Crazy Rich Asians delivers on what it promises — frivolous fun

By
September 17, 2018

(Photo courtesy of Flickr) Constance Wu starred as Rachel Chu in Crazy Rich Asians.

(Photo courtesy of Flickr)
Constance Wu starred as Rachel Chu in Crazy Rich Asians.

Released on Aug. 15 this year, Crazy Rich Asians grossed over $26 million in its opening weekend. According to Box Office Mojo, Crazy Rich Asians has grossed over $121 million domestically as of Sept. 5.

For many, this movie holds deep cultural significance. Crazy Rich Asians is the first movie in 25 years that features an all-Asian cast to come from Hollywood. It is also is set in the now, “that talks about contemporary Asian Americans, living here today, part of the society,” as Michelle Yeoh pointed out. It’s a story that shows Asians being things they rarely are allowed in American media:

“Contemporary, stylish, at the top of art and fashion, emotional, funny, sarcastic and unapologetic,” as director Jon Chu said in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter. “Confident.”

In that same article, the Hollywood Reporter found that Chu and Kevin Kwan, the author of the book that inspired the movie, turned down a massive offer from Netflix to release the movie on their platform, opting to stay with Warner Bros. so Crazy Rich Asians had the opportunity to reach the big screen.

“I could sense every lawyer on the call shaking their heads: ‘Ugh, these stupid idealists.’ Here, we have a chance for this gigantic payday instantaneously,” Kwan said in the article. “But Jon and I both felt this sense of purpose. We needed this to be an old-fashioned cinematic experience, not for fans to sit in front of a TV and just press a button.”

Now, if you haven’t heard of this movie, here’s the basic plot. Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) is a game theory economics professor at New York University, happily dating fellow professor Nick Young (Henry Golding). It’s been over a year and Rachel hasn’t heard much about, or been invited to meet, Nick’s family. He, on the other hand, has settled into her life and met Rachel’s mother (Tan Kheng Hua), an immigrant from China who has built her career in real estate and raised Rachel as a single mother. When Nick invites Rachel to his best friend Colin’s (Chris Pang) wedding in Singapore, he unwittingly sets off a chain of events that neither he nor Rachel (who bears the brunt of his blundering decisions) are prepared for.

Within minutes of the film’s start, the stunning soundtrack had me nearly in tears. Sourcing from artists all over, the movie featured a wide range of styles and voices, from VAVA (one of the biggest female rappers in China’s controversial hip-hop culture) to Malaysian singer Cheryl K to Japanese-American singer Kina Grannis. The choice of Coldplay’s song, “Yellow,” covered by Katherine Ho initially seemed to me a strange, insensitive choice, but after reading Chu’s letter to the band explaining why he wanted to use their song in the Hollywood Reporter, it made more sense. 

One thing I can say for sure is that this movie is very relatable for those in the Asian diaspora, especially for Asian Americans. The cast and is made up of Asian actors from all over the world — Australia, England, America, Malaysia, Hong Kong, etc.

This was exceptional, because so often, Asians roles are whitewashed, you can read my other article about whitewashed roles. The roles for Asians in films are so limited.

Many of the jokes and themes are understandable for those in the diaspora, but may be harder to grasp or don’t hold the same weight for those who live in areas where Asians are not the minority. For some international moviegoers, this movie may not seem like the long-awaited, much anticipated answer to a long-suffering cry from our Asian American audiences. According to Box Office Mojo, Crazy Rich Asians has grossed over $22 million internationally, which is approximately 18 percent of what it has made nationally. Obviously, it has not released in every country around the world, but I find it particularly resonates with people who have hungered for representation on the big screen.

Rachel is torn between two worlds, neither enough of either one to move the way she wants to. She is Chinese-American.

Nick’s mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), literally tells Rachel: “You will never be enough.”

Eleanor constantly reinforces this idea at multiple points in the movie, jabbing Rachel with how American she is for following her passions and how she is not Eleanor’s “own kind of people… You’re a foreigner, an American.” When Nick expresses how he thought his mother would be excited because Rachel is a Chinese professor, Eleanor corrects him, “Chinese American.” Even Rachel’s own mother tells her in Mandarin that her “face is Chinese. You speak Chinese, but here (gestures to Rachel’s head), and here (her heart), you are different.”

This struggle captured the sometimes painful truth of many people who are multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic, that they will feel torn between their many identities and will be constantly questioned by people from those different identities and constantly ‘othered.’

However, this conflict never falls into complete villainization of Eleanor as the ‘Tiger Mom,’ instead portraying her as a complicated woman who grew up in another time and place, who put family before her own career, and who was subjected to the Asian family hierarchy of searching for approval from Nick’s grandmother — for years. Yeoh actually required this nuance be added to the script, according to the Hollywood Reporter, so Chu brought in TV writer Adele Lim to increase cultural and emotional complexity.

Yet, Crazy Rich Asians is still relatable to people, no matter your background, for the universal themes it touches on: love, family, gossip, looking for familial approval, self-confidence, powerful women, social hierarchy, not feeling like you are enough, economic hierarchy and more.

And people are loving it! According to The Seattle Times, Maia and Alex Shibutani, Harry Shum Jr., and Jimmy O. Yang bought out movie theaters for screenings of Crazy Rich Asians.

While I was perfectly satisfied with the movie, I have heard some valid criticisms: this movie wasn’t authentic enough. Set mostly in Singapore, the scenes of urban life were limited and far between. I mean, the title is Crazy Rich Asians, people! They’re crazy rich, which equals ridiculous extravagance and excess. That’s partly the appeal of the movie!

