Crazy Rich Asians Review 2022Bruce Wang Citizen Wang Studio
Article By Al Dente @ citizenwangstudio.com
I watched this for the first time 4 years after its release and as a drag queen who knows some Crazy Rich Singaporeans in real life, I found it awful on many levels. I won’t watch this again. It is now on my list of movies that I will turn off even if there is nothing else whatsoever to watch. Trying to be positive, the depictions of lavishness were good at times but the story, cast and messages combined to make this a terrible ordeal.
Let us start with the fact that the story is classic Cinderella where rich boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl back – all of which I saw coming a mile off. I guess there is an argument that some of the charm of these rom coms is that we see these clues and enjoy watching it play out. Sadly that is not what I find enjoyable – I like at least something unexpected. The film’s obvious plot is so signposted for even the blindest and unaware film watchers out there, that I became sure there was going to be a twist because surely nothing could be this obvious. But twist came there none. Something clever? Route-1-0-1 point 2? Didn’t happen. Even a mole rat from Papua New Guinea who had never seen a film before would be able to guess the ending after the set up.
Which brings me to the set up before the set up. This is by far the worst bit of the film. I first decided to watch the film on a flight into Singapore and could not make it past the pre-Singapore prologue. This prologue comes before the film gets to Singapore, the Gateway to the East, where the action in this inexplicably popular film takes place. The important moment in this prologue, designed to hook people in and explain how rich, Crazy Rich even, these people are, is when some old fashioned snobby white employees in a central London hotel in the 80s are surprised to learn that the helpless and soaked-through Chinese family they have been less than warm towards are, in fact, the new owners of the hotel and their new de facto bosses. This again left me cold because I saw it coming. Also, does anyone realise that the hotel manager (who did not get a comeuppance incidentally, except for loss of face – a Chinese punishment but not much of one for an Englishman) and staff treated the Chinese family with the very same snobbery and disdain that the same Chinese family are surrounded by, Chinese-style, in the rest of the story? In the rest of the film, set in modern day post-colonial Singapore, this Chinese snobbery and disdain runs deeply and becomes even quite threatening, going so far as to issue a Corleone / Godfather-style ‘horse head in the bed’ warning (in this case, a gutted fish in the bed with written message), meted out to the innocent foreign person, Rachel, who is intruding into this world uninvited and unwelcome. What’s the difference?
The Cinderella part of the story starts with a good looking cis hetero East Asian couple, one of whom, the guy Nick, is Crazy Rich, unbeknownst to the other, Rachel (Constance Wu). Rachel is very successful – and this is important… successful on merit – and is the youngest Professor of Economics at NYU. But she is not rich. Well off, I guess. But Crazy Rich? No. I must have missed what Nick does for a living, but he is also similarly successful and more importantly he is good looking, charming and in love with Rachel. He also has a British accent, explained by the fact he went to an English boarding school.
And this annoyed me a lot. Singaporeans are very proud of Singapore and all its quirks, the biggest quirk being its unique accent. I know Singaporeans who went to school in England (and ones who went to US schools too) and they do talk with less of a pronounced Singaporean accent in real life – but they all CAN speak the accent when they want AND they often (if not always) throw in the accent’s idiosyncrasies, whether they are talking in RP, standard American or not. Let’s go-lah! Eat-lah! Anything at all-lah! They will often use a verb when an answer is begged. “Can we go to the film?” will elicit the answer “Can!” (or “cannot”!) more often than a simple yes or no. But can we see a single sign of this lovely and unique eccentricity in the entirely of the film? Cannot! The reason for this (and I know this from experience) is because it is an extremely hard accent to mimic and master. I am not aware of any single non Singaporean/Malaysian who has mastered this accent. In fact, google it and you will find zero instances of any actor showing off their mastery of this unique and impossible accent.
