Loving 'Crazy Rich Asians' Is Crazy Complicated
The most common response I’ve heard to watching “Crazy Rich Asians” is “I cried”: I cried 30 seconds into the film, I cried in the last act, I cried when they played mahjong, I cried during the wedding scene, or I cried on Twitter later that night. There are really no other two words that so succinctly sum up the relief of seeing an Asian character without a threatening onslaught of racist stereotypes, or the marvel of seeing so many Asian characters in one space existing outside of tokenizing tropes as real human beings.
“Crazy Rich Asians” centers around an NYU professor (Rachel Chu, played by Constance Wu) who flies to Singapore to meet her “crazy rich” boyfriend’s (Nick Young, played by Henry Golding) family. Instantly, the matriarch (Eleanor Sung-Young, played by Michelle Yeoh) is not pleased with the romance.
The cast and crew behind “Crazy Rich Asians” is acutely aware of the stakes of the film. It’s the first Hollywood movie to center around an Asian American story (yes, Asian American, not Asian—the two are different) in 25 years since “The Joy Luck Club,” which was unfortunately warped in the public eye to perpetuate even more Asian stereotypes, as happens when there’s a quarter-century drought of mainstream Asian American film. That’s why the opening weekend for “Crazy Rich Asians” was all-or-nothing: Either the movie made history by excelling in the box office, or it flopped, and big studios cemented Asian Americans in another 25-year movie-making coffin. (Monetary value, unfortunately, has been equated to human value and film quality under Hollywood’s eye.)
So there was no other option but success, especially when so much was riding on representation in “Crazy Rich Asians,” because representation isn’t just a word or a trending hashtag. The very first scene of “Crazy Rich Asians” makes it clear why: “May I suggest you explore Chinatown?” a white manager of a luxurious London hotel snidely says to Eleanor, who is rain-soaked, exhausted, and has a booked suite. It’s a well-worn comment that’s rife with xenophobic assumptions, one that very briefly hints at what exactly multidimensional representation is trying to fight against. We see anti-Asian racist incidents in our subway stations, in our neighborhoods, and even in politics, all relying on gross stereotypes to fuel the hatred (and in the worst moments—violence). And according to John Yang, the president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, at least anecdotally, hate crimes against Asian Americans have been on the rise.
Unlike the majority of Asians and Asian Americans, Eleanor has the financial power to spar with racist assumptions. So she reveals she bought the hotel out from underneath the posh hotel manager. It’s a triumphant, fantastical moment that operates well within the movie’s logic, because “Crazy Rich Asians” is lavish escapism at its very core. Its aesthetics lie in the spectacle of “crazy richness,” kaleidoscopes of jewels, beyond Gatsby-level parties at every turn, sweeping symmetrical views of mansions brimming with opulence. There’s no doubt that the movie is beautiful, checking off every rom-com fantasy with grandiose ease—the Prince Charming love interest, the quirky best friend, the happy ending—and briefly satirizing itself to remind the audience of the dangers of worshipping this fiction: Its scenic eye-candy is focalized through our narrative anchor, Rachel, and at one point, the once-marvelous riches are distorted to disturbing proportions in a scene that’s sound-mixed and cut for an extra-harrowing effect.
But the very satirical point that “Crazy Rich Asians” hinges its story on is potentially dangerous—what if audience members walk away from the film believing that all Asians and Asian Americans are in fact, “crazy rich?” What if film-goers leave the theater believing in the model minority myth? Rising to popularity in the mid-20th Century, the model minority myth implies that Asian Americans, through hard work, exemplary citizenship, and family values, have overcome the struggles of immigration and discrimination in America to achieve financial success and assimilation. This myth ignores the fact that Asian America is the most economically divided racial group in the United States, and it has also been weaponized to create more divisive tensions between black and Asian Americans. And for some bizarre reason, it’s also constantly used as an excuse to be racist towards Asians and Asian Americans.
Wu, who has undeniable range, an infectious intensity, and killer comedic intuition, tries to defy the myth alone as Rachel, who acts as the antithesis to the crazy rich stereotype, coming from a nebulously defined, though assumedly humbler, background. The Young’s excessive living style is sifted through her wide-eyed take on all the wealthy splendor. Sometimes she’s awestruck by the opulence. Other times she’s horrified.
The closest the film gets to this is in the second-to-last scene, a thrilling mahjong match between Eleanor and Rachel, who don’t spar with money but with game strategy. Rachel reveals that she, a self-described “poor, raised by a single mother, low-class, immigrant nobody” had the winning hand all along, but chose to sacrifice the empty victory for the sake of love. It’s exhilarating seeing such a high-stakes situation transposed into calm, sharp, subtle glares from Wu and Yeoh, who sift through pride, hurt, shame, and love through layered performances. (Anyone who says there aren’t viable Asian actors after this movie is lying). And while the scene breaks the first rule of storytelling if it’s trying to transcend the model minority myth (show, don’t tell), it doesn’t have to take on the burden of actively defying the plethora of stereotypes out there. The same is not demanded of movies led and made by white people.
