Home » Cinema » Crazy Rich Asians is no racial triumph. It’s a soulless salute to the 1%

Crazy Rich Asians is no racial triumph. It’s a soulless salute to the 1%

With its plummy accents, couture gowns and clumsy merging of cultures, this tale of empowerment is just Sex and the City in Singapore

Crazy Rich Asians opens with Napoleon Bonaparte and Louis Vuitton. Let China sleep, the film quotes the great Frenchman saying, for when she awakens she will shake the world. An opulent London hotel refuses to honour Singaporean matriarch Eleanor Youngs reservation, as her children slump across their LV suitcases, suggesting perhaps she might be happier somewhere in Chinatown. An enraged Young, played by Michelle Yeoh, makes one phone call to her husband, who buys the hotel an act that has been hailed as Asian empowerment. We never see nor hear from Youngs husband, whose sole function seems to be the revenge purchasing of hotels, again. But many more vignettes of ostentatious acquisition and wealth follow. Even the pet dogs are called Astor and Rockefeller.

In a recent op-ed, Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, noted that he really enjoyed Crazy Rich Asians because it reminded me of an important point: Rich Asia has gotten really rich. Friedman declared after a trip to India that the world was becoming flat, or in other words, as rich as his own plutocratic circles which includes Mohammed bin Salman, crown prince of Saudi Arabia, who is reported to have recently dropped $450m on a Da Vinci. Perhaps Friedmans flat-world delusion helps understand how Crazy Rich Asians can be seen as a film about Asian empowerment. For the film, which has crossed the $100m mark, and has enjoyed the highest opening for a romantic comedy in three years, and is indeed funny and charming in parts, is best described as a celebration of transnational plutocracy.

Some Asian Americans, for so long either invisible or caricatured by Hollywood, have welcomed Crazy Rich Asians for its representation of a minority. Though it is the monoculture of capitalism, not Asia, that is on display. In fact, Asia is used in Crazy Rich Asians in the same manner that many westerners employ Africa, lumping together 48 countries with distinct cultures, languages, and histories. The films map of the continent names only four countries: Singapore, India, China, and Thailand. As for south Asians, who make up a substantial part of Singapores population, I counted only four: one Sikh man at a hawker centre, the rest employed as guards.

Poor the few south Asian faces in the film appear as guards. Photograph: Sanja Bucko/Warner Bros/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock

Asianness is mere window dressing, satisfied by cliched heaps of familial guilt, food shots, and gossipy society ladies. But the films codes, signs and symbols actually belong to capitalism and its new elite. There are the plummy British boarding school accents, couture gowns, first-class cabins and hot bods. Bollywood, the largest film industry in the world, embraced this nouveau-riche aesthetic a good 10 years ago, replacing the downtrodden hero who grows up sleeping on footpaths with urban banker-dreamboats who drive Ferraris in London and yank off their shirts to reveal glistening six packs.

Interestingly, Crazy Rich Asians has no main white speaking parts. The only white characters to be are given dialogue the hotel staff at the very start of the film expose themselves as racists. This might appear to give the film a political edge an interpretation encouraged by the films makers and promoters. Its not a movie, its a movement, director Jon M Chu has said. But unbridled wealth cant be a leader for any worthwhile mass movement. Its excesses, in cinema at least, lend themselves best to the sort of scathing treatment given by The Godfather II, the greatest ever meditation on American capitalism, and American Psycho, by far the sharpest film about the crazy rich.

Crazy Rich Asians isnt the first film of its type to be released by a major Hollywood studio. Remember that Sex and the City 2, in which Carrie and the girls romped through Abu Dhabi in designer heels and, inexplicably, turbans, was released in 2010 a mere two years after the financial crash. How do we tip in Abu Dhabi? Charlotte asks as they arrive at their palatial hotel. Have ya got any loose rubies? Carrie replies. It is clearer today that to be crazy rich at a time of catastrophic inequality is not a victimless crime.

Have ya got any loose rubies? Sex and the City 2. Photograph: c.Warner Br/Everett / Rex Featur

The worlds richest 1% have seized twice as much growth as the bottom 50%, according to 2018s World Inequality Report authored by Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez and others. Until this year, India had the worlds largest population of poor people, and 40% of Chinas population survives on just over $5 a day (Crazy Rich Asians isnt being released in either country even though China is the second-largest box office market in the world).

Singapore itself struggles with inequality and political disaffection. What are the crazy rich Asians doing about the downtrodden and left-behind in their midst? Nothing, it would seem. Microfinance receives a cameo mention in Crazy Rich Asians, albeit via a Thai princess who for some unexplained reason is writing papers on the subject; Myanmar is referenced only in relation to its rubies; and Rachel Chu, the non-rich love interest (played by Constance Wu), is a professor of economics at NYU, but these are the sole references to the existence of the 99%.

Free markets were promised as the rising tide that would lift all boats, but revolts against globalisation reveal that only the superyachts of the global rich have been lifted while a vast majority struggles to stay afloat in leaking rafts. Hollywood has played an crucial role in defanging crazy rich westerners: billionaire Bruce Wayne is a civil saviour, Daddy Warbucks saves sad orphans, Christian Grey is an irresistible charmer. Hollywood turned show me the money into a feelgood mantra and how cute were those shopaholics in Clueless?

To be extra safe in its sanitising of the ultra-wealthy, Hollywood now lets members of minorities play them in box-office-busting films. A genuine breakthrough, however, will only come when Hollywood makes the Asian version of that great film on the modern capitalism: Asian Psycho.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/sep/12/crazy-rich-asians-racial-triumph

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