Crazy Rich Asians: the startling revelation of homogeneity in diversity and multiculturalism

In the days leading up to the release of Crazy Rich Asians, I was fascinated by how the reviews were framing the film. There was plenty that remarked on how historically monumental it was, given its contemporary setting and all-Asian cast. Indeed it was. And yet, there were some that mused on the fantastical aspects of the film (ie. the opulent wealth), as if it’s odd to see Asians surrounded by so much money they could afford to buy jewellery worn by royalty, or on a whim, take a private jet to a private island. Would it be fantastical if those characters were white? I think not.

Closer to home, it’s with a bit more critical lens; chief of which is its lack of diversity and how it doesn’t really represent the “real”, everyday Singapore. Given the film’s title and its subject matter, what is considered authentic here though? The food courts and HDB flats (the equivalent of council flats for those of us who are more British-inclined) or the high-flying lifestyles of the private school, overseas educated trust fund heirs to conglomerates? We chide at the film’s embrace of abundant post-colonialism: the British accents, the ties to England — yet, isn’t it a reflection of Southeast Asia’s colonial history? In the East-meets-West culture we promote, our command of English, and the colonial buildings we fight to preserve as part of our heritage. And yet, when Henry Golding (the Sarawak-born, mixed race lead actor) was cast, many question his identity, critical of his “Asian-ness”, or for some, it’s yet another “Eurasian” face on the screen; but none, however, seemed to want to acknowledge his indigenous identity, one the actor seemed to be proud to proclaim.

When faced with seeming homogeneity in our so-called proclamation of diversity and multiculturalism, we seemed to be very uncomfortable with this representation; preferring instead to impose what we deemed to be ‘authentic’ in a film featuring an all-Asian cast, except it’s a cast that’s unlike that of Joy Luck Club, released 25 years ago to cinema-viewers. I remember Joy Luck Club — it was quintessentially “Asian”: dire; serious; as if to be Asian, one needs to let go of all joys in life and just be miserable. And suddenly, faced with the opulence and the flashiness that the Asian 1% lives (fast cars, loud parties) in Crazy Rich Asians, the dire seriousness of being Asian is under threat.

On a personal note, I loved the film. Not because it finally represented me per se, but it’s finally an Asia that’s truly familiar, if not reminiscent of people and scenarios I’ve encountered or heard about. While living in the UK, (East) Asian culture was pretty much Chinese, with Hong Kong being the closest and most familiar. Since moving back to Borneo, the assumption has pretty much been that I must partake in the pan-Asian (or perhaps I should say global now) fascination with anything K-related (pop, drama, fashion, etc.). But Constance Wu’s character of Rachel Chu, described as being a “banana” was somewhat more familiar (case in point of a lost-in-translation conversation surrounding some of the actors in the film who were popular in Singaporean sitcoms, of whom I have no knowledge of — so again, it’s that assumption of so-called collective knowledge; as if by being ‘Asian’, or by moving back to Asia, I must be immediately attuned to whoever was/is popular).

Wu’s character is reminiscent of how easily people are judged within their own ethnicities. She looked Chinese, but she’s not Chinese “enough”. She’s educated (an NYU economics professor in gamification theory) but it’s the ‘wrong’ education because it’s American, not British. It’s interesting. It’s also very much familiar to a Southeast Asia that’s still negotiating its complicated post-colonial past. And for the uber rich depicted in the film, the old world (boarding schools, Oxbridge, British accents) still holds the ultimate social status even if a Chinese matriarch holds the family together. The British have left, but the English sensibilities haven’t.

I can only speak for myself, and others with whom I’ve had this conversation with after watching the film. Crazy Rich Asians speaks about a particular class of Asians in a national context that is often extremely uncomfortable about class, where the national propaganda speaks of multiculturalism and diversity but in a superficial manner that reflects their homogeneity more. And I’m not merely talking about Singapore, even if recent studies have shown that it is becoming more segregated by class, with people who go to private schools being less likely to mix across the class divide. In Malaysia itself, the race card trumps political discourse for as long as the country has claimed independence, and the narrative of the formation of Malaysia is itself rooted in divisions of ethnicity and class. Elsewhere, I’ve reflected on the casual discriminatory remark thrown around without anyone batting an eyelid; where even among different Chinese ‘ethnicities’ (e.g. Hokkien, Hakka, Cantonese), division reign.

