel, branding her as a gold-digger in the worst ways possible.
(This Snappy Review is MUCH longer than usual)
It took me half a day to decide I should watch and review Crazy Rich Asians (Film).
What I’ve read over the last two weeks convinced me it was going to be one of those films i.e. a tasteless and ludicrous exaggeration of modern Chinese stereotypes intended for cheap laughs by western audiences. In the end, I only booked the ticket because I concluded it would be discrediting for this blog if as a Singaporean movie blogger, I didn’t review the one big “Singaporean” movie of the year. However I felt about the story or themes, I ought to at least take a look.
Booked. Trudged downtown to the Cathay. As I sat there waiting for the movie to start, I was sure I was going to hate it. I was sure I wouldn’t give it anything more than two stars out of five.
An hour in the movie, I still loathed every moment of it. I didn’t laugh once.
And then I had an epiphany. Moments later, I went from hater to intense admirer.
Yeah. But before I explain why, let me just do my usual thumbs-up, thumbs-down thingy, since I left those out in my visual summary this time.
What I Thought Was “Good” About Crazy Rich Asians (Film)
- Like many other reviewers, I felt the actors were great. Particularly the ladies. Michelle Yeoh was a little stiff, TBH, but her commanding presence was still intimidating.
- String together the right bits, and you’d have on hand a slick Visit Singapore video. One that’s better than any produced by our tourism board in the recent years.
- The climactic mahjong scene was truly affecting. But of course, one has to understand the game to appreciate the details.
What I Really Hated About Crazy Rich Asians (Film)
- About one percent of Singapore was shown, all of which being touristy areas travel writers like me have, for years, been encouraging visitors to move away from.
- As much as I urged myself to, I cannot ignore the fact that Henry Golding feels, sounds, and looks nothing like a typical Singaporean Chinese male. Rich or poor.
- Actually, with the exception of Pierre Png’s Michael, Pierre being the only Singaporean cast in a significant role, none of the Singaporean characters felt local to me. (Koh Chieng Mun was overplaying her comedic role too much)
- What’s the deal with all the Hong Kong Chinese music? You know, nowadays I don’t even hear these songs at the tourist shops in Chinatown.
- Ironically, or maybe I should say inexplicably, Constance Wu felt to be the most “Singaporean” character in the entire movie.
- I hate to agree with a certain local fringe group , but I think they are right to point out the movie completely eradicates the multicultural composition of Singaporean’s population. Whatever foreigners might think, we are not a Chinese country. Certainly not a Chinese haven or a Chinese colony too.
In short, I thought the movie grossly misrepresented Singapore and the Singaporean Chinese community. During the big-house scenes, it was akin to Clavell’s Noble House forced-imposed onto a dated Singaporean setting. Kevin Kwan and his fellow producers seemed to have mistaken 60s Hong Kong for Singapore.
But, coming back to that epiphany I had, I was abruptly reminded of a nasty piece of news. This happened right after the major confrontation of the movie.
On Aug 22, hours before the Singaporean premiere of the movie, our Ministry of Defence (Mindef) revealed author Kevin Kwan is actually a wanted man here. The dude left Singapore permanently at the age of eleven, thus avoiding National Service i.e. compulsory conscription.
Under our laws, any Singaporean-born male who leaves the country this way is a criminal. This so, even if they subsequently renounce Singaporean citizenship before enlistment age.
In other words, Kevin Kwan would be arrested and jailed for years the moment he re-enters Singapore. Typically, for such cases, our mass media would then splash pictures of the convicted dodgers all over. (Often, in most unflattering ways to imply these are not “men”)
For those of you who had watched the movie, or at least know the story, isn’t this revelation quite alike what Eleanor Young did in other to convince her son to dump Rachel?
The shaming, the exposing of dirt, the not-so-veiled message that so-and-so is an unworthy, shady character?
Under the light of this, several faults of the movie suddenly felt intentional. I began to interpret the movie as a satire on Singaporean society.
As a Singaporean, I know only too well that Singapore could be unbearable in the ways we flaunt our wealth. Too often, we mistake arrogance for nationalistic pride. We mistake bragging as patriotism too.
- While our government lovingly calls it a partnership, the ugly reality is that a mercenary relationship long existed between rulers and citizens in this merchant city. Citizens expect rulers to give and give. In exchange, rulers expect citizens to obey and oblige. (National Service being one of the must-obeys) It’s all about what’s being brought to the table, as Edison “Eddie” Cheng states in the movie. If you don’t have the must-gives, no negotiation is possible. Some gifts are also considered irrelevant. For example, overseas PHDs and similar accomplishments.
- Is it sheer coincidence that Michael, Astrid’s resentful and jealous husband, is an ex-army captain? I.E. a guy from the organization still out for Kevin Kwan’s throat? The story depicts Michael as ungrateful to the sacrifices Astrid went through for his sake.
Thanks to stinging (and ludicrous) rhetoric by certain politicians and civil service heads in the 90s, there remains a strong local disdain towards Singaporeans who have left the country. Personally, I feel this is not too unlike Eleanor’s dislike of Rachel, whom she considers not “one of us.”
In the movie, Eleanor repeatedly highlights the sacrifices she has gone through to earn her position in the Young family. She concludes right away that Rachel wouldn’t go through the same sacrifices, thus her gloomy opinion of the latter. To me, this sounds and feels eerily similar to how so many Singaporean guys deem those who have not served National Service as unworthy and un-Singaporean. (Mindef, without surprise, encourages this view)
Now, I’m of course aware that the movie is different from the novel. To international audiences, Crazy Rich Asians (the book) would also more likely be read as Kevin Kwan’s lament on the plight of Chinese Americans. A people often scorned by their racial kin and sidelined by the majority race of the USA.
Or perhaps the original story is really no more than a blithering commentary on the antics of newly rich Chinese people. You know, those tales we hear about PRC tourists? Such antics must have brought much embarrassment to overseas Chinese in western countries.
Still, something in the story connected with me during the movie’s final moments. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it because of my own unhappy experiences with Mindef and National Service. Whichever way I look at it, Crazy Rich Asians, movie or book, feels to be Kwan’s vicious get-back at the country that criminalized him.
Impossible as it sounds, it seems the author also correctly predicted Mindef’s response to the current “marriage” between the movie and the world. Through some gender-bending, he then presented his side of the story in advance, while taking a good dig at Singapore.
If that’s the case, is it right to say that this man is currently Singapore’s greatest writer? With the movie adaptation of his first book the harshest commentary to date on modern Singaporean mentality?
It stings my “Singaporean pride” to think about the movie that way. But perhaps those are questions worth considering.
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