The Film We Deserve

As credits began to roll amidst the jarring silence, the audience still dazed by the fading image of the black and white American flag, I felt two diverging sensations wash over me. I walked out of the theater as the music from the movie, BlacKkKlansman, faded out, feeling profoundly proud and decidedly disappointed at the same time: pride from watching black folks fight and triumph over the KKK and bigotry in America at large, and disappointment when I recalled my experience watching Crazy Rich Asians, the film’s tacky and shallow nature paling in comparison.  

Crazy Rich Asians (CRA) is USC graduate Jon M. Chu’s summer blockbuster that recently topped 164 million dollars in the box office worldwide. As I entered the theater on the movie’s opening night, I witnessed a striking phenomenon: Asians were everywhere! They stood in line to fill up their sodas, waited in the queue at the bathrooms, and chatted in Chinese in the lounge. For a brief moment, I thought I was back in Beijing; but despite this rallying of Asian Americans behind—finally—an all-Asian cast American film that discusses Asian and Asian-American identity, I was still disappointed. The film is definitely commendable in some respects: Henry Golding is strikingly handsome and a significant upgrade from the traditional portrayal of Asians in American media; Gemma Chan epitomized an independent woman in charge of the family, an apt play on traditional Chinese family values. Snippets of Chinese culture, as displayed in the short mahjong and dumpling making scenes, also resonated with me deeply. But all in all, the movie felt as if it only served to buttress the stereotypes with which I have been labeled all too often myself.

Among the qualities most commonly used to label East Asians, I’m willing to bet that “materialistic” ranks in the top three. In the movie, the fancy supercars, the bedazzling jewelry, the “only” 40 million dollar wedding are only seen as quotidian depictions of wealth. Furthermore, I feel as if all the characters fake being humble to one another, and instead display an attitude that screams, “Oh, we are so superficial and so rich we don’t even care to count how much we spend.” Another example is the sheer amount of academic elitism expressed by several characters. The female lead, Rachel Chu, is viewed as inferior because she is “only” associated with NYU. Pretty much everyone else attended, or dropped out of, Cambridge or Oxford after graduating from some fancy prep school (cough-cough). As if people didn’t already think that Asians were obsessed with SAT scores and college matriculation status…

Furthermore, Crazy Rich Asians is full of true-to-heart American values that overwhelm the shreds of Chinese culture thrown into the film every so often. In the end, core Western values were always able to triumph over traditionally Chinese ones, no matter how subtly. The glorification of Western free-market capitalism and the triumph of individualism over filial piety are only two of many examples. It almost seems as if the sincere bits of culture are only there to prove to viewers that the film is authentic and not whitewashed.

To be honest, if this was just another silly summer movie, I would have gladly enjoyed it. The plot was not too cheesy, the comedy was more or less spot on, and the twist at the end was very satisfying. Sadly, this is not the case. CRA is the only Asian-American film to gain such popularity since Amy Tan’s 1993 “Joy Luck Club,” and it feels like a wasted opportunity when compared to a film like the BlacKkKlansman, which was released only five days earlier.

Here I have to make an concession: viewers who are not East Asian may not have seen the same flaws in CRA that I have, so it is only fair to assume that I would not recognize some of the more subtle flaws in BlacKkKlansman due to my own racial identity. In my opinion, however, the true-story inspired drama strikes a perfect balance between humor and heavy-heartedness, and the ending left me with a powerful message about black racial identity that made my blood boil. I so desperately wanted to feel the same way about CRA, but I didn’t. As BlacKkKlansman fares only decently in the box office while CRA tops charts week after week, it’s clear which type of movie the general public is more willing to endorse. I’m afraid that in the future, we will less and less often have the opportunity to experience a film like the former.