Where Crazy Rich Asians fails, To All the Boys succeeds
This summer was a blockbuster milestone for the East and Southeast Asian diasporic community. In the span of just three days, two major films came out starring East and Southeast Asian-American leads.
So they both must have been great, right? Well, not exactly. Here’s why I skipped one, but watched the other three times in a row.
Passed: Crazy Rich Asians
There seem to be two reactions in the Asian community to this movie: those who love it and those who don’t. Those who love it mark Crazy Rich Asians as a milestone in the film industry. It has been 25 years since The Joy Luck Club, the last film with an all East Asian-American cast, was made. This means that a whole generation went without seeing their stories on the big screen. In fact, I didn’t even hear about the Joy Luck Club until my first-year English lit class where I was inevitably deemed the expert on it.
But, despite the welcomed return of Asian movies to the big screen, here are five reasons why I am not a fan of the film everyone else is praising:
1) In the movie, Awkwafina performs and behaves in African American Vernacular English (AAVE). By acting as the sassy best friend, the movie portrays Black culture as a caricature of East and Southeast Asian culture. However, as people of colour, we should not be endorsing problematic representations such as these.
2) Henry Golding, the male lead in the movie, is biracial (of British and Malaysian descent from the Iban Indigenous tribe). The issue with this situation is that there is a history of colourism in Hollywood where mixed faces are prioritized over full East and Southeast Asian ones. From Vanessa Hudgens of High School Musical to Shay Mitchell of Pretty Little Liars, biracial actors and actresses have continuously been favoured for major roles over other candidates who are solely of East or Southeast Asian descent.
3) The film is set in Singapore, which is home to a minority Malay and Indian populations (along with many others), but Crazy Rich Asians revolves around the dominant population of Chinese Singaporeans and doesn’t represent any of the experiences of minorities. Chinese Singaporeans are privileged in Singapore, so by showing them as lead actors, the movie doesn’t really challenge or accurately depict Singaporean society.
4) There are also some confusing things about the intention behind this movie. Was it made to represent the Western diasporic community or the Singaporean one? The story follows East Asian-American Rachel Chu who enters her fiancé’s lush lifestyle in Singapore, but most of the main actors that are cast to play locals are also East and Southeast Asian-American. Likewise, for a movie set in Singapore, there is a lack of Singlish, the spoken creole language.
5) In the East and Southeast Asian-American community, there is a lot of pressure on us to watch and attend the film to increase ticket box numbers and show Hollywood that our representation in film matters to us. For instance, Wong Fu Productions, one of the original East Asian-American channels on YouTube, has been pressuring its followers to buy tickets, which doesn’t feel right to me for a few reasons. This approach not only seems demanding, it also comes across as insincere since the male-dominated company that has done very minimal amounts of (very vanilla) East Asian-American activism in the past. This attitude thereby puts the onus on consumer activism to be responsible for change.
I admit, a lot of people who see this criticism might say we can’t have it all and that this is just one step in the right direction—the burden shouldn’t be placed on just one movie. But I say do better. Why go halfway and dip your toes into the water if you’re going to do it at all?
Praised: To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before
Even though To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before did not have half as much publicity as Crazy Rich Asians, it stole my heart. So, here’s where I think To All the Boys succeeded where the other failed.
1) The movie does a lot when it comes to representation. The cast and storyline of the movie give voice to the Korean, Vietnamese and Chinese communities as well as its adoptees, mixed families and its relationships.
2) Lana Condor, who plays Lara Jean Covey in the film, is the first representation of the East and Southeast Asian-American community to play the lead of a teen rom-com and her character is incredible. She is a normal girl living a normal life (so normal she nearly got whitewashed) with an Asian face.
3) The film also broaches the subject of slut shaming and the role that social media plays to spread it. In the movie, Lara Jean Covey has an intimate moment with her boyfriend alone in a hot tub that is filmed and posted to Instagram. However, the movie suggests that Condor’s boyfriend knew of the video that instigates the accusations but does nothing to stop it initially. So, the film offers an accurate glimpse of the fallout that can happen when slut shaming is allowed to take place.
4) The film brings up the subject of race on occasion, including a brief mention of the racist portrayal of Long Duk Dong’s character in Sixteen Candles to show how far the film industry has come. However, the big racial challenge that came as a surprise to me was with the strikingly one-dimensional portrayals of the character of Chris, Lara Jean’s best friend, and Gen, the arch-rival. Unlike in most movies where the East Asian-American girl plays the sidekick to the main character without any character development, this movie delegates those roles to the non-Asian characters—Chris is the quirky friend who likes EDM concerts and Gen plays a typical queen bee and former friend.
Nonetheless, there’s still room for improvement when it comes to dealing with race. In the film, there is a cameo of Yakult, a popular korean drink, that gets subtle nod of approval when Lara Jean’s boyfriend tries it for the first time and shows his satisfaction. This type of gesture poses a problem, though, because exchanges like this one portray a desire for acceptance from an imagined authority in white power structures.
Plus, like in many other rom-coms, there are a lot of stereotypical gender roles. Of the many, some notable ones to point out are the snide remarks from the girls in school hallways and portrayals of the male character as being strong and confident while girls are shy and quiet.
That being said, I fell in love with the movie because I’m a hopeless romantic and the storyline was reminiscent of age-old school days gone by. However, I don’t see my love of the movie as a reason to overshadow its problems—let’s push for more. Let’s not only showcase heteronormative relationships and let’s not only show white queer relationships. Let’s ask more of our film industry.