screenshot-400

Courtesy of CBC Television

September 19, 2019

GUEST ROOM | What ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ can learn from ‘Kim’s Convenience’

Print More

Disclaimer: Spoilers for Crazy Rich Asians and Kim’s Convenience ahead

I first heard of Kim’s Convenience, a sitcom streamable on Netflix, through my father’s Twitter account; he had retweeted an interview that NPR did with the show’s creator, Ins Choi. The article praised the progressive work done by the sitcom and after reading through the piece, I watched a few episodes of the show to see for myself. In one week, I binged the first two seasons and began counting down the days till Netflix released the third.

The Canadian sitcom has a relatively simple premise, focusing on a Korean family that runs a convenience store in Toronto and the joys, struggles and touches of humor that come with managing it. Though comedic in tone, the show is not afraid to tackle more serious issues, focusing on ethnicity, generational disconnect, the trials of parenting and faith. The way the show chooses to accurately show the dynamics of Korean family in all of its idiosyncrasies was a refreshing change. The sights, sounds and food were all things I had grown accustomed to, even if not all the elements aligned (for starters the technologically ignorant Mr. Kim would never have had a Twitter, much less know how to operate it, unlike my own father).

I was surprised at how much Kim’s Convenience impacted me because in terms of Asian-American cinema, it was just one of many other successful projects released within the past few years. In 2018, Netflix’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and Sony Pictures’ Searching were both high-profile releases that not only earned critical acclaim, but also starred Asian-American actors in lead roles (read: not as extras) and likewise, DC’s mega-hit Aquaman was the first superhero film directed by someone of Asian descent (James Wan). But the film that perhaps got the most attention was Crazy Rich Asians, adapted from Kevin Kwan’s book of the same name. The John M. Chu directed feature grossed over 238 million on a budget of 30 million and was nominated for two awards at the Golden Globes. Though it was not without its own fair share of controversies, many thought that Crazy Rich Asians, along with films like Black Panther and Widows, was proof that the powers in Hollywood had finally come to their senses and cared about representation in media.

Now don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed Crazy Rich Asians. It imbued the rom-com genre with new life in its presentation of Asian culture without coming off as stereotypical. But physical representation alone is not enough to cover over its flaws and its biggest crime is in the way it chooses to end its story. A big plot point of Crazy Rich Asians is Rachel attempting to convince Nick’s mother Eleanor Sung-Young (Michelle Yeoh) that she would be a worthy girlfriend for Nick. Despite her best efforts, his mother rejects her, claiming that Rachel will never measure up to their affluent status. Though heartbroken, Rachel accepts this and prepares to leave Singapore, seeing that she cannot change Sung-Young’s mind. Even when Nick tries to tell Rachel that he will convince his mother out of her stubbornness, Rachel denies him, stating that he should do the right thing and honor his mother’s wishes. Yet in a dramatic and final encounter, Sung-Young revokes her mandate and gives Nick permission to propose to Rachel, which he happily does as the film ends.

While there were many cheers in the theater when I watched the film, I felt more disheartened than celebratory at the conclusion. Crazy Rich Asians seemed to finally be exploring the tension between filial piety and personal ambition, something Hollywood never really seemed concerned with. In Crazy Rich Asians, Nick loves Rachel but also loves his mother; the question was which of the two loves he would ultimately side with and initially, the film made a strong case for both. The ending would not have been so bitter if Nick’s mother was given time to arrive at her reformatory conclusion but the way it is depicted on-screen is simply too rushed to feel organic and natural. It feels more like a studio mandate and interference rather than a consequence of plot. It would have been interesting if for the sake of his mother, Nick chose to let Rachel go, and the film could have then had an opportunity to portray filial piety as a more multifaceted ideal.

However, the story is different over in Canada. As lighthearted as the world of Kim’s Convenience is, perhaps unconventionally, quickly resolved storylines are not a staple. Creator Ins stated how “[U.S. sitcoms] tend to resolve everything in one episode … I think that Kim’s Convenience takes on a little more complex layers.” From the start of the series, Mr. Kim is shown to be in an estranged relationship with his son Jung and frequently clashes with his daughter Janet about her decision to do art, something he sees as a waste of time despite the fact that it is her passion. The way the show handles the tension between filial piety and personal desire is truly nuanced. Characters are stubborn as in the real world, and while change is not impossible, it is much more of a slow burn.

To be fair, it is worth considering the fact that director Chu was straitjacketed by Kwan’s book and a TV series always has an advantage when it comes to fleshing out characters and plots. Likewise, since 2018, the ripple effects of Crazy Rich Asians’ impact are prevalent and poignant. On the superhero side, Chloé Zhao and Daniel Dustin Cretin are directing The Eternals and Shang-Chi: Legend of the Ten Rings for Marvel respectively, while on the DC side, Cathy Yan is directing Birds of Prey. The Lulu Wang-directed, Awkwafina starring, The Farewell received critical acclaim and may be Oscar-bound while Always Be My Maybe reinvigorated the romance genre yet again (let’s not forget that Mulan is also coming into theaters).

But representation is more than just having white stories swapped with Asian actors and actresses; in addition to the physical casting, there has to be thematic shifts. Nick Young and Rachel Chu are far wealthier than the lower-middle-class Kim’s, the latter still have riches to offer in the form of their storylines.

 

Zachary Lee is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at zjl4@cornell.edu.