And so, because the cast appear to be not Singaporean in the main (for commercial reasons?), we have a slew of US comedians and British actors playing the roles of Crazy Rich Singaporeans, not a single one of whom can do the accent. This is extremely annoying not to mention insulting to Singaporean actors, who are good and could do any of these roles the US/British actors play. To add insult to injury, this cast do not even try to make the accent work. In fact, it is a whole 27 minutes before we hear a very small side character, Mrs Goh, speak with anything like an authentic Singaporean accent. I understand in Singaporean cinemas, when she finally opened her mouth to say her line, Mrs Goh got a huge laugh and round of applause. A laugh of appreciation, I reckon, and relief and recognition that their country had not been completely edited out more than it being just a funny line (which it is not, so much).
What made it even more difficult to suspend my disbelief in this cast of Crazy Rich Singaporean characters was that the “normal” East Asian Cinderella girl, Rachel, is an ABC; an American Born Chinese girl to a Singaporean mother, who we learn had to flee the island country back in the day to give birth, because of … plausible reasons. This is all fine, but I happened to have been told, many years before this film came out, that the actress playing the mother is, in real life, a genuinely Crazy Rich Singaporean. I am told that she is worth more than the rest of the cast put together in real life. This is not widely known (nor is it important in itself) but this inside knowledge only served to reinforce how badly cast this film felt to me in terms of authenticity. I don’t want to get into net worth etc here and I am 100% not saying that a rich actor could not play this a poor character – in fact I thought the actress in question gave one of the better performances in the film - but I will try and explain my beef using an analogy:
Julia Louis-Dreyfus, regardless of her salary and wages as a TV star is independently family rich. Crazy Rich you could say. Her dad is a billionaire. Her acting ability is not in question, but if Julia Louis-Dreyfus were to be cast in the remake of Trading Places in the Eddie Murphy role as the poor person who suddenly becomes rich, it would grate. It would not make sense and the casting would work against the story.
Ditto here for me. In this film, we have non-Crazy Rich Singaporeans with bad accents, playing Singaporeans in Singapore and a real-life Crazy Rich Singaporean in New York, playing a poor person with a US accent.
I guess the one big defence of this casting (and the more grave offence to me, ignoring the accent), is that it makes the story easier to follow for Western audiences. And that is the ultimate defence. The film made £240m! It was a great success! Shut the fuck up already about the accents and authenticity and who is really rich and who isn’t! It’s a film not a documentary! Use your imagination!
I understand this argument and by invoking it we are starting to enter the argument that Scorsese posed recently, that content is getting confused with cinema. From many perspectives, if a film makes £240m then it is a success regardless of the content. I get it. But, of course, popularity does not a good film make. (Transformers?). Is this film really a good film because it is popular and made money? Not for this pretentious drag queen, it is not. At all.
I can’t let this go. I found it annoying that Ken Jeong and the US comedians Ronny Chieng and Jimmy Yang could not do the Singaporean accent and instead each chose to do a generic East Asian accent. Why not just use their own accents? Is it nowadays acceptable for an East Asian actor to do the sort of faux generic accent that led Hank Azaria to quit doing Apu’s voice in The Simpsons? At least in Apu’s case, the character is likeable and Azaria’s mastery of the accent is top notch. Not here, though! Not only are the various faux accents not compatible with one another and all over the place, the characters are all loathsome and terrible people. This does not put East Asians more into the Western Culture mainstream, as I have seen argued elsewhere, but the complete opposite. It reinforces marginalisation and otherness and tells westerners that yes, all these accents are different but the same! It’s all unfathomable and it is all new! Korean is Singaporean! American Filipino is British Chinese! Who cares?! This film is arguably classic Orientalism, looking at a culture through the white lens of the West to create an Orient that does not actually exist but is jaw dropping and incredible. It is defined by its otherness to the world westerners know, and whether it is authentic or not is not important.
