Crazy Rich Asians is an exciting revival of the romantic comedy genre, and the way it revolves around the outrageously wealthy is nothing short of an escapist fantasy to me. I’d imagine it would be an even more fantastical to those unfamiliar with Chinese and Singaporean culture, which has never been featured on such a global stage.
As a rags-to-riches love story, the plot itself is nothing we haven’t seen before in a Hollywood rom-com — but this time the rags are Rachel Chu’s (Fresh Off the Boat’s Constance Wu) working class upbringing by her single mother who immigrated to America from China. This is in stark contrast with the riches of her boyfriend, Nicholas ‘Nick’ Young (Henry Golding), who unbeknownst to her is the heir to an old money dynasty in Singapore. Having dated for over a year, Nick decides it’s time to take Rachel home to meet his family, especially as he’s going to be the best man at his childhood friend Colin’s (Chris Pang) wedding. This seems innocuous enough until Rachel discovers that the wedding is the social event of the season in Singapore and not even a royal wedding could compare to the exclusive $40 million extravaganza. Suddenly she finds herself having to navigate the ups and downs of landing Singapore’s most eligible bachelor.
It’s the richness of Nick and Rachel’s cultural backgrounds that truly sets this film apart and makes it such an emotional experience for Asian-Americans to see themselves represented on the silver screen. (I use “Asian-American” here even though I’m Chinese-Australian because we don’t have a more efficient English phrase that means “member of the Asian diaspora who has grown up in the West.”) There are aspects that will be familiar to many ABCs (American-Born Chinese), like making dumplings with your family and struggling to speak Chinese to older relatives, but like Rachel, we’re also thrown into Nick’s insanely opulent world where people command fleets of private helicopters for bachelor parties and buy million dollar earrings at a whim.
The film opened August 15 in the US, but isn’t out in Australia for another week. Call me impatient but I’ve been waiting for a movie like this my whole life and so I’ve already been to two advanced screenings, once with another Asian-Australian friend and again with my mum who immigrated to Australia from China more than 25 years ago. I thought she might share my excitement at seeing faces that looked like ours playing not just background roles as chefs, accountants, or kung fu masters — but every role, from socialite to comedic relief. However to my disappointment, the importance of representation in media is largely lost on my mum and many other first-generation immigrants who have grown up in societies where they are the majority. This distinction between Asian-Americans and “Asian Asians” is a central conflict in the film. My frugal Chinese mum was only lured into seeing a movie at the cinema because our tickets were free. I told her about my plans to watch the film again when it’s officially released here so I could pay money for it and support it, and she scoffed at the thought and told my dad who mocked me as well. But this movie’s not for them. (Just kidding, this movie has something for everyone please support it so we can have the sequels!) (Update: A sequel is in the works!)
There’s been so much buzz around this film that you can’t have missed the fact that it’s the first Hollywood film in 25 years to feature an all-Asian cast in a contemporary story. Not only is it momentous to see stories with Asians at the forefront, this film does one better by centering on the experiences of different generations of Asian women. All of them are well-developed and have their own unique motivations spurring their arcs — a far cry from the meek and submissive portrayals we typically see. Nick’s maternal grandmother, Shang Su Yi, has a smaller role in the film than in the book series but her significance is not understated. “Traditionally, this grandma is the head of the family,” my mum whispered with a note of reverence as the characters on screen spoke of filial piety.
The themes of matriarchy and the importance of mothers is central to the film. It seems so Asian to me that the main conflict doesn’t arise from a series of misunderstandings like they would in a typical white romantic comedy, but due to deliberate meddling by Nick’s mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh). As Yeoh herself has emphasized, Eleanor is not a villain in this story and her actions are motivated by the love she has for her son, and the family values that those in the West may not hold as dearly. I’ve seen a fair share of high school and college romances being broken up by parental disapproval and this film goes to show that even people in their 30s can’t escape that. My own mum seems to have eased off on the “only date Chinese people” rule; she’s discovered other cultures that also place a high value on family, so they’ve been deemed acceptable. I have no idea how she’ll react to me dating girls but she did laugh at the “rainbow sheep” line from Nick’s very stereotypically-depicted gay cousin, which I’ll take as a good omen.
