THE premiere of highly anticipated romantic dramedy Crazy Rich Asians finally hit the red carpet this week in a glitzy celebration of the first Hollywood-produced movie to feature an all-Asian cast in a quarter century.
Directed by Jon M. Chu and scheduled for release in the US on Aug 15, the movie adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s best-selling novel of the same name has already achieved cult-like status for its dazzling depiction of the lives of Singapore’s uber-rich.
Set against the backdrop of ever-so-affluent Singapore, the plot revolves around American-born Chinese economics professor Rachel Chu, played by Constance Wu, who meets her boyfriend’s wealthy and tradition-bound family of Chinese descent.
Rachel discovers his family are real estate moguls and struggles to win their approval – particularly of his mother, played by Malaysia-born Michelle Yeoh, whose previous acting stints include roles in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “James Bond 007 – Tomorrow Never Dies”.
Other cast members include new faces include like New York rapper Awkwafina and British-Malaysian actor Henry Golding (Rachel’s beau in the movie), Gemma Chan, and Ken Jeong.
I was star-struck meeting Michelle Yeoh! All I wanted to do was chat with her, but we had to pose instead. Such an odd profession!
— Ming-Na Wen (@MingNa) August 8, 2018
So what’s all the hype about?
The film has been the subject of wide fascination and debate ever since Jon announced that production would begin in April 2017 in Singapore and Malaysia.
For the first time in 25 years, Hollywood is finally releasing a movie centred around an all-Asian cast with the last being the 1993 film Joy Luck Club directed by Wayne Wang.
Decades have gone by since the release of the critically-acclaimed Joy Luck Club, which chronicles the relationships of American-Chinese women and their mothers, and the drought has left many Asians in America eager to make another splash in Hollywood.
The release of Crazy Rich Asians also comes at a time when Hollywood is facing criticism for its whitewashing of Asian roles as it was accused of doing when Scarlett Johannsson was given the lead in Ghost in the Shell, which is based on a Japanese manga.
Conversely, the recent movie adaptation of Afrocentric comic hero “Black Panther” has been dubbed an insanely, unprecedentedly huge box office success after raking in US$235 million within the first four days of its release, earning its rank for having the biggest February opening ever.
With audience interest on diversity at its peak, Crazy Rich Asians could follow suit.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, Crazy Rich Asians is tipped to rake US$20 million within the first five days of its release in the US.
If the prediction rings true, the movie would be one of the highest grossing romantic comedies in recent times.
Owing to the fairytale plot, the film has mainly generated interest among younger females, those familiar with tracking early access to the movie said.
And although the cast and plot revolve around Asians, book author Kwan expects the movie to be enjoyed by diverse audiences.
“It’s been way too long since we had an all-star Asian cast in a Hollywood studio movie, but at the same time, this movie is for everyone,” Kwan told Reuters during the premiere.
“My books are read around the world in 20 languages, and in the US, 80 percent of my readers are Texan, Oklahoman, Kansas – like, white people – and they love my books. So it’s a movie that everyone can enjoy and appreciate,” he said.
The movie also began trending on Google within hours of the premiere, generating at least 200,000 direct searches in the US alone, while many parts of Asia also saw similar numbers.
A movie like Crazy Rich Asians fulfils a growing appetite among Americans of Chinese descent and ethnic-Chinese Asians living in western countries who have eagerly awaited more representation in Hollywood.
But even before its official release, critics have blasted the apparent ethnocentrism of the cast who are all of Chinese background, thus lacking diversity in the Southeast Asian context. Some pointed out the token roles of other races like the sizable Malay and Indian ethnic groups viewed as marginalised communities in Singapore.
“At face value, the movie is a stepping-stone for more representation of Asians in Hollywood, signifying a milestone for diversity,” Singaporean Indian activist and writer Sangeetha Thanapal, said in a recent Op-ed.
“Except that neither this movie, nor the novel it is based on, are even representative of Singapore.”
Sangeetha asserts the movie perpetuates the “state of racism and Islamophobia in Singapore.”
“The only Brown people in the movie are opening doors or in service of the elite Chinese in the movie,” she added.
“Minorities only exist in the periphery of the film.”
Why they gotta be Crazy Rich Asians for a western audiences to care? What about Working Class Asians? Queer Asians? Immigrant Asians? Poor Asians?
Crazy Rich is a euphemism for exploiter of the working class. I don’t see how that’s aspirational.
— Pyx. (@kilig2thebones) August 9, 2018
At the end of the day, #CrazyRichAsians is a milestone for East Asian Americans hoping to see more representation in a Hollywood studio-released major film. That's all. It just happens to be set in Singapore. It barely registers for Asians in Asia.
— Red Dot Oz (@RedDot_Oz) August 9, 2018
Brushing off the criticisms, however, Jon said it was not possible to represent all Asian communities in a single movie.
Instead, he insists that the Asians in the film were “layered” and “complicated” and not the token “computer guy” or “sex kitten”.
“All these things just help get people more information about who we are as a people and help differentiate that we’re not just one blob being Asian,” he said, as quoted by Reuters.