OK. I could go on about this but let us look at themes in the film itself. The story of the sister Astrid played by British actor Gemma Chan, and her marriage falling apart rung a few bells with me. The idea that obscene wealth undermines the value of working and earning a living is something that I myself have faced in my real life. I sympathise with the (relatively) poor husband in this case, not the wealthy wife Astrid, who is so rich and enjoys spending her money on frivolous things so much that she has to hide them from her “sensitive” husband so as not to undermine his sense of self and, ultimately, his masculinity and self of self. In my case, many years ago I was starting a relationship with a wealthy person. Very wealthy, not Crazy Rich by any means, but wealthy enough to buy two London houses in Stockwell, London and knock them together without any struggle. I realised soon that anything I cared about was rendered completely worthless in this relationship because I would earn less in a year of striving than they had spent without a second thought on new kitchen floorboards. Feeling like you bring value is a real thing. The question I had to ask myself in the 1990s, like the husband in the film’s sub-plot, was: do I like the perks (which were pretty good materialistically) more than I like being my own person? For me the answer was no!
I therefore could understand the motivation of the husband in this film to cheat on his lovely and beautiful Crazy Rich wife. Sadly, this was little more of a side issue to the main film but this toe-dipping exploration into the idea that absolute limitless wealth corrupts morals is the one part of the film I found potentially interesting. In point of fact, we were supposed to feel sorry for Astrid not being able to flaunt her wealth frivolously, and did not spend much time at all on the more interesting question of why this might make people feel worthless and look to have an affair – the affair being about seizing power, not sex. The husband’s story ended as he was cast out from the Crazy Rich environs. It is assumed that Charlie (the husband) would now be miserable having been banished from the Crazy Rich ivory tower, but the reality is that he would likely be much more happy not being surrounded by these terrible people, no longer feeling helpless and powerless and worthless. This would be an interesting look at Crazy Richness. But it is not what this film looked at
The story of Nick’s mother, (whose casting was one of the few I had no problem with, Malaysian stalwart at the top of her game, Michelle Yeoh) who pits herself against her prospective daughter in law, Rachel, is more or less the main story. Mum is the reason Boy Loses Girl. Tiger mum, of course wants her son to do better, but this is a confused concept here. In Crazy Rich world, being better suited as hunky Nick’s (a one dimensional Henry Golding) wife is to be 1. richer (as Rachel discovers on the hen’s party). It is also to be 2. less American. This could be interesting too but again it somehow isn’t. American here is shorthand for Western and Tiger Mum Eleanor says to be American is “selfishness” when contrasted with China’s more pragmatic long game and respect for history and tradition. This is indeed interesting and can be seen to be at play in real life. Here in the film, though, it is inevitable that the battle between these two ideologies will be won by America! It’s how Rom Coms work and you can see it coming a mile off. The traditional, long-game-respecting and respectful Chinese interpretation of what will work is, by the end of the film, seen as flawed by Eleanor as the penny drops that American selfishness is the true path to success and happiness.
(Success, let us not forget in the terms of the film, is to get to spend the rest of your life surrounded by twats and arseholes who look down on you, going shopping with jealous and spoiled vicious and callous Asians, who live cartoonish, empty and meaningless lives and having so much money that people feel worthless just by being married to it.)
In real life, we see America in a quandary, polarised politically and fighting itself - all the while looking, without any answers, at China as it becomes more and more powerful in the world. While inflation is killing Western Europe and choking growth in US, China’s inflation is unmoved. It doesn’t matter why this is the case but the fact is the West has no answers to any of this and can only but watch as China solidifies its position as the number 1 economic powerhouse on the planet.
This theme, that Chinese pragmatism has a lot to learn from and will yield to Western ideals of love (aka short term selfishness) is the true fairy tale in this story. China is not #1 yet but there is nothing America can do to stop this from happening. In real life, Chinese Pragmatism is superior to American ideals and will prevail and yet we can still enjoy fairy tales. If that were the message of this film, I would applaud it. But it isn’t. This is trite nonsense masquerading as insight.
Fairy tales have a place, but this particular one is over dressed and confused, the moral of its story is flawed and, in doing all this, it also reinforces racial and cultural stereotypes that are head shakingly retrograde. If this is what the West thinks the East is like, no wonder China is outwitting it at every turn geopolitically and economically.
Film verdict 3 out of 10. Lightweight. A few good jokes, good photography and lavish locations.