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The Moral Responsibility of Cinema: The Politics of Representation and Expectation

“Rach, we’ve been dating for about a year now, and I think it’s about time people met my beautiful girlfriend.

“What about us taking an adventure east?”

“Like…Queens?” Rachel Chu’s punchline opens the trailer for Crazy Rich Asians, anticipating the insularity and foreignness of the “Asian” in “Asian-American” that unfolds as we follow the couple to Nick Young’s hometown of Singapore.

When Jon Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians, based on the Kevin Kwan book of the same title, erupted onto the screens, it brought with it the full, bided force of 25 years of absent Asian-American representation in media. Since then, the movie has become emblematic of a resurgence in racial consciousness in cinema. It rides on the massive wave of publicity on Hollywood’s injustices and the increasing awareness of the industry’s social justice obligations that has emerged in recent years, including through movies Get Out! (2017), Black Panther (2018) and the scandals and solidarity of the #MeToo movement.

This year’s breakthrough into territory previously reserved for white cast members—the superhero movie, the frivolous rom-com—has been something of a triumph for representation. Some have even dubbed Crazy Rich Asians the “Asian Black Panther”. Prominent members of the Asian-American community even mobilized to buyout cinemas and distributed free tickets to support its opening weekend.

In this East-meets-West romantic comedy, female protagonist Rachel Chu gets swept up in the petty politics of her boyfriend’s obscenely rich Singaporean-Chinese family. In the foreground of the film is the predicament of the Asian-American experience—flitting between its implicit dislocation in a “white” America, as well as mutual incomprehension with its Asian roots.

It is curious, then, that such a movie—with its minimal direct relevance to the Asian-American experience—has been knighted as the unwieldy champion of Asian-American representation. The film attempts to demystify an enigmatic East Asia more than it attempts to expose the Asian-American experience.

In fact, the movie has received backlash from Singaporeans for its purported insensitivity in dealing with local culture. Among the criticisms are accusations that the lifestyle featured in the film is manifestly unrepresentative of the population, and that even the ethnic makeup of the cast ignored many realities on the ground. Singapore, much like America, was founded upon multiculturalism and ethnic heterogeneity; it has four official languages (English, Chinese, Malay, Tamil), and its racial policies follow the “CMIO” model, standing for Chinese-Malay-Indian-Others. In a country where 20% of the population is Malay and 10% Indian, it was purportedly alarming that the movie blatantly ignores them through the entire movie, only featuring the ethnic Chinese.

Some pundits, many Singaporeans themselves, push back against this accusation, arguing that Crazy Rich Asians never sought to be a Singaporean movie and should not be judged with that expectation.

These issues reveal a pressing question in this age of mass movements and social change: what is representation, and what should we expect from it?

 

The Contours of Representation

“Ideas have power; images have power. And how we choose to represent other groups of people—that certainly has power,” Yale history professor Mary Lui, who teaches a class on Asian-American history this fall, told The Politic in an interview. “These images wouldn’t matter if people didn’t consume them, if they didn’t take on some kind of authority. There comes a point where it almost seems like that is real; like that is the truth.”

Representation, at its heart, is the ceaseless striving for an authentic reflection of oneself in society’s shared imagination. It invades the dominant community’s monopoly on cultural production and carves out a place for one’s own.  It serves as both a rallying point for the dislocated and a force that liberates the marginalized from the stereotypes imposed by society.

At the same time, representation can renege on its very goal if handled loosely. Questions that arise from the issue of representation include: who are the constituents of this endeavor? What sort of sacrifices can media make to elevate the spotlight on its chosen community? And, finally, is all representation good representation?

 

The Role of Film

“They’re claiming this crazy title for themselves, and it cuts both ways. On the one hand, it gave them a lot of publicity, and the hype machinery is certainly on overdrive; but it also, then, means that they are going to be even more scrutinized than a movie that didn’t hype themselves as much.”

Professor Lui elaborated that Crazy Rich Asians in itself was not as watershed a moment as it presented itself to be. “In the moment of 2018, when the movie has come out, I don’t think you can say that there are no Asian-American voices. Film is one thing—but certainly in the world of television—YouTube, Netflix—we are in a whole new place that we’ve never been before.”

What, then, is so special about the recent inroads of representation in film?

“It’s important for Hollywood to put this on the big screen, because it sends a message across the world—cinema is still cinema,” Chu said during a Talks at Google event, explaining the decision to accept Warner Brothers’ offer over the substantially larger one offered by Netflix. “When you put a piece in the museum, it anoints it as special, as something worth your time and energy. You have to leave your house; fight for the parking; pay for your ticket; pay for your food; jump into a dark room; turn off the lights and say, ‘Tell me a great story.’ And I think that energy [this film creates] says, ‘We are worth your time.’”

Television series and streamable content, according to Chu, possess a certain intimacy which has its strengths, but falls short of film in generating momentum for a larger movement. The act of watching a movie in a room full of dozens of others, each dedicating the same portion of their time, intently focused on the same screen, elicits a community spirit.

