Here’s the thing: Crazy Rich Asians, directed by Jon M. Chu and based on the novel by Kevin Kwan, is a straight-up traditional romantic comedy. Boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, boy introduces girl to his family, boy’s family is not very fond of the girl, wacky hijinks ensue, and love prevails in the end. The formula for any romantic comedy is essentially: love + obstacle + angst = all’s well that ends well. This movie fits that to a T.
Here’s where Crazy Rich Asians is different: the entire cast is Asian or Asian American, and the film takes place in Singapore. But the Rom-Com beats are still there, perfectly intact, and because of that familiar framework, the film doesn’t get bogged down in belaboring its supposed “foreignness” to white American audiences.
That in a nutshell, is what is so fantastic about this film.
Let’s get more specific: Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) is an economics professor at NYU, raised by a single mother. Her boyfriend is Nick Young (Henry Golding), also a professor, who grew up in Singapore. Nick invites Rachel to Singapore for his best friend, Colin’s wedding; when she arrives in Singapore, Rachel is shocked to realize that Nick’s family is gobsmackingly wealthy, having amassed their fortune in real estate and hotels. Rachel is completely overwhelmed and desperate to make a good impression, but Nick’s mother Eleanor, (the resplendent Michelle Yeoh) finds Rachel to be too American and too working class to be good enough for her son. She makes it clear that she does not approve of their relationship – to the point where it seems that Nick will have to choose between his family and Rachel. Many of Nick’s family and friends also do not believe Rachel belongs in their world, and they behave in ways varying from dismissive to outright hostile. Rachel, with the encouragement and help of her college best friend, Peik Lin (Awkwafina), is determined to win Nick’s family over – but she is also determined to be treated with respect, and is willing to walk away from the relationship if need be. With a number of hiccups along the way, including: a dead fish left in a bed, the breakup of Nick’s cousin Astrid’s (Gemma Chan) marriage, a confrontation during Colin’s insanely opulent over-the-top wedding ceremony, (during which, I kid you not the bride walks down an aisle filled with water and flowers), and an epic showdown during a game of mahjong, Eleanor comes around and Rachel and Nick finally get engaged.
In my last article for Story Screen, I tried to unpack how powerful representation in media is for people of color. Crazy Rich Asians is a huge achievement in that realm, just by virtue of the cast and the film’s setting. It’s empowering and heartening to see the familiar romantic comedy format, executed perfectly, featuring people from the general area of the world that my family is from. I love that it deals with the emotional side, as opposed to the political side, of being an immigrant family. I love that the story is about Rachel being brilliant, strong, and fierce to protect her dignity amongst Nick’s judgmental family. I love the feminist undertones – the strong relationships between Rachel and her mother, Rachel and Peik Lin, and the friendship Rachel cultivates with Astrid, (who is the only one in Nick’s family who likes her). And on the flip side, I love that the movie features a cast full of Asian men who take off their shirts – and I don’t mean that in a lascivious way! Asian men have historically been portrayed in Western media as feminine or asexual, just as Asian women have historically been portrayed in Western media as hypersexual and submissive. Crazy Rich Asians consciously avoids those two pitfalls and it is glorious to behold.
But not everyone I know is a fan. A lot of people from Singapore have criticized the demographics represented in the film: the story is entirely about the wealthy upper class Chinese population in Singapore. The film completely overlooks the fact that a sizable chunk of Singapore’s citizens are Malay (the indigenous community in the country) and Indian. There aren’t any Malay characters in the story, and there are only two Indian characters – if we can even call them that, as they don’t have any lines. We meet them only when Peik Lin and Rachel are driving up to the Young family estate, and their entire purpose in the story seems to be that they are huge, turbaned, carrying bayonets, and scare the crap out of the two women. Basically, they are there to be brutish and frightening. Singapore has a long history of poor treatment of its minority populations – the Chinese majority, experience significant economic and social privilege, and the state has an unfortunate track record of legislating discriminatory policies against its Indian and Malay citizens – so having the only two non-Chinese characters in the film essentially be portrayed as “thugs” is problematic, to say the least. There has also been some grumbling over the casting of Golding as Nick; he is half English and half Malaysian Iban, and some feel that having him in the role is tantamount to white-washing.