My point being, when I watch a Southeast Asian film made supposedly for me, a fellow Southeast Asian, I feel even more isolated and excluded. Malaysian films are essentially that: Malay; whereby diversity is represented through food and language. So when I watch a Malaysian film that is supposed to be quintessentially ‘Malaysian’, it isn’t about or for me, it actually makes me feel less affinity to this place that has embraced its Malaysian-ness, whereas for some, if not many, home is Sarawak, with a radically different historical trajectory. And Like Joy Luck Club and countless other Asian films that have made it big in the West, these films are always grim, serious drama. If it was a comedy, it referred very specifically to in-jokes, languages in, and cultures of Malaya.

This lack of in-betweenness was revealing, as if telling those of us not specifically Malay or Chinese educated that we don’t belong because we’re never authentic enough. Much as Henry Golding was always criticised for not being “Asian enough”; as if others deemed more authentic — and yes, more homogenous — have attained the rights to decide who we are. The fact of the matter is, Crazy Rich Asians was generic in its storyline. Strip away the Asian cast, it can be about anyone. It just so happens that the film is set in Singapore, with an all-Asian cast. It normalises the Asian-ness, and honestly, do you really believe the real crazy rich Asians aren’t mingling within their own kind? But this normalisation, as skewed as it may be for some, is what matters to me: I don’t need to be exoticised further than the Malaysian or the Sarawak government has already exoticised the place I come from. Asians aren’t grim and serious all the time. And for me, that’s why this was more relatable: it’s easy on the eyes, it’s fun, it’s engaging, it has gorgeous sets and colours, and riveting music.

Yes, it’s about a privileged class of Asians. Don’t pretend they don’t exist beyond the minuscule 1%. Many of us had a Western education because we were ‘privileged’ enough to attend the right schools, to be at the right place, to find our own identity — pathways forged by parents who worked hard, who still have a complicated relationship with postcolonialism. Many still have close ties to England, be it through family, or that postgraduate education in Oxford/Cambridge.

It was also interesting, from a media studies perspective, that many commentators failed to explore the mechanics of the Hollywood film industry, an industry where numerous studies have shown is scant on minority representation. Someone like Golding — a complete newcomer with no professional acting credentials to his name (hosting doesn’t really count) — would not have been cast as a lead in a mainstream Hollywood film. Many dismissed his Eurasian looks as another form of whitewashing, but none wanted to acknowledge his indigenous identity. It harks back to how easily we assign labels on people based on what we want to see, rather than what we hear. But in a Southeast Asia that is so easily defensive about race, ethnicity, language, accents, gender, sex, many can barely look beyond the British accent.

For me, Crazy Rich Asians broke another milestone which were swallowed by the criticisms on diversity. Jon Chu’s direction lingered on the male bodies numerous times throughout the film. In one specific scene used in the film’s promotional materials, Rachel is seen openly admiring Nick’s body. It’s clear their relationship was also sexual in nature, breaking this Victorian notion of shame surrounding sex, and the enjoyment of sex, within the Asian context. On the big screen, the pairing of Rachel and Nick is enabling the world (the film retained its top spot at the box office for the third week at the time of writing) to see an unmarried Asian couple enjoying themselves; it is allowing the audience’s gaze to linger on the (Southeast) Asian male body.

That’s also important to acknowledge. As much as the criticisms on the lack of diversity represented are important criticisms to recognise, it is also equally important to remember that diversity and multiculturalism, as much as it exists in tourism promotional materials, people remain segregated within their communities on a macro level in reality. On a micro level, the discrimination and segregation occurs subconsciously on a daily basis. In fact, it says more about inequality than it probably means to. These are important conversations to have, let’s not get defensive about it either.

Do You Hear The People Cry? Les Miserables and the affective audience

isabelle_allen_in_les_miserables-wide

This week sees the DVD release of the film version of Les Miserables, as well as the release of the Deluxe Edition of the movie soundtrack, following the disappointing highlights CD released earlier in the year. There are many ways to approach discussing the film; from its status as an adaptation to the curious way in which its actress Anne Hathaway (who plays Fantine) moved, over the course of the 2012-2013 Awards season from being a respected actress to a subject of derision and irritation, not to mention broader debates over the status of musicals in the cinema. Here, though, I want to reflect more personally on the film and consider its affective impact on audiences in general, and on myself more specifically.