“Crazy Rich Asians” doesn’t have to tell every story of Asian America. That’s an unfair, impossible requisite often made to artists of color, who already have to jump through the ridiculous hurdle of convincing big studios of their worth. However, something can be said for a little sensitivity as others have pointed out—like Goh Peik Lin’s (Awkwafina’s) controversial use of AAVE (or African American Vernacular English) and the fact that the only prominent non-East Asian characters in the film are three Sikh guards carrying “gun-knives.” The film has also been criticized for failing to acknowledge Singapore’s fraught colonial history while spectacularizing its wealth. Peik Lin mentions that the Youngs traveled to Singapore in 1800s—which she says was just “jungle” and “pig farmers” at the time—to establish the domineering empire of wealth that still stands in the 21st century. If this scene was satire, then “Crazy Rich Asians” needs to do a better job clarifying its intent and purpose.
Loving “Crazy Rich Asians” is complicated. Solely interrogating it for its problematic elements is too, because movies can simultaneously erase and empower. “Crazy Rich Asians” tries so hard to do the latter (albeit, for the East Asian American subject) by imbuing its heroine with a kind of depth specific to Asian American narratives. In other words, the movie isn’t catering to the dominant culture, and all of that comes across in how Asian and Asian American elements are the default structures to the story, no longer cruelly exoticized as decorative features. All of the sights and sounds and touches of Asian America are palpable for those who have experienced them as their own: the slight stickiness that comes from spreading a ring of water on a dumpling skin; the gentle clinking sound of mahjong tiles, slightly greasy with fingerprint oil after so much use; the careful mix of English and Chinese that some bilingual homes slip through with ease.
There was one moment in the film that was met with unrestrained laughter in my local theater, which was filled with Asian American watchers. It’s the kind when the audience anticipates the punchline, so much so that it can’t help but slowly break into joy, straining under the anticipation. At one point, Nick invites Peik Lin to come inside to a massive party. “I couldn’t impose,” Peik Lin says during this rapid-fire exchange of invitation and rejection, heightened with expert comedic timing. It’s a familiar push-and-pull for anyone whose parents have taught them that this is the right way to show politeness (a custom I’d never thought I’d see on the big screen). Peik Lin eventually gives in, pulling out a ready-to-wear cocktail outfit from the trunk for the punchline we were expecting. For once, we were finally in on the joke, rather than being the butt of it.
And given its genre, “Crazy Rich Asians” manages to break down several aspects of Asian America with its limited bandwidth, one of its key points being the fraught implications of conflating and distinguishing between Asian and Asian American. This disconnect is really the true conflict between Eleanor and Rachel—not wealth, despite the way opulence is just slathered onto every scene. “You’re not our own kind,” Eleanor says to Rachel, unflinching in her biting stare. “Because I’m not rich?” Rachel counters.
“Because you’re foreign,” Eleanor eventually says. “Because you’re American.” Though sometimes its plotlines feel a little hazhapard, “Crazy Rich Asians” has an incredible amount of depth, reimagining rom-com storytelling possibilities with more faith and ambition than what is usually afforded to its conventions. The eventual, expected conclusion then, is a delightfully exuberant moment manifesting in (you guessed it) another party.
No one has to apologize for being Asian in “Crazy Rich Asians.” That’s something more and more Asian Americans are beginning to realize or express in the aftermath of the movie’s release. In one particularly heartrending Twitter thread, HuffPost Asian Voices Editor Kimberly Yam talked about the third grade class who made fun of her father’s Chinese accent, the girl who thought her eyes were an “ugly shape” at ballet camp, and the students who dressed up as Asian tourists for Halloween. “You don’t want to be Chinese anymore,” she writes, until years later in college when she realizes that “it’s fucked.”
“You’re 25 years old,” Yam ends the thread. “You see a movie with an all-asian cast at a screening and for some reason you’re crying and you can’t stop. You’ve never seen a cast like this in Hollywood. Everyone is beautiful. You’re so happy you’re Chinese.”
“Crazy Rich Asians” is by no means perfect. It stands under greater scrutiny and pressure by being the only one of its kind in 25 years. But the reason why the movie has been pulled back and forth in backlash and in praise is that people don’t see this movie as the end. Space for growth implies that there’ll be another story to exact upon that potential for change.
We’re finally able to see a possibility for Asian American narratives to find their place in mainstream art, and that’s enough reason to make anyone cry. “Crazy Rich Asians” is a step forward in the right direction, even if it stumbles a little bit along the way.
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