Wow, Crazy Rich Asians affected me way more than I anticipated – I had a flood of complicated feelings and thoughts while watching the movie. I liked it a lot, which was somewhat unexpected. It seems to have gotten a mixed reaction among my friends, but I thought it was fantastic. Entertaining and moving. I’m not even sure I can articulate why I was moved, but I was.
One thing that really affected me more than expected was the experience of seeing so many Asians onscreen. I didn’t expect that. A lot of Asians talk about wanting more representation in media and I respect that but it’s never felt important to me. Jieun in particular really resonates with seeing Asian faces – I think for that reason she primarily watches Korean media now. Of the Western shows we watch together, one is Fresh Off The Boat and another is Kim’s Convenience. So yeah, it matters to her, but I did not think it mattered to me. Nor did I think I was missing anything even if it did matter. I watch a decent amount of Asian media – Korean / Japanese / Chinese TV and movies – so I see Asian faces in media all the time. But for some reason that has never struck me the way this movie did. Jieun thinks it’s different because they were speaking English – that’s probably it. My Korean is so bad I can’t feel any real affinity for a Korean show. But when it’s a bunch of Asians speaking English, I feel a deep sense of being represented in a way I didn’t even realize I was missing. It was a surprising feeling.
That feeling of being represented is somewhat ironic because to me, it didn’t feel like an Asian-American movie at all. The location being in Singapore was really appropriate – it felt like an English-speaking Asians movie. And I loved that. I’ve read some criticisms about how the movie glossed over the differences between Asians from different areas and there’s some merit to that, but to me, that it even acknowledged that there are different types of Asians, or the fact that there are many types of English-speaking Asians who have no connection to America whatsoever was refreshing.
But since virtually none of the characters are Asian-American, I’m still not sure what it is that I resonated with. I think part of it is, and again, I didn’t realize I was missing it until I saw it, but it was satisfying to see Asians in positions you don’t typically see in media. I’ve never been one of those people who were super bothered by the portrayal of Asians in Western media as either awkward nerds or martial artists. The nerd thing because honestly, I am an awkward nerd – I totally match that stereotype, so I’ve never felt underrepresented in media; all those nerd types felt fairly representative of me. The martial artist thing because I’ve been watching a bunch of old movies lately and I’ve realized that in the grand scheme of things, that stereotype actually represents progress.
But man, I realized I do need to see more varied representation, not because I’m a different type myself, but because it makes my own experience of being Asian fuller.
I’ve written about this before, but the first time I went to Korea, I was shocked that the gas station attendants were Korean. That seems stupid, I know. But in my day, the Koreans who emigrated to America were mostly of a certain type, and largely professionals. Dominated by engineers in the Bay Area, doctors in Houston. There were some others, of course, and I’m sure in places like L.A. where there are many more Koreans there’s more variety, but because of the dominant type around me, I subconsciously pigeonholed Koreans as only being a certain type of professional. It took actually going to Korea for me to grasp that every role that exists in America, from the President to street beggars, exist in Korea and are filled by Korean people. It was honestly mind-blowing. But it’s a reflection that if you only see a certain type in your group, you subconsciously come to think that that type is all your group is.
Breaking through typical stereotypes is refreshing not because I personally am different, but it makes my own sense of being Asian feel different. In particular, I found myself being surprisingly affected by the portrayal of Asians in power. You never see that in Western media. Asian males in particular tend to be subtly impotent and emasculated. Showing this world where Asians are in power, and in fact look down somewhat on white Westerners, surprisingly affected me. More the power thing, less the racism thing. This may sound crazy, but it made me feel different being an Asian.
I think this was a big reason why Linsanity resonated so much with Asian-America, why it was so meaningful to see what felt like one of our own succeed in sports. His success didn’t directly affect me at all, it didn’t change my own chances of making the NBA. But it did expand the notion of what an Asian-American could do, and that itself was enough to change my own feeling of being Asian-American. Seeing powerful Asians in the movie evoked those same types of feelings in me.
But this is also complicated because even while showing powerful Asians, the movie still emasculated Asian men in little ways. All the strong characters are female, and you know, good for them. But, and Scott wrote about this, the movie directly contrasts Rachel Chu with Michael Teo. Both are involved with the rich family, and Rachel is revealed to be a warrior, but Michael is a coward. Both Rachel and Nick’s fathers are non-existent in the movie. There’s a family matriarch, no patriarch. All the actual power moves are carried out by women. And you know, I’m all for female power. But the male characters almost all ended up being absent, jerks, weirdos, or eye-candy. Oliver was by far the most positive fleshed-out male character, and while I totally loved him (because his is an Asian type that totally exists but you never see in media), overall it was kind of an unsettling feeling. I suppose seeing Asian men sexualized could be considered progress, but it would have nice to have seen more.
I’m quibbling though. Like I said, I really liked the movie. I cried involuntarily at 3 parts – when Rachel’s mom shows up, during the mahjong game, and the proposal. Not sure why except, man, family brings out complicated emotions.
I still can’t figure out why I resonated with it though. Dave has argued in the past that Asians-Americans are so disparate that there’s no real concept of Asian-American. And this movie is not even that, it portrays Asian-Asians, and crazy rich ones at that, with whom I have even less affinity. The characters’ experience could not be any further from my own. And yet. Could it be that simply seeing an English-speaking Asian face is enough to trigger connection and identity? Is it that psychologically shallow? I think it might be.
The theater was packed for a 1:30 show on a Thursday. I was surprised.
Thanks, MoviePass! Still hanging on!