The propensity of both the theatre version and, now, the film version of Les Miserables for inducing tears in its audiences has been widely noted. In a story on the BBC News website psychologist Averil Leimon argues that the expectation of being moved to tears is part of this experience, noting “Les Miserables is known for causing people immense emotional response. So people go expecting to be moved and are prepared to let themselves go.” The question of whether the movie was the ‘film world’s biggest ever weepie?’ was posted by The Guardian whilst the BBC, again, sought to discover which moments caused the greatest amount of crying. Why this seeming obsession with audiences and their emotional or affective reactions? Why is this response to the film seen as so interesting or, in some cases, peculiar? Audiences are moved by a range of films, often for quite complex or personal reasons. Examples such as the death of Bambi’s mother, the opening sequence of Pixar’s recent animated Up, the end of Titanic, the resolution of The Notebook, The Green Mile, and E.T. are all widely accepted as films that include emotional scenes or resolutions that may pull at the heart strings. Personally, I find the ending of Terminator 2, when Arnold Schwarzannegar’s Terminator sacrifices himself in a pool of molten lead, brings me to tears; there is apparently no accounting for some of the things that move certain audiences or individuals.

Given this, and the fact that even a brief survey would surely unveil odder anomalies than an Austrian cyborg giving a thumbs-up in terms of films that move or affect, the focus on Les Miserables does seem a little odd. Is this a result of a discomfort with public displays of emotion? Should we still be expected to maintain a stiff upper lip, no matter how moved we might be by a film or a play? Does this stem from an ongoing cultural assumption that such emotive displays are somehow feminised, a little too ‘girlie’ for us to take seriously? Or, is there some cynicism about media texts that might be seen to be ‘programming’ us to cry at certain points (the BBC’s film of people crying at the film might seem to attest to this), a sense that audiences are being emotionally manipulated by film-makers to weep on cue? Without some empirical audience research, perhaps we cannot yet offer answers to these questions.

For me, however, my emotional responses to the film are complex. Whilst the story is undoubtedly full of tragedy, death and grief, and the performers offer often heartbreaking renditions of songs such as Anne Hathaway’s lauded ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ , Eddie Tremayne’s ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’, or Hugh Jackman’s ‘Bring Him Home’ , for me, this isn’t the full story. My own love of Les Miserables is long-standing, spanning over twenty years of adoration for the music version. This is not a unique story; the musical has many dedicated fans who, too, have seen both the stage and screen versions multiple times. There are also others whose lives and memories are surely interwoven with the songs and experiences of seeing different stage versions and performers and who, like me, have shared those experiences with family and friends. This disclosure is not to claim any special rights or insight into what it means to watch, and be moved by, Les Miserables. Rather, it is an attempt to suggest that, whilst questions about affective audience responses to texts should be asked, the only way to really uncover answers is to ask the people themselves. Rather than assuming reasons for why Les Miserables might be one of the world’s greatest weepies, we should consider the histories and attachments, the lived associations, of audiences and the story. Audience emotions should be taken seriously, and a film like Les Mis offers us the chance, as audience researchers, to do so. Only when we talk to audiences, when we figuratively allow them to sing (as the musical would have it), can we start to truly understand why they might continue to be moved to tears.

les_miserables_poster_russell_crowe

The Veronica Mars Movie: crowdfunding – or fan-funding – at its best?

While the world’s media agencies have been tuned to the Vatican for news on the papal conclave, my social media feeds – Twitter, especially – have been filled with news of the Veronica Mars Movie project on Kickstarter.


Less than half a day after the project was announced, funding for the film has reached more than $1.5 million (with 30 more days to go to reach their initial $2 million funding goal). Judging from Rob Thomas’s (Veronica Mars’s creator) and Kristen Bell’s (Veronica Mars herself) tweets, they were surprised by fans’ reaction and enormous support for the project. That a cult show that averaged about 2.5 million viewers, which was cancelled in 2007, could still amass such speedy response to a call for action to make a film. Talk about the power of crowdfunding, or more specifically in this case, fan-funding.

