I remember this encounter once, a couple of years ago when I had just resigned from my job in LA to move to Singapore, where I ran into my soon-to-be-former boss in the elevator. He just sort of looked at me in puzzlement and said, “So… Singapore? Why?” Even just a few years ago Singapore was sailing under most radars in the US. Hardly anyone knew about this little city-state with a massive GDP, cutting edge infrastructure, excellent educational system and chicken rice that could make even a Philistine believe in God. But that is starting to change.
When Donald Trump chose to kick-off his one-sided love affair with Kim Jong Un in Singapore earlier this year, the country kind of exploded onto the map. It’s a bit tragic that it will now forever be associated with this trash-can summit between an authoritarian dictator and his would-be fatso sidekick (you figure out who is who) which accomplished little other than legitimizing a brutal rogue state on a global stage. But it did give Singapore a chance to shine. Thousands of press flocked there to watch these carnival barkers jerk each other off, then rather hilariously report in wonderment on how Singapore’s infrastructure was leaps and bounds ahead of America’s.
And if that wasn’t enough of a public relations coup, it was followed up a few months later by Jon Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians. The film has been a smashing success no matter how you slice it. It booked $221 million at the box office (including a whopping $166 million in North America alone) on a $30 million budget and it touched off an overwhelming number of think-pieces about its all-Asian casting, and its representation of Asians in popular culture. Singaporeans themselves were quick to weigh in and criticize the film for not featuring enough Indians and Malays, which is perhaps the most Singaporean response possible to a major US motion picture reverently depicting their country. Of course, a movie that is called Crazy Rich Asians is not likely to prominently feature the local prata stall at a hawker center. But I digress.
Now, I thoroughly enjoyed the film. These kind of romantic comedies are formulaic and turgid, with boring one-dimensional characters behaving in fairly predictable ways, but Jon Chu is a master aesthete so the sheer flash and sizzle with which he shoots the hell out of the movie was enough to keep me engaged. They might border on schlocky at times, but scenes like that wedding at Chijmes can’t help but hit you in your feelings bone. And even if the premise is tired, the cast was strong enough to keep you invested in the little bullshit dramas of these incredibly wealthy peoples’ lives.
But ultimately, I just kind of enjoyed seeing a big motion picture set in Singapore. Although quite a bit of it was actually shot in Malaysia, the Singapore Tourism Board definitely got their money’s worth in this film. There are beautiful shots of Marina Bay Sands, Gardens by the Bay, Boat Quay and other landmarks like the Merlion that give Singapore the City some time to shine in the spotlight. The scene where Henry Golding way over-orders every possible dish at the hawker center was a delightful bit of food porn. But my absolute favorite part is when upon landing in Singapore, Constance Wu’s character just sort of says for no reason at all how much she loves Changi Airport because they have a butterfly garden. I am sure Changi’s marketting department must have paid at least $1 million for that line. Worth it, though (Singapore Airlines declined to be featured in the film, and I am quite sure someone got fired for that decision).
The story itself, if you want to look at it as anything more than a superficial diversion/promotional campaign for Singaporean tourism, is rather problematic. It is happy to fetishize the extreme wealth of these awful people and more or less bow down and worship at their alter instead of, your know, pointing out how empty and meaningless their existence is and how many people they probably had to exploit to get where they are. But that, I daresay, would make for a much less fun film. It also has some confused and fairly surface-level things to say about the nature of Chinese-American identity. But ultimately, for me at least, it was really just a fun glitzy movie that reveled in spectacle, set in a place and populated by people you rarely see in major American studio films. And I liked that.
If digging down into the grittier side of Singaporean society is what you’re after, just go see Mee Pok Man.