By Jocelle Koh

Although I’ve never been much of a moviegoer, I was in fervent anticipation of the recent ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ film for obvious reasons. Asian representation in the media plays a big part in fostering cultural understanding and bridging the gap, and in its own way can even impact on the passage of Chinese music across borders. If it might not occur to you immediately why this might be, the case study of ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ and its soundtrack is a perfect place to launch such a discussion.

Despite the overly positive reviews of the soundtrack (most of which come from a western viewpoint); I thought it would be an interesting experiment to share my perspective on the film’s soundscape. As a Singaporean, member of the Asian diasporic community and a Mandopop enthusiast, it seems that I just so happen to possess the rare (but often useless) permutation of skills to launch a well-rounded critique of the film.

As soon as the titles started to roll and the sounds of a familiar Mandarin classic piped serenely into the background, I was choked with emotion. Never has a Western Blockbuster so prominently and positively displayed the music I loved. It had always been the small victories; like a end credits Mandarin song for Transformers, or some Jay Chou thrown into The Green Hornet or one of his other titles as a freebie; examples few and far between. And as the soundtrack progressed, I was in absolute euphoria. Never had I expected the soundtrack to be made up majorly of Mandarin tracks. By exposing millions of Western and worldwide audiences to Mandarin music, this would potentially be a huge for the industry. If executed well, the movie could be a perfect stepping stone for bridging cultural gaps between the east and the west; not only through the visual techniques, narratives and themes of the movie; but also through the film’s soundscape.

Sound is a hugely important part of any film. Just like how horror movies become infinitely less scary when I plug my ears, or the soundtracks of 50 Shades of Grey and Twilight elevate these shows from a guilty pleasure to somewhat socially acceptable viewing, the right soundtrack can infinitely heighten enjoyment of any film. And for the first major feature film with a fully Asian cast, my expectations were high. I expected to hear a soundtrack which fits into the cosmopolitan-yet-traditional glitz and glam of the film, while providing a diverse soundscape representative of the tastes and themes of the modern Asian diasporic experience.

But unfortunately as the film progressed, I realised I might not be getting my dream soundtrack anytime soon. Mostly comprising of reimagined old classics such as ‘何日君再来When Will You Return’, (1937) and ‘我要你的愛 I Want Your Love’ (1953) and ‘我要飛上青天 Wo Yao Fei Shang Qing Tian‘ (1959), I quickly began to tire of the track list which seemed like a well-meaning but overall safe attempt at creating a sonic background for the film. In theory, all the credits for these tracks seemed to construct an adequate representation of Asian diaspora artists and east-west musical interactions; Jasmine Chen, an Chinese singer specialising in East-meets-West jazz; Cheryl K, a Malaysian artist, some original vintage hits by Sally Yeh and Yao Li thrown in for good measure…but when put to use, the pieces felt like an incomplete jigsaw puzzle. They had the right idea, but execution lacked finesse and a well-rounded understanding of the nuances at play within such a multicultural film.

The song choices were all a little lacklustre for my taste, drawing mainly from classics from the 1920-1960s which although may add that grandeur and glamour to the film, also reek a tinge of orientalism at play. It perpetuates stereotypes of a musical landscape stuck in time; classic and elegant but gently crumbling round the edges. It seems to me that for the most part, the film just headed straight for the safe classics rather than really trying to reinvent perceptions of the Asian diasporic experience sonically, showing an inherent lack of understanding of how musical offerings on both sides contribute to meaningful cultural dialogues.

One redeeming point was Vava, Ty. & Nina Wang‘s ‘我的新衣 My New Swag’, a hip-hop Peking opera fusion track which seamlessly drew the attention of listeners and broadened perspectives; but such moments were few and far between. I craved more instances which represented a willingness to open channels of communication between Eastern and Western cultures, rather than just thinly packaged Western goods with a marketable Eastern sheen. The Mandarin rendition of ‘Yellow’ was a good effort, but felt a little strange musically. Brit-rock combined with Chinese lyrics may sound interesting in theory, but didn’t quite achieve the desired effect for me. A couple jazzed-up Mandarin classics are all well and good, but what concerns me is that the overall rather homogenous sound was by no means an accurate representation of the modern Asian community’s tastes, and the scene’s unique offerings, mostly appealing to the western audience’s perception of what Asians consume music-wise and further perpetuating unhealthy stereotypes.

Furthermore, although I personally would love if the entire soundtrack of the movie was in Mandarin; given the context of the film, it seems a little simplistic to choose songs just in Mandarin Chinese when there are so many languages and dialects which make up Asian culture (as adequately represented in the film’s narrative). Also as a Singaporean, it seems very unlikely to me that Singaporeans’ musical taste can easily be reduced to one language when a multitude of ethnic individuals reside on the island including Muslims, Indians and Eurasians. Although it may be simpler for wider (and decidedly Western) audiences to keep track of the storyline this way, it leads one to wonder whether over-simplification is instead counterproductive in achieving accurate and diverse representations within the media.

As for the artists involved in the soundtrack, it was heartening to see the film provide opportunities to so many Asian diasporic artists including Malaysian-Singaporean Cheryl Koh, Japanese-American Kina Grannis and more. Although it was certainly inspiring to see the movie doing its part in discovering unknown artists and giving them a chance to shine, I feel that including a selection of more established artists’ tracks might have also been helpful in diversifying conversations around East-meets-West musical fusions and exploring new possibilities through new eyes. To me, any conversation about bridging cultural gaps and East-West musical fusion when it comes to Mandarin language music is incomplete without paying homage to the likes of Wang LeehomJay Chou, and Khalil Fong; just to name a few artists who have tirelessly worked towards creating all sorts of permutations of Eastern and Western elements over the years. I feel their works and years of expertise and experimentation would have lent themselves greatly to this project.

Overall, the soundtrack was a solid and well-meaning attempt to introduce Mandarin music to the mainstream; a goal which it has certainly achieved to an extent. However I couldn’t help but feel that the curation of song choices and artist picks could have done with a little more research, especially on the Eastern side of the spectrum. The soundtrack could have been even more effective in bridging cultural gaps and grabbing audience attention should they have taken a more well-rounded and diverse approach to the artists, song choices and genres chosen. Hoping to see marked improvement in the soundtrack for the sequel film, but for now, I’ve put together a reimagined soundtrack for the movie that I hope can open audiences’ eyes to a greater spectrum of works better reflecting the modern Asian Diaspora and their tastes. 

Listen to our Reimagined Crazy Rich Asians Playlist here: