Crazy Rich Asians is the first film I watched in a movie theatre upon my return to the Philippines, and I didn’t expect to enjoy observing the moviegoing habits of my countrymen, whose boisterousness in movie theatres I had completely forgotten about while living abroad.
I attended a weekday afternoon screening, which had a sizeable and lively audience: people laughed at all the jokes of the movie, expressed awe at the luxury goods and island paradise flaunted before our eyes, and sighed collectively when Kris Aquino, our former President’s daughter, made a silent, dignified cameo appearance in the movie’s wedding scene. By all appearances, the group with whom I watched the movie thoroughly enjoyed it. People were smiling and laughing when the movie ended and the lights came back on.
This left me wondering if I was the only person who felt a lingering discomfort when I left the movie theatre. Crazy Rich Asians has been hailed as a milestone in Asian representation in Hollywood, for it finally portrays Asians as being heroes of their own stories, giving Asians the opportunity, for once, to feel seen. Shortly before I saw the movie, I learned it was number one at the Philippine box office, which made me consider the possibility that the movie resonated with moviegoers here. However, after watching the movie, I wondered if its enthusiastic Filipino audience truly saw themselves in it.
The Asians that the movie represents fairly aren’t brown Asians like us. The brown-skinned Filipino Asians in the movie are cast as maids, often forming a phalanx of uniform-wearing women behind the movie’s main stars. Although there are two Filipino actors playing ‘crazy-rich Asians’ in the movie, one must note that Kris Aquino belongs to the Chinese elite in the Philippines and is light-skinned, while Nico Santos could easily pass as East Asian, which is why he plays a wealthy Chinese Singaporean in the film.
I don’t mind seeing Filipino characters being represented as maids, for this is a sad reality that shouldn’t be glossed over. The Philippines remains a poor country, and poverty has forced many of us to work as servants in wealthier Southeast Asian countries.
What bothered me, however, was how the Filipino maids in the movie merely served to signify their masters’ outrageous (and oftentimes celebrated) wealth with their quiet, unobtrusive presence, and were otherwise rendered invisible, both by the camera and by the script. The faces of the Filipino maids were often blurry, and the camera panned quickly across their faces as though to signify that they were present in this world, yet unimportant within the movie’s narrative arc.
The only time that a Filipina maid has a line in the film is when she’s asked to hide away Astrid Young’s shopping booty from her insecure husband. But the maid barely asserts her personhood in this scene, for she just acts upon her mistress’s bidding.
In the movie, the maids merely exist as appendages to their masters, and their lives, and desires, are irrelevant to the movie’s larger project of presenting (certain) Asian lives.
But Crazy Rich Asians is number one in the Philippine box office, and the Filipinos I know on social media who saw the movie loved it. They did not complain about the movie’s cursory, almost dismissive treatment of its Filipino characters (if they can be called characters at all; a more apt term would be furniture).
And then I think about the attitudes of my own countrymen towards service workers, and how these men and women often dissolve into the background of their masters’ lives. How many times have I seen my own countrymen dismiss a waiter or maid with a curt wave of the hand? Dark skin, in my culture, is also associated with servitude. These people are invisible to us, even if they keep our restaurants, businesses, and households running. Mainstream Philippine cinema reflects this collective prejudice, since darker-skinned actors are not given prominent roles, thus sending the message that darker-skinned Filipinos do not deserve to have their humanity fully represented on screen.
Perhaps Filipinos have found common ground with our Southeast Asian neighbours in their attitudes towards darker-skinned servants. The servants in the movie may be Filipino, but they are servants too, and they are poor and dark-skinned at that.
I’ve been thinking about Downton Abbey lately, and how I was drawn to the show because of its depiction of servants as nuanced and layered characters who had complex relationships with their masters. These insightful depictions of the master-servant relationship allowed Downton Abbey to explore the complexities and paradoxes of the British class system, which was the main reason why I found the show fascinating. Although I enjoyed Crazy Rich Asians, I wasn’t fully drawn into its universe because of the glaring inequality that the movie refused to confront.
While Crazy Rich Asians gives visibility to certain Asian lives, it renders the lives of brown, working class Asians who are very much a part of this world invisible. I find this ironic, given that the movie insists on riding the wave of visibility politics. If Asian-American directors and scriptwriters are willing to perform an honest examination of class, then visibility will no longer be a privilege only given to certain Asian lives.
Monica Macansantos once wrote a story about Crazy Rich Filipinos that was published by Amazon's Day One, in which the servants play a much bigger role. Otherwise, she prefers to write about ordinary Filipinos, and her work has appeared in failbetter, The Masters Review, and SBS Life, among other places. Follow her on twitter @missmacansantos.