The ultimate choice about where Rachel’s going to lead her life and her relationship is left up to her. Winning Eleanor’s approval is very much tied up in how she has to overcome this gap between the mainland-Asian and diasporic-Asian experience. I’m sure every Asian-American (-British, -Australian, -Canadian etc.) can identify with Rachel in some way. She’s had to exist within two very different worlds, and we see this in the contrast of her introductory scene where she uses game theory to master poker, to the climactic face off she has with Eleanor over a game of mahjong.
The moment that hit me the hardest was when Rachel’s mum (Kerry Chu, played by Tan Kheng Hua) gently tells her daughter that though she looks Chinese, and in her head she may be Chinese, when it comes to her heart (and here she switches from Mandarin to English), “you’re different.” I truly haven’t felt as seen and called out on this level since I read my enneagram type. It spoke to me so much because it’s true. I never feel like more of an outsider than I do when I visit China because I know that on the surface I can blend into the crowds but if anyone tries to talk to me, my limited vocabulary will single me out as being different.
On a lighter note, that flipping back and forth between Chinese and English is something my mum does too. When she has something important to say that she really wants my brother and me to understand, she’ll suddenly switch to English. But for the most part, we speak Cantonese at home and it was such a novelty to hear my own language being spoken on the big screen. The first time I saw the film, the head of the person head was blocking all the subtitles but I didn’t need them! There are throwaway lines that aren’t even subtitled at all and the fact that I could understand them made me feel an even deeper connection to the film.
Much like how the settings of New York and Los Angeles often act as another character in a film or TV show, here Singapore shines as a metropolitan city with its world-class airport, futuristic gardens, delectable hawker markets and more. The film has been criticized for not showing the diversity of cultures and languages within Singapore, a country with four national languages. In the books, the characters are impressively multilingual and speak a wide variety of languages and dialects in addition to English, Cantonese and Mandarin — whether it’s Singlish, Malay, Tamil or more, but apart from a few lines of Hokkien, these aren’t as represented and the characters with speaking roles are mostly East Asian.
Hollywood loves to whitewash roles with the excuse that they just couldn’t find an Asian actor for the part. Crazy Rich Asians proves them wrong with a cast filled with household names and newcomers alike. We know Constance Wu can carry a show from her four seasons on Fresh Off the Boat, killing it as Jessica Huang, a domineering mother to rival Eleanor herself. I’m sort of scared of Michelle Yeoh but I also really want her approval. Gemma Chan was born to play Astrid. Like Vanity Fair‘s Joanna Robinson says, she’s actually perfect but you still really like her. Astrid has long been my favorite character from the books and she also gets to deliver the best line in the film. I love her a casual amount. Also I don’t usually care for men but we can all agree that leading man Henry Golding is incredibly charming.
There are also quite a few Asian comedians featured in this film. Ken Jeong, Ronny Chieng and Jimmy O. Yang all bring some com to the rom. It’s Awkwafina who you might have seen in Ocean’s 8 earlier this year, who really steals the show as Rachel’s college roommate Peik Lin. Seeing so many familiar Asian faces together truly heightens the experience. Stay for the mid-credits scene where an appearance by Harry Shum Jr. set off delighted screams of recognition from both the audiences I was in.
I’d be remiss not to mention the music! Even though I knew it was coming the second time, the upbeat Mandopop opening number that plays over your typical lineup of Hollywood film studio logos made me tear up instantly and the tears did not stop pricking my eyes until well after I got home. The soundtrack is stacked with Asian talent including a magical cover by Kina Grannis. For me, the standout song is the Mandarin version of Coldplay’s Yellow, which director Jon M. Chu fought to use in the film. It’s still stuck in my head even though there was only like one lyric I understood from it. For me, being familiar with the tune but not fully comprehending the lyrics totally captures the diasporic experience of that fog when someone speaks to you and you understand what they’re saying but you don’t have the vocabulary to reply properly.
It’s ridiculous that anyone thinks a single film can capture the Asian experience, whatever that even means, but this film is a great start toward showing a wider breadth of it. In the end my mum said the film was 幾好 (pretty good) but she’ll just wait until it’s shown on free-to-air TV to watch again. Meanwhile I’m counting down the days till the Australian release so I can get on the crazy ride and experience it all over again.