ENTERTAINMENT RE-ORIENTED: ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ to pave the way for future Asian American films

It’s hard to deny that 2018 is a landmark year for Asian American representation in media. “Crazy Rich Asians,” the Asian American-directed, all-Asian cast-having feature film is the highest-grossing rom-com in a decade, proving the profitability of Asian faces on the big screen and essentially guaranteeing there will be more of them. Many Asian Americans were aware of the stakes from the get-go and, much like Marvel’s “Black Panther,” treated going to the movies as a political act. And while it undeniably is a political act, in our current political climate, it somehow feels simultaneously more and less meaningful than ever. My brother, for instance, bought a ticket, but “didn’t really feel the need to actually go watch it.” And I understand the ambivalence. “Crazy Rich Asians” is a good, fun time at the movies. And (sadly?) there is still a thrill in seeing a stellar Asian American cast having a blast on the silver screen in a packed theater, particularly in moments that resonate as culturally true and specific. And yet, while the politics of going to the movie are clear enough, the politics of the movie itself are a bit harder to parse.

To me, the most interesting and novel thing about what, at its core, is pretty typical contemporary Cinderella cinema, is the way it brings race and culture into the dynamic. There are a couple of fleeting scenes (including the film’s opening) that explore money’s potential to challenge other social hierarchies, to as an Asian person or a woman, use money to avoid being trampled on.

There is also an assumption that the working class Asian American immigrant main character, played by Constance Wu, voices early in the film. She assumes that she and her boyfriend, who she is soon to realize is a titular “crazy rich Asian” and his family have more in common than not with her and her family, because “they’re Chinese, we’re Chinese.” And while the rest of the film is ostensibly about exploring what is and isn’t true about that statement, it doesn’t find much interesting to say with it. Instead it falls back on the toothless class critique that nearly all not-rich-girl-falls-for-rich-boy stories make: That the wealthy are shallow and vain and, most-damningly not sufficiently meritocratic. The fact that they live lives of opulence and comfort by hoarding resources and/or exploiting others who live in desperation and squalor is never really brought up. What such films ask of elites is merely to see the merit in those with less money, not to actually give up anything material.

(There’s also a potentially interesting critique of the American fetishization of individual passion that comes from Michelle Yeoh’s character, but that never really gets fleshed out).

As Mark Tseng-Putterman highlights a particularly revealing line in his excellent piece on the film in The Atlantic, a character explains that the “crazy rich Asians” settled in Singapore when the country was nothing but “jungle and pig farmers.” Though the line is tossed off casually and never further explored, it’s key. Tseng-Putterman writes, “its colonial mentality betrays the film’s inability to imagine Asian and Asian American grandeur beyond simply swapping Chinese for whites at the top of the racial hierarchy” — and it’s hard to argue with that.

In the end, though, it’s a fun Hollywood romp, not an Asian American studies lecture, so these characteristics of it may be features more than bugs. (I’d argue though, that “Black Panther,” which is frequently brought up as “Crazy Rich Asians’” analogue, mostly goes as far as mainstream Hollywood cinema can go toward being subversive.)

So, should you see “Crazy Rich Asians?” Chances are you already have. And the political reasons for seeing it aren’t as valid anymore. But on its own merits it’s still a perfectly fun serving of (as Emily Yoshida aptly labeled it) “affluence porn.” So … Yes?

What I can say a little more emphatically is there are definitely other Asian and Asian American works you should check out. I saw depressing few AsAm movies this year, (parenting and my work schedule sadly kept me away from CAAMFest, a minor tragedy I’m taking steps to prevent next year).

First and foremost, “Sorry to Bother You,” a surrealist-but-serious comedy that proves that “polemic” doesn’t have to be a dig when describing a work of art. The film features Steven Yeun in its main cast in a great role, and it is both politically-on-point and fun as hell.

Hiro Murai continues to kill as the director for almost every episode of the best show on TV, “Atlanta,” and is finally starting to get some recognition for it if his recent Vanity Fair profile is any indication. I’d highly recommend though, going beyond his great TV work and checking out his music videos. “This is America,” of course, achieved well-deserved viral status, but he has done other exceptional videos with Donald Glover (including a short film “Clapping for the Wrong Reasons”), as well as for artists like Flying Lotus and Shabazz Palaces. (Keep an eye out for his Glover and Rihanna-starring feature “Guava Island” next year!)

Sight unseen, I still feel perfectly comfortable urging you to see H.P. Mendoza’s “Bittermelon.” (He’s that good, folks).
Netflix’s “Neo Yokio” has largely been critically panned, but the Jaden Smith-starring, Vampire Weekend front-man Ezra Koenig-showrun Production I.G. (“Ghost in the Shell”) American (?) anime (?) pastiche is actually very good and works far better as a class satire than “Crazy Rich Asians.”

Speaking of pastiches, anime, and Netflix, the Cary Joji Fukunaga-directed “Maniac” is not exactly perfect, but has frequent and sustained enough bursts of brilliance to wholeheartedly recommend. The scifi-ish series features some amazing world-building and genuinely breathtaking sequences. From an Asian American perspective, it’s interesting, too. It initially seems to lean too heavily on the trope of Asian company as shorthand for evil company and its ubiquity as shorthand for dystopia, (part of its basic nature as a pastiche). But Fukunaga does enough to complicate the dynamics to make it interesting. And Sonoya Mizuno and Fukunaga do a lot with a comparatively thin character — she manages to be a thoroughly compelling presence often looking more like an Hirohiko Araki-drawing-come-to-life than anything in the live action adaption of the manga-ka’s most famous work, “JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure.” She does great “JoJo Dachi” stances (look it up). Fukunaga seems to be on a continuous climb in Hollywood, tapped for the next installment of “James Bond.” Still, critic Sean T. Collins has pointed out that Fukunaga was really born to be a horror auteur, a destiny that a Bond film brings him no closer to fulfilling.

Looking ahead to next year, there is one work I’m looking forward to more than any other. “The Terror,” which got great reviews from critics who I trust in its first season, is taking a really bold turn in its second season. It’s telling an entirely new horror story set in a World War II Japanese American concentration camp. Executive Producer Alexander Woo said, “I’m deeply honored to be telling a story set in this extraordinary period,” Woo said. “We hope to convey the abject terror of the historical experience in a way that feels modern and relevant to the present moment. And the prospect of doing so with a majority Asian and Asian American cast is both thrilling and humbling.”

I couldn’t really ask for anything more up-my-alley than that. 2019 is bound to bring us some great Asian American art, but whether it’s a success, failure or fiasco, I can’t help but think “The Terror” is going to bring the exact kind of cultural specificity that “Crazy Rich Asians” lacked to a mass audience.

Ben Hamamoto is a writer born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. He edits Nikkei Heritage, the National Japanese American Historical Society’s official magazine, and blogs about pop culture at nichibei.org. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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