With the heightened exposure that film gets, the material and ideas it packages get propelled into societal consciousness. Yet, at the same time, one could argue that Crazy Rich Asians barely scrapes the surface when it comes to issues on social justice or representation in media—but, perhaps, that was never its intention.

In an op-ed published in The New York Times on 21 August 2018, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen wrote about the contributions that Crazy Rich Asians has brought, despite its lack of substantive discourse on the issue of the Asian-American experience.

According to Nguyen, one of the barometers for representation is “narrative plenitude,” which he describes as the availability of a wealth of stories – some with race as their central themes, some without. He protests the criticism against Crazy Rich Asians for being shallow, pointing out that it is unreasonable to place such huge burdens of representation on a singular film; and that it is precisely the ability to make such films without getting attacked for failing the community that marks a milestone in representation itself.

The real test of narrative plenitude,” he writes, “is when we have the luxury of making mediocre movies.”

 

Politics of Representation

When Black Panther premiered earlier this year, critics and audiences lauded it for its defiant all-black cast, as well as its philosophical and nuanced discourse on issues of race and identity. Wakanda was fictional, but its conflict and discourse reached past its hidden borders, into the real world. Due to this fictionality, however, the movie had the mobility to espouse its themes in the abstract—it could innovate is depictions of violence, choice of protagonists, elucidations of varied philosophies, without fear that they would harm real communities.

Conversely, Crazy Rich Asians, grounded in a real place with real stakeholders, faced a much more difficult task of elucidating nuanced depictions and commentaries on reality.

Jon Chu, director of Crazy Rich Asians, had emphasized the painstaking care that his team took to ensure the preservation of cultural nuances, both of Asian culture more broadly, and of Singapore more specifically. Indeed, much of the film included many colloquialisms prevalent in Singaporean culture, and ensured that the East Asian philosophy and worldviews proliferated were not mere caricatures. Michelle Yeoh, who plays Nick’s mother Eleanor Young, reportedly refused to accept the role unless the scriptwriters had made her character more nuanced than the typical “tiger mom.” The Eleanor eventually seen on screen possesses both the blunt hostility of a protective parent, and the quiet dignity of a devoted wife and mother. The widely-praised mahjong scene between Rachel and Eleanor reflected both the thoughtful—and not merely tokenistic—presentation of East Asian culture in the film, as well as the vast discursive potential that borrowed mediums of expression like this can have in Hollywood films.

Yet, Crazy Rich Asians still fell short of some people’s expectations.

“It felt very much as if my country had been appropriated, just to play out whatever Asian-Americans desire in film,” Kirsten Han, a Singaporean freelance journalist and editor of NewNaratif, a Southeast Asian independent journalism site, told The Politic in a phone interview. Han took issue with the film’s flagrant disregard of accurate representation of Singapore’s ethnic make-up. “They had transplanted their racial politics to Singapore.”

In attempting to remediate the racial issues back in America, she claims, the producers had become complicit in that very same type of discrimination in Singapore. Acknowledging that the film was “not meant for her,” Han continued that it was still disappointing to see a movie publicized as a champion for representation fail to properly represent its constituents.

In a controversial scene, Rachel and best friend Goh Peik Lin get lost in a forest searching for the Young family mansion. The jovial, tongue-in-cheek tone of the film suddenly takes on a sinister vibe, and the camera angle shifts awkwardly to that of a typical cabin-in-the-woods type horror flick. Suddenly, two Sikh guards emerge from the edges of the screen, frightening the ladies and drawing laughter from the audience.

Dean Yee said of the scene, “I was definitely uncomfortable with the way they portrayed the Sikh guys. In the book, it did a great job of depicting who they were, how noble they were. It actually explained why they were chosen as the guards, because they were the best fighters; it gave more dignity to their roles, whereas in the movie they were portrayed as bumbling fools.”

Perhaps the biggest issue was that Crazy Rich Asians had not simply failed to include a representative sample of Singapore’s ethnic make-up, but that in the singular instance in which non-Chinese Singaporeans, it handled the representation in a very distasteful way.

“I think another concerning aspect of the movie’s portrayal of Singapore is that it portrayed Singapore as an outpost of China, a very Sinicized version of Singapore,” Singaporean student Ko Lyn Cheang GH ’21, said in an interview with The Politic.

“It all depends on what kind of values America wants to share. If it only cares about inclusion for people within their society, then they lived up to that promise, because there was definitely an inclusion of East Asian-Americans. But if they care about inclusivity in general, then that emphasis on inclusivity should also extend to those communities in the country they shot the movie in.”

 

Moral Obligations

Representation is a dialectic, a shared project: it is both the process and the goal, a two-way exchange between creatives and their audience. To be responsible consumers of media is not to be passive in consuming it—it is being charitable when we can and harsh when we have to be.

All products of culture demand interrogation and controversy. No piece is finished once published. But as we celebrate, denigrate, or plainly consume such media, let us not forget that the hefty responsibility as audience is not mutually exclusive with the plain, innocent joy of laughing at a frivolous comedy.