Does 'Crazy Rich Asians' Justify its Glorification of Obscene Wealth?
There's a scene in the middle of Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street in which Jordan Belfort, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is confronted by his father Max about the lavish, over-the-top lifestyles of executives in his brokerage firm, Stratton-Oakmont. Jordan tells Max that he leads his men into lives of hedonism and excess because it keeps them motivated—it keeps them dreaming, working, aspiring for more. "I know it sounds crazy," says Jordan. To which Max replies, "Crazy? Jordan...This is obscene."
It's a short conversation, but this scene carried a lot of weight—enough to anchor the film's otherwise unconscionable glorification of wealth. If not for this scene and others like it, The Wolf of Wall Street would have only caricaturized the actions of thieves, coating them in sugar and cocaine for the audience's enjoyment. You'd almost want the cars, the mansions, the yacht, the helicopter and the clothes that Belfort had, and you'd almost believe that his underhanded schemes were justifiably par for the course in a world like Wall Street. But throughout its run time, the film reveals a moral conscience; Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter are aware of the implications of their characters' greed. So ultimately, The Wolf of Wall Street invites its viewers to a moral reflection on their own socioeconomic aspirations.
Crazy Rich Asians is a different film entirely. Jon M. Chu's adaptation of the novel by Kevin Kwan is instead an invitation to reflect on the cultural differences between East and West—particularly on the weight of filial piety in Asian and American cultures. And it achieves this ingeniously. As a classic rom-com, Crazy Rich Asians is great fun to watch, and is even pretty spectacular at many points. It even gets its audience to think, by providing enough nuance and consideration for both sides of its central dilemma: Asian cultural traditionalism versus the progressive Asian diaspora.
That nagging feeling started when, while looking out for Filipino representation in Nico Santos and Kris Aquino, I instead found it in Astrid's ostensibly Filipino domestic helper, who dutifully stowed away her shopping haul.
But after having seen the film and enjoyed its depictions of luxury—which, full disclosure, successfully stoked my own aspirations for a stylish life of jetsetting and #VeryRare Rolex-wearing—it's hard to identify a moral conscience like that of The Wolf of Wall Street. In the middle of desiring the crazy rich Asian life, there was a nagging feeling that it wasn't right. That nagging feeling started when, while looking out for Filipino representation in Nico Santos and Kris Aquino, I instead found it in Astrid's ostensibly Filipino domestic helper, who dutifully stowed away her shopping haul. It prompted the question: Isn't that the film's most honest depiction of Filipinos? As living on the wayside of a system that made the (fictional) Youngs crazy rich?
One could certainly and fairly argue that this is an overly Marxist viewing of the film, and that it's too much to expect this story about Asian culture and filial piety to address its characters' wealth from the perspective of class. But when a wide-reaching film glorifies extreme wealth, doesn't it become a matter of responsibility to also provide that moral conscience, even in the slightest? The words "Crazy Rich" are in the title, after all, and wealth is a major theme of the film. There are tales of lavish beach parties, helicopters, opulent weddings, and homes with dozens of servants. A discerning viewer would look at these and think about the collateral damage—so shouldn't the film address that collateral damage somehow?
When a wide-reaching film glorifies extreme wealth, doesn't it become a matter of responsibility to also provide that moral conscience?
If anything to that end, the film examines its crazy rich subjects through the lens of its main character, Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), who comes from a simpler background. However, her struggles with the crazy-rich are mainly to do with culture, family, and marriage. So the film does work to denounce how the crazy-rich belittle the not-crazy-rich, but only on a cultural level. That belittlement is only an indirect consequence of socioeconomic inequality, so as a whole, it doesn't seem to bear enough weight to counterbalance the glorious laps of luxury that the film takes its audiences on.
All that said, I don't think Crazy Rich Asians is a bad film, nor a bad story, for its seeming lack of reflection on the consequences of extreme wealth. I enjoyed it for what it is, and I think most viewers should too. Also, the film is a landmark achievement in Asian representation in Hollywood, and as such, deserves to be celebrated. But simultaneously, perhaps viewers should also be reminded of the importance of conscientious capitalism. Wealth is not inherently evil, but when wealth is explicitly displayed, celebrated, and glorified by a film, perhaps it should also come with a modest reminder of what it all costs in the real world.