I’ve been reading a lot of op-eds, and listening to a lot of Twitter conversations, on the case for and against this particular project. One school of thought seems to question why Thomas and Bell do not just fund the project themselves, as the belief appears to be that since they’re “Hollywood types”, forking out $2 million shouldn’t be too difficult. While I don’t claim to know the inside workings of the Hollywood film and television industry, that may be too simplified a view. Warner Bros owns the rights to the show, and it is only with their approval, as Thomas writes in the Kickstarter rationale, that he and Bell launches the campaign on Kickstarter. Furthermore, Entertainment Weekly reports that Warner Bros Digital Distribution has agreed to foot marketing, promotional and distribution costs if the project manages to reach its $2 million goal in 30 days. So, to me, it sounds more likely that Kickstarter is used as a platform by Warner Bros to gauge fan interest in a potential product that they claim (as Thomas reported) does not warrant a studio-sized movie.

This also brings to light some people’s uneasiness and concern that money raised through this Kickstarter project is not going towards an indie project, but instead towards a studio film that Warner Bros is essentially too cheap to finance. It obviously brings up question of fan labour and the monetisation of fans, which big conglomerates (such as the Disney-backed Fanlib years ago) have been trying to tap into. And it’s precisely why this post is being written.

While I think it’s a valid point to bring up the issue of fan labour (or investment in this case?), and whether the success of this funding campaign [1] might prompt other media conglomerates to start seeking funding for other ventures this way, we must not forget at the very core of this, is the fans. EW is currently running a poll asking fans which other TV series they would fund for a film, while X-Files fans are asking if 20th Century Fox is paying attention to this campaign, and if a similar thing can be done to get a 3rd film green-lighted. Ultimately, fans choose to fund this project, and this is the voice that’s missing in some of the concerns raised; that somehow fans need to be educated that they’re financing a studio film, so they’re not actually doing anything for the so-called greater good. But, as Jason Mittell rightly argues in a tweet, fans funding this project is no different than pre-ordering merchandise such as DVDs or going to conventions to relive favourite moments of a beloved show. Just as, I’m sure, buying a cinema ticket and helping films like The Hobbit or The Avengers break box office records is a film fan’s indirect investment towards New Line and Marvel’s next projects.

Frustratingly, fan agency always gets left out in arguments which purports concern that fans are being duped by studios and networks. Perhaps, rather than assuming that fans are being duped into donating towards a studio film, thought should be given to implications the success of this campaign might bring to Hollywood’s system; or more importantly, the power fans can wield if they decide a Veronica Mars movie is deserving to be made.

And yes, as a fan of Veronica Mars, I would proudly declare that I donated to the campaign, and if the perks offered were not bounded by geography, I would have contributed more.

[1] As I write this, funding for the project has reached over $2 million.

Before Midnight

Image

As a researcher, my interests lie in screen distribution and exhibition. I rarely write about individual films. But when I heard about the pending release of Before Midnight, I was excited to say the least.

Before Midnight is the third installment of Richard Linklater‘s series of romantic dramas that began with Before Sunrise in 1995 and continued with Before Sunset in 2004. The films follow the eighteen year, on-off relationship between an American writer, Jesse (played by Ethan Hawke) and a French woman, Celine (played by Julie Delpy).

In Before Sunrise, Jesse and Celine meet by chance on a train in Europe and spend a single evening together in Vienna. They are then in their early twenties. Nine years later in Before Sunset, having married or settled down with other people, they reunite in Paris for an afternoon. In Before Midnight, we meet the two again in Greece, and it’s clear that their lives have changed. Jesse is divorced from his wife, and Celine is caring for twin girls.

According to a recent interview with Hawke, expectations of the film were running so high following the second installment that production of the third installment was deliberately kept under wraps. Before Midnight was one of the most anticipated titles at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it was eventually acquired for distribution by Sony Pictures Classics. A limited release in the U.S. is planned for May 24.

There are other indicators of the series’ unusual resonance with its audience. One of the these is the volume of critical writing, and depth of feeling, that Before Sunrise and especially Before Sunset have inspired.

The films are distinctive for their cooperative mode of screenwriting (Hawke and Delpy are credited as writers in Before Sunset and Before Midnight); the remarkable naturalism of the dialogue and acting; the long-take camera work creating the illusion of real time; and the films’ philosophical bent and refusal of narrative closure. However, as this review of Before Sunset by Chris Wisniewski in Reverse Shot observes, they are also personal touchstones for many fans.

I’m looking forward to spending cinematic time with Jesse and Celine again. Variety reviewer Justin Chang has predicted here that Before Midnight will send established and new audiences for the films “into the emotional stratosphere.” Heady words, indeed.