I myself, while watching this film, privately made note of the fact that all of the Singaporean characters spoke English with British accents. I was relieved at first, because British accents tend to signify worldliness and sophistication, and would help white audiences access the story without getting bogged down in biases towards Singaporean Chinese dialects. But then, the more I thought about it, it made me a bit sad. Why do we need to hear British accents in order to believe the story? Why do we live in a world where a film full of Asian characters needs to consciously avoid using Asian accents in order to keep people from tuning out – or mocking?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. And I don’t love that my love of this movie is complicated by these questions – can’t I just enjoy a beautiful movie about people of color in peace without having to think about how fucked up racial politics in Singapore is?
Maybe the larger question to ask here is: can one movie be all things to all people?
In 2001, Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding was released in theaters – a sprawling, Richard Altman-esque exploration of one family in New Delhi as it prepares for a wedding. That year, my father and I famously went and watched it in theaters over and over and over again – for a total of 13 times.
But it turns out we were watching the film for different reasons. My dad loved the Delhi-ness of the movie –it reminded him of when he was young and had just met my mother, and of exploring the city – its sights, smells, and sounds, the ebullient Delhi dialect of English, which was always punctuated by Hindi and Punjabi.
I loved the movie, because before then I had literally never seen a mainstream film featuring people who looked like me. That movie made me feel seen.
My dad for a while was a bit confused by this. “Monsoon Wedding is a great movie, but… Reeya. That movie isn’t about us. The family in that film is Punjabi. We are Bengali.”
But what my dad didn’t understand is, for those of us like me, who were born and raised in America, those regional cultural differences don’t mean as much as they would to someone born and raised in India. For those of us like me, just seeing Indian people depicted on the big screen was a watershed moment.
Can one movie be all things to all people? No. The answer is no. The answer will always be no.
Is Crazy Rich Asians flawed? Yes. Absolutely. The lack of portrayal of non-Chinese Singaporean people in the film is pretty damn egregious given the political situation in Singapore, and I completely understand why some viewers aren’t able to forgive the film for that.
But Crazy Rich Asians is also a breakthrough. It’s the first time a film has featured an all-Asian cast in a modern setting since The Joy Luck Club in 1993. It’s a romantic comedy filtered through a specific second-generational immigrant lens that doesn’t condescend to white audiences. It’s two hours of pure joy and gorgeous art direction and fabulous costuming and wonderful performances by phenomenal actors who we never get to see otherwise. And it’s breaking box office records.
I saw Crazy Rich Asians in Fishkill, NY on opening day. The theater was packed, and maybe two-thirds of the audience was white. When the film ended, everyone in the theater clapped and cheered, and my heart soared. Filmmaking – and art in general – is at its best when it creates and cultivates human connection and empathy. Crazy Rich Asians is able to do so because it so nonchalantly inserts people of color into a storytelling formula that everyone is universally familiar with. Progress comes in fits and starts – the film doesn’t get all aspects of representation right, but given that it took 25 years after The Joy Luck Club for this movie to come about, I’d say we were due for a bit of a shake-up even if it isn’t perfect. And if Crazy Rich Asians sets the stage for future mainstream films with completely non-white casts, then we will have more and more opportunities to do better going forward. There is no downside to that.
Reeya is the Operations Manager at Beacon Music Factory, an out-of-the-box music school in Beacon, NY. She has a tuxedo cat named Eliot, the Stig of Berkelac, and a film degree from Vassar College that she does not use. She usually can be seen singing and playing bass at BMF shows or drinking IPAs at Dogwood while reading pop culture news on her phone.