One point of contention was that the screen time and portrayal of other Asian minorities (not just Chinese diaspora characters) like the Sikh door guards and the darker skinned servants are never addressed and even presented as scary in the gate scene. This movie was definitely not built to address the relationship that ethnically overseas Chinese and those living in the places they moved to have historically had. That was really unfortunate and incredibly disappointing to see. It also brings up the fact that Crazy Rich Asians is really only about Chinese characters, and East Asians are comparatively more represented onscreen (albeit often in stereotyped roles) than South, South East, or other Asian populations. 

Someone commented on a Youtube video that Singaporeans don’t prepare dumplings around the table the way one of the scenes depicted. To that, I can’t say anything. I don’t know if they do or don’t. If the dumpling scene is more relatable to Asian Americans than Singaporeans, that kind of ties back into my feeling of Crazy Rich Asians being made for, and in a way, celebrating, Asian Americans and the diaspora.

(Photo courtesy of The Diplomat.com)

(Photo courtesy of The Diplomat.com)

For me, it didn’t have to be completely authentic. I subscribe to the belief put forward by Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris of the New York Times podcast Still Processing. In discussing Ava DuVernay’s Wrinkle in Time, they floated the idea that just because DuVernay is a pioneering black female in the film production industry, not everything she makes has to be perfect. Same here. It’s not going to be completely perfect — and it can’t satisfy everyone! Crazy Rich Asians hit all the points it needed to for a frivolous, moving, and still deeply fulfilling experience.

Some people on Twitter started a discussion about how Crazy Rich Asians was to the Asian American community what Black Panther was to the African-American community. I strongly disagree. You cannot (or I guess I should say, should not) compare those two films. Black Panther’s themes discuss and address Black Americans’ struggles, institutionalized racism and poverty, and the deep pull of the ‘homeland’, a search for one’s own history and place. Additionally, Black Panther’s release had just as much of a powerful political statement to it as it did a social statement. I don’t think that you can argue that Crazy Rich Asians is breaking the same barriers or the same ground that Black Panther did, because the stories and the communities addressed in the movies are different, both in culture and treatment in America.

That’s not to say that Crazy Rich Asians isn’t bold in it’s own way. It definitely is, just not in the same direction. Did I already mention that Crazy Rich Asians is the first Hollywood movie in 25 years to have an all Asian cast? No?

My complaints about the movie are minimal: scene changes and the timeline wasn’t always clear. However, Henry and Constance communicated about Henry’s obliviousness, and Astrid epically roasted her husband Michael for his fragile masculinity.

Nora Lum (stage name Awkwafina) and Ken Jeong were simultaneously hilarious and utterly cringeworthy (Jeong moreso). Lum (and Jeong as well) is caught in cultural crosshairs. She is both so representative and appropriative.

Lum is a New Yorker, an Asian American woman who loves hip-hop and raps under the stage name Awkwafina, something that she should be able to do. But with the history of hip-hop and the current culture of hip-hop comes a responsibility that is sometimes difficult to navigate. Throughout the movie, Lum and Jeong consistently slip into what I thought was blaccent, which is a manner of speaking which is common to some African American communities, using what has become to be culturally understood concepts, ideas, and ways of speaking to capitalize on a type of humor produced from another group of people of color in a mainstream film.

It isn’t the first time, and I’m sure it won’t be the last, but if Lum and Jeong had managed to balance their humor with their delivery better and not speak in blaccent I think the movie would have been a better product. It’s difficult, because I want to say that yes, Asian Americans can be a part of the hip-hop culture, we can be anything we want, but for me there is a difference in representation and appropriation and Jeong and Lum fell on the wrong side.

If you’ve read the book and you’re wondering how well the book holds up, which I also wrote a review…separate the two in your mind. Books, in general, have more space and area to fill in and build up characters, setting, plot and development. This movie does just fine as a stand alone, fun night of goofy rom-com therapy as it does commentary on the Asian disapora’s relationship to mainlands and original communities. It may not have the (very) complicated power dynamics that were threaded through the book, or the wide panning shots of Tyersall Park’s lush acreage (actually a little disappointing), or even much interaction between Nick and his grandmother who is the matriarch of the family (maybe they’re leaving it for the next movie? Hopefully?) The movie is it’s own beautiful, complicated, rough, loving creation.

It took many other productions to pave the way for this movie: the Joy Luck Club, Fresh off the Boat, and the work of actors like Margaret Cho, Ken Jeong, Maggie Q, Sandra Oh, Lucy Liu, Ken Watanabe, WongFu Productions, other YouTubers and more.  

Asians have been, for so long, behind the scenes, behind the lens, and now, with this step onto the stage, I believe this is only the beginning. What tempers my hope is knowing that it took 25 years after the Joy Luck Club for another Hollywood movie to come along with an all-Asian cast. But already, we have John Cho’s movie, Searching, out in theaters on Sept. 15, so I’m not too worried that another drought would stretch for another 25 years from here.

As Wu said in an article by Jennifer Chen in Bust Magazine about Asian-American representation in entertainment:

“We’re trying to make more stories so that investors will invest in stories that are different,” Wu said. “Asian Americans always talk about how they want positive representation. But the key is never positive representation. You want narrative plentitude… Yes, it’s fun to go to a movie and see hot people in cool clothes. But there are times when you want to see somebody who’s struggling like you are, who maybe isn’t cool, and never was cool. You want to see that their narrative is still important enough to be the lead.”

This was a good movie for what it was. It didn’t promise to be the perfect film to break the 25 year gap of all-Asian cast in Hollywood, and it certainly didn’t promise to be deep. Crazy Rich Asians delivered a movie that walked that line of being genuine, being relatable with being lighthearted and fun.   


Crazy Rich Asians delivers on what it promises — frivolous fun was published on September 17, 2018 in Arts & Entertainment, Front Page

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