Rich Asians bring alive American screens

Source:Global Times Published: 2018/8/23 17:18:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

I thought a good movie is a good movie irrespective of when and where you watch it. But Crazy Rich Asians made me change my mind. It is a good movie only when watched in US theaters.

The Warner Bros. romantic comedy based on a best-selling novel by Singaporean-American writer Kevin Kwan, took moviegoers by storm immediately upon release in the US on August 15. Almost all screenings on the first few days in major theaters were sold out. I couldn't get a ticket until three days later at a fringe theater in Queens, New York. In the first five days, the $30 million budget movie harvested $34 million in box office receipts, and got a whopping 93 percent rating on the movie website Rotten Tomatoes.

The mainstream media wrote about it intensively. People who have seen the film rave about it and everyone seems to talk about it. Some people plan to watch it a second or third time. It would be difficult to be Asian in the US and not feel embarrassed if you haven't seen the film.

But I doubt the movie will achieve similar success in China, although it features the luxury life of a super rich Chinese immigrant family in Singapore. It may not set the cash registers ringing even in the city state where most of the movie is shot. 

The story is, at best, a light-hearted tale of an American-born Chinese Cinderella and her handsome and faithful prince from a prestigious family that is probably within the 0.01 percent bracket of population in Singapore, or maybe the world.

Such a plot has unfolded millions of times in movies and TV series in China where getting married into a wealthy family has almost become a motto for many young women, especially recently. The audience in China may have become tired of such tales. And in Singapore, some critics questioned how "Singaporean" the movie was even before being released as it focuses only on rich Chinese immigrants.  

But in the US, the significance of the movie is not because of its plot but for the atmosphere it helps create in the theaters, and hopefully, in the country. You find yourself cheering and awing together with many other Asians in an American theater over Chinese pop songs, the Cantonese and Mandarin conversations, the dumpling-making and Mahjong playing scenes and the lectures from a lady very much of Chinese Old Money to her American raised daughter-in-law. The message appears to be that "our Asian culture" trumps Western culture.    

There were films made in China screened at mainstream theaters in the US before that let Chinese audience tap their feet in unison. But those films, in the "foreign" category, attracted few non-Chinese audiences. The Hollywood birth certificate of Crazy Rich Asians makes a difference, and offers the Asian audiences the privilege of seeing their own culture get the upper hand in front of, not only their own people, but everyone else. The pride such an activity can bring one is substantial.

Such an opportunity is rare. This is the first Hollywood film with an all-Asian cast in 25 years since Joy Luck Club. It means that a whole generation of Asians has grown up in the US without being able to see a Hollywood movie featuring their culture and lives, portrayed with esteem, until now.

It is not easy to grow up in a place where your own culture is a sideshow. Jimmy O Yang, a Chinese-American comedian and supporting actor in the film, recalled on the Daily Show recently the conflicts he faced when he moved to the US with his parents from Hong Kong as a 13-year-old.

"One of the hardest things besides making friends at school was dealing with parents' expectations of growing up Asian," he told host Trevor Noah. "They value obedience; they value finding a 'real job.' But the American culture is completely opposite. We value independence; we value pursuing dreams. But my dad told me ever since I was young that pursuing your dreams is how you become homeless. So which one do I pick, and how do I go about doing this?"

In the show, he also shared with Noah the excitement of working with the Asian cast of the film. "We were all just so much on the same page. We all just loved the same kind of food. We all sang karaoke every night," he said.

To Yang and his generation of Asian Americans, this is a carnival they have been waiting for too long.

The only thing that puts me off a little bit in the jamboree is that everyone in the movie seems to be either a millionaire or billionaire. Even Cinderella's single mom has become "the top real estate agent in Queens" through a lot of hard work.

The ostentatious display of wealth seems to have played an irreplaceable role in the success of the movie. Asian culture conquers the world via money, and this may be sad but true about the state and values of the world.

The author is a New York-based journalist.

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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