The hit romantic comedy-drama Crazy Rich Asians is grabbing headlines with its depiction of outlandish opulence, but another Singapore film is making waves of a different kind – by revealing the tawdry underbelly of Asian life.
Two hit films – two very different faces of Asia.
And analysts said this clash should sound an alarm, with the ascendant Crazy Rich Asians – focusing on the story of a young Asian-American woman who travels to meet her boyfriend’s family and is surprised to discover they are among the richest in Singapore – shielding a struggling underclass.
“It is a fun movie that celebrates Asian wealth,” James Crabtree, an associate professor at Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“But it should also be seen as a warning, that Asia is losing its reputation for inclusive growth and sliding ever deeper into inequality.
“Most countries in the region are becoming less equal, and some alarmingly so.”
Craz y Rich Asians topped the United States and Canadian box offices during its debut weekend and has already sparked talks of a sequel, winning headlines for its all-ethnic Asian cast living lavish lifestyles in the city state.
Yet it is the seedy reality of life at the bottom – often hidden in business-centric Singapore – that is depicted in the movie A Land Imagined, which also debuted this month.
“It’s true that Singapore has the ultra rich side – the Singapore that people know,” director Yeo Siew Hua said.
“At the same time, the income gap is large and the truth is that there is a very large base of low-waged working class and most of them are migrants.
“As a filmmaker, I have a calling to give a voice to this side of Singapore that is not exposed cinematically.”
A Land Imagined, about a lonely migrant worker who disappears from a land reclamation construction site, offers a rare insight into the plight of Singapore’s relatively low-paid labourers.
The affluent Southeast Asian country counts on migrants – from countries such as Bangladesh, Myanmar and China – to fuel its powerhouse economy, and campaigners hope the film could spark a rethink around how they are treated.
“Singapore generally has a pro-business environment ... we can do a lot more in tilting the balance more in favour of the workers,” Ethan Guo of migrant rights group, Transient Workers Count Too, said.
The film debuted at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland and won the top award, a first for a Singaporean film.
It is expected to be released in late 2018 after touring the festival circuit.
All eyes east
By contrast, the success of Crazy Rich Asians reflects a growing interest globally in Asia’s new-found wealth.
The rapid economic growth of countries, from China to India, has lifted millions out of poverty.
However, it has also widened the disparities. Inequality has risen since 1988, says the World Bank, with millions of people struggling to afford homes, and thousands more forced off their land for roads and mines.
“We hear that faster GDP [gross domestic product] growth will trickle down and lift up everyone, but we are only seeing increasing marginalisation and exclusion,” said Shivani Chaudhry, executive director at advocacy group Housing and Land Rights Network in New Delhi.
“For all the talk of poverty reduction, we are seeing more people pushed into poverty,” Chaudhry said.
Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said this month that the government was reviewing its education, health care and housing policies to strengthen social safety nets.
“We should frown upon those who go for ostentatious displays of wealth and status ... that is not the Singapore way,” he said in a speech in May.
The Singaporean actress Tan Kheng Hua, who plays the mother of one of the lead characters in Crazy Rich Asians, countered that the film was a reflection of Kwan’s “specific perspective”.
She told The Washington Post: “It’s called Crazy Rich Asians, it’s not called “Every Singaporean”.