Late summer 2018 was a huge breakthrough for Asian-Americans in film and I was there for it. Sort of. First, “Crazy Rich Asians,” became an instant hit and a cultural touchstone despite a late-August theatrical release, not usually a time for huge box office numbers. Almost concurrently, Netflix released “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” a charming teen romantic comedy in the John Hughes mold with an Asian American girl as its lead. And then Asian-American actor John Cho, one of the best performers of any ethnicity working today, starred in the innovative and superbly reviewed “Searching.”
That’s three better-than-average movies where Asian-Americans figured prominently in front of and/or behind the camera. I still haven’t been able to watch “Searching” but I did get to see the first two, both of which I started with great enthusiasm and then finished with decidedly mixed feelings. Though “Crazy Rich Asians” and “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” are drastically different kinds of films, they both ask discerning movie watchers to choose between celebrating breakthroughs in ethnic representation in film or criticizing their narrative shortcomings.
This amounts to a terrible choice, especially in the case of “Crazy Rich Asians,” which is a triumph in so many ways. It can’t be overestimated how meaningful it is to have a major Hollywood studio film with the first predominantly Asian cast and crew in twenty-five years. And the fact that the film was met with such popular and financial success makes its achievements all the sweeter.
But “Crazy Rich Asians” is hardly a well-honed example of filmmaking craft, even for a romantic comedy. At best, I would call it only nominally romantic and only mildly comedic. Mostly, it’s just regrettably shallow and tediously meandering which, to be fair, is about par for the course. For decades, the romantic comedy genre has been essentially defined as an exercise in lowering its audiences’ expectations.
Where “Crazy Rich Asians” is markedly worse than what we could have hoped for is in its treatment of class. Romantic comedies have a long-standing fascination with the courting rituals of the rich, it’s true (and granted, for this film, that’s advertised up front in the very name). This has been with us since even the golden age of screwball, when the combination of romance and comedy resulted in some of the most enduring cinema in Hollywood history. But classics of the genre like “Holiday” and “The Awful Truth” (two of my all time favorites of any genre, by the way) merely took their upper crust milieus as a way of contrasting the humanity of their protagonists against the lack thereof in their antagonists. Those movies often rejected wealth, or found their resolutions in spite of it. In “Crazy Rich Asians,” there is a disturbing unwillingness to choose between disdaining the trappings of extreme wealth and also embracing its vulgar excesses. The film is determined to have it both ways, repeatedly lampooning rich Singaporeans while also giving its characters no agency outside of their riches—every emotion, every expression, every plot point rests on the articulation of money. Even the class divide at the heart of the conflict isn’t between rich and poor but between the mega-rich and the upper-middle class. And, spoiler alert, in the end, no one winds up a cent poorer. It’s gross.
Worse, “Crazy Rich Asians” is egregiously evasive about race. Its setting in Singapore is strangely monocultural for a tiny city-state where a quarter of its population are ethnic minorities. And yet the world of “Crazy Rich Asians” is almost exclusively ethnic Chinese. Or, to put a finer point on it, light-skinned. There’s hardly a dark-skinned figure on the screen at any time.
You could say that this film is a moment for ethnic Chinese representation specifically, and not every breakthrough movie should be held responsible for carrying the full freight of underrepresented minorities. That would be a reasonable defense. And yet, I lived and worked in Singapore briefly, and what I recall was that any given day was full of chance encounters with ethnic Malay and Indian residents, to say nothing of the countless foreign nationals in the expatriate community. You really had to go out of your way not to see the wider spectrum of racial diversity in the country, and that’s what I found so galling about “Crazy Rich Asians.” They say there are no accidents in what makes it into a film, so we should be clear that it was no accident that “Crazy Rich Asians” went out of its way to exclude ethnic Malay Singaporeans, specifically, and other ethnicities, broadly. For a film that’s supposed to be representationally progressive, that’s disappointing to say the least.
A compromised racial outlook also undermines the otherwise perfectly entertaining “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” a suburban teen comedy with a thoroughly delightful Asian-American lead in actor Lana Condor. Unfortunately her charms are not enough to drown out the movie’s deafening silence on the mixed-race, Asian/Caucasian ficitional family at the heart of the film. The mother is Korean and the father white but Condor and the actors that play her two sisters look like they were born from entirely different ethnicities. The script compounds this problem by conspicuously failing to address the disparities altogether, ignoring race almost entirely. Aside from a single rudimentary mention of her Korean-American heritage early on, there’s not a single character trait in Condor’s role that is specific at all to her racial identity. Not one of the boys she has a romantic interest in is Asian, and in fact there are no substantive parts for Asian males altogether. Also, coincidentally, Condor’s mother is dead, handily dispensing with the need to actually represent her heritage more fully.
This approach struck me as disturbingly Orientialist, a hallmark of which is the tendency to group different Eastern ethnicities together as generically “Asian.” Maybe it’s really true that, to some American audiences—and maybe to some American film producers?—all Asians look the same. Or maybe the filmmakers were under the misapprehension that the best way to handle race is to pretend it doesn’t exist at all, deferring instead to a blandly pervasive notion of “American” identity. Either way, for me, the lack of nuance in respecting Asian identity was fatally distracting, like one of those restaurants where they serve sushi and General Tso’s chicken at the same buffet. Those places are fine and all, but if one comes to your town, don’t mistake it for progress.
Here is the full list of twelve films I watched in September.