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Crazy Rich Asians meet Mr Billionaire

Sep 13 , 2018

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If you find it entertaining to observe extreme wealth and moneyed arrogance in action, and prefer to view these characteristics separated from politics, “Crazy Rich Asians” offers a sly voyeuristic peek into the lives of the super-rich. Maybe the fact that its set in Singapore, and not Trump Tower on the top of Fifth Avenue, Trump National Golf Club, or Mar-a-Lago, makes for more relaxed viewing.

This latest Hollywood exploration of crazy money brings to mind the China-produced “Hello Mr Billionaire”. The latter is a silly, slapstick film on a similar topic, yet it’s better and more biting in almost every respect; relinquishing “Crazy Rich” to the category of soft romantic comedy, rather than social commentary.

For all its first-class swagger and vaunted Chinese-ness, Jon Chu’s “Crazy Rich Asians” is a timid tale that lily-gilds Singapore tourist destinations and exploits the beauty of Chinese cuisine as exotic filler. The food glorified within might be Chinese, but it’s a white-bread film that follows tired old Western tropes. More tellingly, at a time when the U.S. is re-engaging in Cold War rhetoric and “free-world” triumphalism, this Hollywood production is unwilling or unable to take the bold social liberties that can be found in some of the innovative and edgy films coming out of China today.

When portraying the lives of billionaires on screen, there are two basic approaches, lavishly presenting the lives of the rich in soft-focus veneration, or ruthlessly mocking inequality and the moral corrosion of wealth until it’s obvious that the rich are no better than anybody else, and are actually probably worse.

Both films draw on tropes that have been recycled in Hollywood for years: crazy old patriarchs/matriarchs fending off gold-diggers, obsequious servants, madcap romance, and the rocky journey of ordinary youth transported into the slick world of the super-rich. This is the stuff of comedy, and perhaps some wry commentary on the human condition, but Jon Chu’s “Crazy Rich” falls short on both. It makes the mistake of being too gob-smacked by luxury and too reverential to the super-rich for too much of the film’s duration, even when satire is intended, whereas “Billionaire” pokes holes and pops bubbles every step of the way.

The irreverent and crazy “Billionaire” created by directing duo Yan Fei and Peng Damo is not great art, but it sails right past the American-directed film “Crazy Rich” in its breezy irreverence, social satire and democratic stance. Once again China has, despite numerous rules and limitations in place, produced something that feels real and sings free, like the best of Zhang Yimou, Gu Changwei, Jia Zhangke, Feng Xiaogang, Jiang Wen and other gritty film-makers.

Director Jon Chu’s previous work on action films and a music video with Justin Bieber informs his latest work. He handles lavish parties and song and dance numbers with aplomb, and brings an MTV-style flair to the exotic travel locales; but seems too easily distracted by pretty surfaces to tell a coherent story. “Billionaire” by contrast, has a ridiculously convoluted plot riddled with holes big enough to drive high-speed train through, and yet it coheres as a story, the struggle of one not-entirely likeable zany guy trying to spend as much money as possible.

The setting for “Crazy Rich” is an improbably glamorous Singapore, once dubbed “Disneyland with the death penalty,” though these days it presents itself rather more gently as a luxury resort capable of accommodating the truly crazy and truly rich such as Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. Singapore invested heavily in the U.S.-North Korea talks, knowing the summit’s requisite photo ops and scenic backdrops would provide better advertising than money alone could buy.

Both films have had excellent box office reception in their respective home markets. Yet, despite the wonders of good subtitling, ingrained film-viewing habits remain an obstacle. The U.S. market has long been fickle in its reluctance to embrace subtitled films. “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (which featured Michelle Yeoh, also in “Crazy Rich”) was the exception to the rule, the rare Chinese language film that did boffo box office in the U.S., but many excellent Asia-produced films languish on the art circuit because subtitles are a hard sell. Japan’s success in exporting the stellar anime of Miyazaki Hayao and Shinkai Makoto shows one possible way around the language issue--skilled dubbing with celebrity voices--but this works better for anime than live action.

How “Crazy Rich” will fare in the China box office is hard to say, and no release date has been set. There is enough conspicuous consumption in China for the glitter and bling to find an audience, but when it comes to the identity politics of a U.S.-directed English-language film celebrating Chinese culture of the diaspora (the film has nothing to do with China except as a troubled homeland that had to be escaped to achieve personal and financial success) it might disappoint more than entertain; more of the same-old, same-old from Hollywood.

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