I recently saw Crazy Rich Asians, and afterwards joked that it’s one of the most interesting of the Disney cartoon-princess movies. Man—”Cinderella” is, apparently, immortal. The best way to understand this movie, I think, is to see it as a folktale. Which, after all, most romcoms essentially are.
And doing so brings up many of the issues involved in what I call “transrealist” story.
Don’t get me wrong—I loved the movie. For one thing, it’s one of those big-bang-for-the-buck productions; I laughed, I cried. And, very much in the Disney mode, the production values were superb. The two lead actors, for example, were critical to making it all work. The cinematography was breathtaking. On top of all that, it’s FANTASTIC to see such a mainstream work that focuses on East Asians.
But none of this means, of course, that we should give it carte blanche, even as a folktale. I think it shares a number of problems with folktales, especially “Cinderella.”
Most folktales aren’t meant to be realistic portrayals of lived human experience. They’re symbolic, aspirational, falling somewhere between mere projection and revelation of deeper human realities. A folktale is far more about human interiority than about life in the world, though of course it shows the two interacting—it just starts from interiority and lets interiority dominate the narrative, while realistic narrative shows the two in more of an equal partnership.
For example, some are bound to object to the Singapore of Crazy Rich Asians, which is presented as pretty much an urban Heaven on Earth—in contrast to some very real problems in its real-world counterpart. But that’s missing the point. It’s not supposed to be the actual Singapore, any more than the New York of so many romcoms is meant to be NYC. And this is an ancient aspect of many such stories. Is “Sleeping Beauty” a lie because it doesn’t address the religious wars or economic oppression in early modern Europe? Are the Norse myths propaganda because they don’t include the pillaging and raping done by actual Vikings? Do we really think we’re getting a historical portrait when the Arabian Nights give us Harun al-Rashid’s Baghdad? These are Other places, transrealist realms, not meant to be either realistic or politically comprehensive—and they shouldn’t be judged as anything else.
Because this lack of “realism” is intended in service to deeper good. “Cinderella” is about the basic goodness we sense in ourselves, and justice bestowed on that goodness. It’s about the beauty of the individual person, no matter what his or her circumstances may be. It’s also about ego—well, probably more accurate to say that it balances on that knife-edge in the self, where one side is the dignity of the person and the other a Trump-like compulsion for ego-rush and dominance. In other words, it’s about us, as we truly are.
And of course it’s about greed. This can be a prickly question in a transrealist story, it seems to me. The wealth, the status, living in a palace, everything about being a princess: How much is this symbolic and how much does the audience literally yearn for such things? Because to some degree it’s always a mix of the two.
Crazy Rich Asians plays into this whole thing with some very shallow cleverness, working old tropes in fresh ways. One tried and true approach: Almost all the characters are obscenely rich, so to distinguish good guys from bad guys we get the tastelessly excessive mean rich people vs. the quiet boy-and-girl-next-door rich people. But of course this breaks down, since even the good guys, for all their seeming “simplicity” and humility, still clearly revel in enormous wealth. This is mainly because the audience so desperately wants to so revel, and the movie can’t afford to disappoint them in that.
For example, when the leading man and his friend want to escape the over-the-top bachelor party (on a huge rented ship, including recreational RPG firing), they go off to a quiet little spot in a tranquil bay—by fleeing in a private helicopter. At the friend’s wedding, not only do all the guests wield poles with illuminated butterflies atop them, but the aisle is actually flooded about five inches deep so bride and bridal party can parade barefoot in the water. (Don’t ask me why this is considered a positive–seemed more like a plumbing problem to me). And of course the cars, the houses, the interior decorating, all of it is wildly showy and overdone—and continually presented so we the audience can bathe in it. The movie-makers got the underlying greed of “Cinderella” perfectly too.
A final, odd example: When the two lovers finally get together, there’s one last night of Singapore partying atop the Marina Bay Sands Hotel, that half-beautiful half-tacky assemblage of three huge buildings with a surfboard-like platform connecting them. (One can’t help wondering how much influence the Singapore Tourist Board had on the script). In that temple of conspicuous consumption, the “unspoiled” hyper-rich leading man points out the entire Esther-Williams-like troupe performing in the infinity pool, which he clearly set up to impress his bride-to-be.
That’s a folktale for you. Somewhere in the middle of this charming and sometimes crass story, we get the transrealist revelation of who we are, in all our good and bad.
But then again, it’s also really, really fun.