Talk about craziness, Crazy Rich Asians is now into its third week and has, to date raked in US$76.8m according to online movie aggregator, Rotten Tomatoes. If it keeps up this pace, it will bring in a total box office gross of about US$200m, putting it in a league with films like Ocean’s 8, The Bourne Identity and Bridget Jones’s Baby.
For all the criticism and hype about this film, I cannot help but feel proud as a Singaporean that this 'filmed-in-Singapore' show has gone so far. You can hate it or you can love it, but one thing is for sure, it is on the tip of everyone’s tongue these last few weeks. I cannot count the number of conversations with clients, team members, family and friends who are all talking about this movie. Looking at the film’s online statistics, in the last 30 days, the total number of conversations is close to a million, with a 70% positive tone, the association with Singapore is high with 77% of conversations mentioning Singapore alongside it.
But as a communications professional, I know that it is not just awareness that we should be creating. What story does Crazy Rich Asians want to tell?
In the end, every story, whether it is a corporate story for a business, the profile of a corporate leader or the story of this movie, needs to cater to its audience. We need to understand the audience then position the story to resonate with its audience. If we do not focus the story, then different audiences can interpret this drastically and perceptions are created far from its original intention.
This movie has done different things for different people. In the US, and for the Asian American, it has created much optimism and hope for the creation of more Asian-centric movies.
Director Jon Chu did say that it was not meant to capture Asia, which cannot be done. It is just meant to be a story of one Chinese family – the Young family, in Singapore. So let’s not judge too sternly on the failure to represent a wider range of other Asian cultures and experiences. If the Singapore Tourism Board was co-creating this, it would probably have had all four cultures evenly featured, but it probably would not have become an international box office hit either.
So whilst Crazy Rich Asians may not resonate with all, or even most Singaporeans in the way that, for instance, did Jack Neo’s Ah Boys to Men - it does have wider overseas appeal. Given how few other Singapore-set films have achieved this, it’s worth asking whether it portrays Singapore in a way that we can – or even should – want to see repeated across global cinema screens in the future.
Whether in Tampines or Tampa Bay, most audiences realise they are enjoying escapist glitz rather than earnest social realism. Yet, inevitably even light entertainment does channel how they perceive the country and culture in which it is set, especially for countries – like Singapore - that do not feature in Hollywood’s world view that often.
Largely because most international audiences have not had the opportunity to experience the energy of Singapore’s thriving arts, culture and cuisine, they tend to think of Singapore as an orderly, well-run and safe place. Which, happily, it also is.
But being respected is not the same as generating warmth and empathy – sentiments that we Singaporeans should also be seeking to attract as well. Whilst some here in the Lion City may groan at the silliness and spoilt eccentricity depicted in Crazy Rich Asians, I would argue that sending ourselves up in this way does not undermine or trivialise the Singapore brand. On the contrary, a country that’s able to show its lighter, more frivolous, side is far more likely to endear itself than one that fails to build-upon the (admittedly important) core message that it is strong and stable. In building our national brand, never underestimate the power of sharing joy with the world.
We should at least be thankful to Crazy Rich Asians for doing this. And the movie does more – in its featuring of the beautiful Marina Bay skyline it makes you gasps and say 'Wow, Singapore is beautiful!' These are the things that appeal to the global market. It does for Singapore’s cultural brand what the F1 Grand Prix does for our sporting destination profile. This is soft power, and it is worth wielding.
My Singaporean hope for this country is that in time, we will not only be known for the lavish glitz and glamour and for being crazy rich Asians. Instead, the world will see us as a country that is caring and thoughtful. That through our diversity, we can create successes and experiences that can’t be replicated anywhere else in the world – consistently encouraging local talent who are given the opportunity to showcase our incredible work on an international arena and that our people are open-hearted and welcoming to all who choose to call this place home. Played with majestic hauteur by Michelle Yeoh, even the Crazy Rich matriarch of the Young family eventually ends up recognising this barrier-breaking truth.
So you see, the Singapore story of Crazy Rich Asians has only just begun.
Ang Shih-Huei is the chief executive officer and co-founder of Klareco Communications