Sherlock Season 3

Like much of the Internet, I love Sherlock (BBC). I love the characters, I love the actors, and I love the delicious subtext. Johnlock is my headcanon, and I indulge when I can in trawling YouTube for the best fanvids (to the extent that YouTube now helpfully suggests new vids for me, no matter what I might actually be searching for at the time), I gaze lovingly at the myriad Sherlock-themed animated gifs that cycle through my Tumblr feed, I read fanfic while eating, walking, waiting to pick my kid up at preschool…. The men are attractive, the stories (all that wonderful repressed emotion!) compelling; this is no ironic or otherwise detached appreciation, but a love that is immersed in affect.

And it’s because of that, and because my love of the show seems echoed in the outpourings of others, that I’m fascinated with the ways in which Hollywood is attempting to capitalize on its popularity and, in particular, that of its stars. As Josh Horowitz put it, the Internet loves Benedict Cumberbatch, and this love has translated to his casting in not one, but two blockbuster features. What interests me about this isn’t the fact of his casting; he is, as my husband so delicately put it, the “flavor of the month.” That said, I think the ways he’s been cast foreground an emerging shift in how Hollywood is thinking about audiences. His role in Star Trek Into Darkness seems little more than a reflection of the kind of blunt, demographic-driven market analysis that has governed film casting for decades; something along the lines of, “people are talking about Benedict Cumberbatch, ergo he is popular and we must cast him in our film.” And, as I’m both a fan of his and a long-time Star Trek fan, I’m looking forward to seeing what he does with this mystery role of his.

But the one I really want to see is his turn as Smaug in the second Hobbit feature, and that despite the fact that I’ve not yet seen the first film, I’m not particularly invested in Middle Earth, and Benedict Cumberbatch will be entirely masked in CGI throughout. I want to see it because it brings him and Martin Freeman together in another universe, and I want that. In the same way that there was always a small part of me that enjoyed seeing Leonard Nimoy guest star on T.J. Hooker, as wretched a show as that was, I love the idea of having the two of them onscreen together in whatever shape it may take. I’m invested in that dynamic between them – that liminal place in which character and actor become indistinguishable – and the idea of seeing it, in whatever shape it takes on the big screen, thrills me. As a scholar, too, it excites me that someone – be it Peter Jackson or Fran Walsh or their team of casting directors – understands that this is something we fans care about. It may be little more than fannish wishful thinking, but this seems to me to be the difference between the two productions: the former knows what we like, but only the latter seems to know why.

And while I’m waiting for Smauglock to finally come face-to-face with Johnbo, I’ll continue to sob over all the post-Reichenbach Fall fanvids and count the minutes until Sherlock and John are once again reunited in the upcoming season of Sherlock. Hopefully sooner rather than later.

halloween cross-2 by somachiouHalloween Cross-2, by Somachiou on DeviantArt

Man of Steel

The terms ‘serious’, ‘edgy’ and ‘realistic’ have been used in describing Man of Steel by the filmmakers, scheduled for a June 2013 release. Indeed, a look at the film trailer suggests a more sombre tale on the origin story of Superman, often touted as the ‘granddaddy of all superheroes’.

Recent controversy surrounding writer David S. Goyer’s comments about “approaching Superman as if it is not a comic book movie, but as it if were real” suggests that some fans are none too pleased about the filmmakers’ decision. However, it is precisely this attempt to take this superhero seriously – and Christopher Nolan’s involvement with Man of Steel – that has me looking forward to the film.

For all his supposed greatness, previous filmic incarnations (and here I’m talking specifically about the Christopher Reeve films and the most recent Bryan Singer 2006 remake, not the various TV and animated versions) have often presented a Superman that is campy and corny. So, for someone who isn’t necessarily a fan of Superman – who actually believes his Clark Kent disguise? – but have grown up in a household surrounded by comic fans (albeit more specifically, Batman and X-Men comics), this seems like a refreshing take on the tale.

Given what Christopher Nolan and his team (including David S. Goyer, who co-wrote the entire Dark Knight trilogy) have done for the Batman franchise, giving it a darker but certainly more realistic feel, I’m curious to see their take on Superman and its universe. Director Zack Snyder’s impressive work on films like 300, Sucker Punch and Watchmen makes him an interesting choice to bring Goyer’s vision to life.

I would certainly expect that Man of Steel would be darker in tone, seemingly featuring a Clark Kent who is in conflict with his alien Kal-El identity than the ‘popcorn-movie feel’ that Marvel’s superhero films like Iron Man and The Avengers have taken.