Caution: Spoiler Alert!
Crazy Rich Asians is movie. It’s a romantic comedy (or romcom as they say today). It’s about a cohabiting couple (living in the US) visiting his best friend’s wedding in Singapore and spending time with his rich family. I mean rich like crazy rich. Of this she (raised in the US) is unaware of this though learns quickly that they are not only rich but a little bit crazy. Even her old college roommate with her quirky family ends up being less crazy that the rich who seem to be truly crazed about honor above all else. That’s the plot line. There is also the typical immorality and mistreatment of Christianity, though not as brash as a purely American movie might be. Yet it is so much more.
The over-riding theme is that hedonism is preferable to honor. Historically, hedonism won out in the US with the rise of consumerism at the behest of the progressive movement. We’ve been told that we can have everything. Everything has a price and all you need is either the money or a big enough credit limit. Or maybe a court ruling in your favor. There is nothing you can’t have. Human flourishing, it seems, is created or enhanced by the elimination of perceived need (Hegel). Once that is accomplished there is nothing we can’t accomplish.
But we don’t see this because we’re trapped in the system. We can’t easily step back and look at what has been happening. We are like the proverbial frog in the boiling kettle, totally unaware of our future. On the other hand, this movie displays to us how this is happening in Asian cultures. (Remember: Nothing gets into a movie by mistake. There are no accidents and very few coincidences when it comes to what you are fed from the screen.) It parallels America’s cultural shift.
All cultures are honor-shame cultures. What varies is the degree of emphasis on each. A culture is first defined by what it honors (and shames) and secondarily by its artifacts such as progress, religious practices, and dietary habits. The latter three, in fact, flow from the question of honor.
One might easily call this approach to manipulating a culture “racist” though that term is so seriously overused as to now be nothing more than a political badge. The movie diminishes honor in favor of self. It shows honor from a mostly negative perspective. With the hedonism and consumerism in mind this might be thought of as another example of progressive manipulation of culture. They’ve done it to the US and Europe and have their current sights set on both the Asian P area as well as certain middle east nations. Those women protesting for their “rights” in certain middle-eastern nations did not come out of nowhere.
Alternatively, this movie shows a strong sense of honor as a divisive force instead of as a unifying force. In that it is quite cynical. It split a mother from her children and it split up one marriage. But hedonism, placing one’s self above others, gave the women the strength they needed to succeed. It displayed men as aloof and without a proper sense of family honor but instead with greed and selfishness. The father is completely absent and only talked about. The husband has an affair, thinking not about family but about self. (The inconsistency here is that hedonism is bad for men but good for women.)
Today’s American culture honors hedonism. That is the fruit of consumerism. It used to be that we honored service above self. Today we honor self so that, as became clear in the 60s, “there is nothing worth dying for.” We have turned the “American dream” into the consumerist venture of that nice house in that nice neighborhood. It used to be about freedom. It used to be honorable for a man to treat a woman appropriately, and vice versa. Today the state says how that is to be done. There is no personal honor left, only rules.
Then female lead is also in the ABC TV show Fresh Off the Boat. This show is equally as egregious in its cultural attacks. It regularly attacks the cultural honor of excellence only to replace it with mediocrity and materialism. Again, the themes dovetail to a certain degree.
Yet there is something for the American Christian to learn here. When working with Asians (and others from strong honor-shame cultures), be sensitive to the matter of honor. Our revivalist tendency is to speak to the autonomous individual. That doesn’t always work well. In missions, Adoniram Judson appealed to the family unit. Though he did things in a way that might not fit our theology well, it is the construct here that is useful. Speak in terms of community and honor as higher values. Recall that Christ was raised to the position of honor. Contrast that to our frequent preoccupation with language that is about the shame of sin. (It’s no wonder a lot of us are a bit neurotic about dos and don’ts.) Yet the New Testament is filled with Christ and restored honor.