Students gathered in Powell Family Theater on a rainy Monday evening to listen to a panel discussing the film “Crazy Rich Asians.” The panel featured Charles W. Fries Professor of Film Studies Scott Higgins and Assistant Professor of East Asian Studies Yu-ting Huang, as well as students Aditi Mahesh ’21, Tara Nair ’21, Charles Qian ’19, Shivanuja Ramkumar ’22, and Miki Yang ’20.
The focus of the panel was to discuss whether “Crazy Rich Asians,” the first major Hollywood film to have an all Asian/Asian-American cast in 25 years, was a racial breakthrough or merely “face swapping” Asian faces onto a romantic comedy mold.
Based on Kevin Kwan’s 2013 novel, the film follows middle-class Asian-American Rachel Chu as she embarks on a trip to Singapore with her boyfriend, Nick Young. Rachel quickly learns that the Young family is extremely wealthy, and the film follows Rachel’s struggle to navigate this new social class, dodging interactions with jealous socialites and Nick’s disapproving mother, Eleanor.
The panel began with Higgins providing background on the film’s significance in the context of the film industry. He described the various categories that the film falls into, including food porn, spectacle of opulence/affluence porn, race-related romantic comedies, and genre films with representation being emphasized, as has been popular since 2015.
“I think it is closest to the ‘Pride and Prejudice’ genre,” Higgins said. “It is a film about romance crossing class lines, and ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is a go-to cash cow for Hollywood.”
Higgins noted the potential for the film to be indicative of a new genre of films with an all-Asian cast. Unlike the last all-Asian Hollywood film, “Joy Luck Club” (1993), “Crazy Rich Asians” has franchise potential due to the other two sequels that Kwan has written.
Higgins lastly noted that part of the success of “Crazy Rich Asians” could be attributed to the revolution that “Black Panther” (2018) caused in audience behavior.
“‘Black Panther’ brought with it a new marketing phenomenon, which is popular movie-going as social justice….” Higgins said. “It became a social statement to buy a ticket to ‘Black Panther,’ to make sure that it would do well, to teach Hollywood a lesson.”
After Higgins, Huang spoke to the significance of the film regarding recognizability. She also discussed the Jane Austen influence and questioned if the film was an actual breakthrough or if it was just “face-swapping.”
“In many ways the ‘crazy rich’ Asians of this film can be equated to the British royalty,” Huang said. “They are something we recognize, who have money, who have a secret club, who have old established privilege…in that sense it is like Jane Austen with the social class.”
To discuss racial recognition, Huang referenced the opening scene of the film in which Eleanor enters a hotel with her kids and is refused a room due to her race. Eleanor makes a phone call, returns, and informs the staff that her family now owns the hotel.
“[In that scene] they demand recognition with class,” Huang emphasized. “It was also a personal recognition. When they come back in, the aristocracy person who owned the hotel for generations comes down to greet them in person. Who gets to recognize? Who recognizes Eleanor? That matters.”
Lastly, Huang discussed the history behind the old money that was implied as the source of the Young family’s wealth.
“[The Youngs] are not those Chinese millionaires.” Huang explained. “They are old money from Singapore, called Strait-Chinese or Peranakan Chinese. They moved from China to Southeast Asia for exploiting and trading with imperial powers, and in the 19th century, it is the British empire that they traded with. That is why they have the British connections in the first place. They are recognized not just as moneyed people, but also from colonial times as those people who had power.”
After the faculty spoke, the students were each given five minutes to present their point of views on the movie.
Mahesh’s, Nair’s, and Ramkumar’s contributions focused on the way that Singapore was portrayed in the film. All having at one point lived in Singapore, they noted the lack of sensitivity to the racial diversity in Singapore and the film’s perpetuation of racism and oppression of minority racial groups. Nair said that the response to the film in Singapore tended to be correlated to the race of the Singaporean viewer. Chinese-identifying Singaporeans (the majority race in Singapore) tended enjoy the film greater than Malay, Tamil, or Eurasian Singaporeans (the minority races).
Yang shared a performing-arts perspective. She said that after leaving the movie, she felt very proud to be Asian. She thought that it was a stepping stone for something bigger.
“Film is a literary form and an artistic form….” Yang said. “We need to give more space in creativity in rendering a character. For example, a Chinese actor does not necessarily have to perform as a Chinese character. I think that fact that we are offended by this authenticity of culture is probably because we are constraining ourselves into a box where if we are Chinese, we have to perform as Chinese.”
Qian felt that it was a poor movie in general. He said that it reinforced the stereotype that a lot of Asians in America are wealthy and described the basic plot of the film as a combination of “The Great Gatsby” and “Gossip Girl.” He also noted that all the portrayals of new money in the film were gauche and tacky.
“It’s the little things in the movie that got me.” Qian said. “When the Amma came out, I was very surprised because she is actually a very famous Chinese actress who was from ‘The Joy Luck Club.’…She was about the only one who spoke okay Mandarin. When Constance Wu [the actress playing Rachel] spoke, it gave me goosebumps; it was broken with a decidedly foreign accent.”
He stated that these details made the film lose its authenticity.
Qian also asserted that the film had over-simplified and over-generalized the themes of filial piety and family values, essentially face-swapping in Asian-American and biracial Asian-Caucasian faces for what could have been white faces.
After the panel, there was a Q&A session in which audience members could volunteer their opinions of the film and ask questions to the panel members. The discussion turned to examining the Asian woman fetish, the discontinuities between the film and the book, and the stereotyping of Asians.
One audience member pointed out the pressure this one film was receiving to represent all of Asian culture.
“I don’t think any white people are watching ‘When Harry Met Sally’ and asking, ‘What does this say about white America?’” the student said. “It is just a film, but because it is the only one [Asians] have, we have to filter every piece of our society into this one film, versus treating it like just a fun two hours.”
While the panelists’ responses to the film were mixed, Nair summed it up best.
“Because it had so much impact for Asian Americans I don’t want to say it sucked,” she said. “If it had the impact to start this conversation, then you can’t hate on it that much.”
Catherine Cheng can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.