After topping the U.S. box office for three consecutive weeks — including an eye-popping $35 million in its first five days in theaters — “Crazy Rich Asians” has become one of 2018’s breakout hits.
Adapted from Kevin Kwan’s 2013 novel of the same name, the movie — the first Hollywood studio production to feature an English-language, predominantly Asian cast since the immigrant-focused “The Joy Luck Club” a full 25 years ago — was praised in the U.S. for its stereotype-shattering depictions of Asians and Asian Americans. The movie centers around a young couple, Rachel Chu and Nick Young — played by Constance Wu and Henry Golding, respectively — who take a trip to Singapore to meet Nick’s family. Not long after they land, Rachel realizes that her boyfriend is the heir to an immense fortune and one of the most eligible bachelors on the island, but that his fiercely protective, imperious mother Eleanor — played by Michelle Yeoh — isn’t exactly thrilled with the woman her son is dating.
Yet despite its eccentric, mold-breaking characters and great on-location shots of Singapore, the movie still trades in some well-worn tropes. As I watched, I found myself wondering whether Asia had really escaped Hollywood’s exoticizing gaze, or if the filmmakers had just slapped a fresh cover onto the same old book.
My unease set in as Rachel and Nick arrive in Singapore. The dizzying scenes that follow — full of dazzling skyscrapers, delicious-looking street food, and ostentatious displays of extreme wealth — resemble a tourism commercial more than a real city. Although more flattering than the usual tired shots of a backward Orient frozen in time or of grungy cityscapes full of third-world sweatshops, the Singapore we get in “Crazy Rich Asians” is no more balanced or representative of life in modern Asia.
Instead, the movie revels in the city’s opulence: It’s the kind of place where outrageously rich people drop $1.2 million on a pair of earrings and hold bachelor parties on rented freighters. It’s a tall order to expect a single movie to fully capture the diversity found in a place like Singapore — and not really fair to demand “Crazy Rich Asians” to make up for decades of underrepresentation in Hollywood cinema — but it was nevertheless jarring to see. In particular, as other commentators have noted, for a movie entitled “Crazy Rich Asians” and set in Southeast Asia, it’s odd that almost every character who appears onscreen is ethnically Chinese.
Still, the movie does raise some interesting questions. The Young family, for example, is split between two competing, contradictory identities. On the surface, they are all elegant, Christian, globally-minded postcolonial elites with Western degrees and posh accents. Take a deeper look, however, and it becomes clear that the film treats most of Nick’s family and friends as stand-ins for Chinese orthodoxy and xenophobia. Although it is repeatedly emphasized that they are “old money” Singaporean Chinese, having arrived there in the 19th century, their real issue with Rachel isn’t her lack of wealth — many of them can’t even envision her not being rich — but her status as an outsider and not a true Chinese.
Yet for all their focus on Rachel’s “foreignness,” the movie takes the opportunity to remind audiences that it’s Nick’s relatives who are the truly foreign ones. They are depicted not as a family, at least in the Western sense, but as a highly hierarchical clan ruled, stereotypically, by a dowager empress — Nick’s grandmother — who is responsible for ensuring that the family upholds traditional clan values. It is a common trope, even within Chinese culture, and readers familiar with the Chinese literary canon can hardly fail to notice the parallels between Nick’s family and the central characters of the classic novel “Dream of the Red Chamber.”
In other words, although Nick’s family may seem like members of the modern, globe-trotting elite, the movie takes pains to remind audiences that their outlooks and prejudices remain inextricably Chinese — and that it’s these outdated values that pose the biggest obstacle to Nick and Rachel’s more modern, “American” conception of family and happiness. Given how widespread this kind of split identity is among the postcolonial Asian elite, it’s a shame the movie chooses to raise this subject not as a way to engage with it, but primarily to score cheap emotional points with its largely Western audience.
Nick’s mother Eleanor, the primary antagonist of the movie, is a cautionary tale of what happens to women within this traditional, patriarchal values system — and also its avatar. After she meets Nick’s future father, she gives up on her law studies to devote herself to her family. Disliked by her mother-in-law from the outset, she lets the older woman raise Nick after giving birth to him, so he has a better chance of winning his grandmother’s favor and securing the family fortune. For her, family is and always has been about sacrifice, something which holds especially true for women. And she believes Rachel is too self-centered — too “American” — for this level of commitment.
Eleanor's close-minded, superficial read of American values makes it easy for the movie to position Rachel — and the audience that’s meant to side with her — on the moral high ground. Eleanor’s fatal flaw is that she fails to see Rachel — and more broadly, immigrants — as the movie does: hybrids possessing the best qualities from both the old world and the new.
Rachel may have grown up with values the movie identifies as American — such as the importance of taking care of yourself and pursuing your own goals and dreams — but “Crazy Rich Asians” wants audiences to know that this does not make her any less Chinese. In fact, it gives her a breadth of perspective Eleanor could never hope to match. Despite her American upbringing, Rachel is still capable of beating Eleanor at her own game — quite literally, in the case of the movie’s climactic mahjong scene. Her willingness and ability to sacrifice her own happiness by ultimately turning down Nick’s proposal and not coming between him and his family proves she’s still “Chinese” at heart. But she does it on her own terms, showing what she thinks of Eleanor’s hidebound traditionalism in the process.
Two women show off their tickets after a screening of ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ in Daly City, U.S., Aug. 23, 2018. Jeff Chiu/IC
Of course, the movie is a Hollywood rom-com rather than a tragedy, and a beaten Eleanor quickly — and silently — gives her blessing to Nick and Rachel’s marriage. Afterward, as everyone celebrates the couple’s engagement, Eleanor and Rachel spy each other from across the room. They share a look before Eleanor disappears into the crowd. It is a final reminder that, in the world of “Crazy Rich Asians,” Eleanor and her values cannot truly coexist with Rachel’s more modern outlook — one side must cede ground. As it’s a Hollywood production, it’s of course Eleanor who ultimately exits, stage left.
Despite my reservations about the movie’s portrayal of Chinese culture, there’s no doubt it struck a chord with Asian American audiences. It’s less clear, however, whether it would be met with the same reception in China, should it open here. The character of Rachel, in particular, might not be quite as popular. While some viewers may appreciate her depiction as a young, independent professional and be impressed with the way she has realized the American dream as a second-generation Chinese immigrant, others might see her not as the movie wants them to, but as Eleanor does — Chinese on the outside, American on the inside.
Despite the continued uncertainty over whether “Crazy Rich Asians” will be released in the Chinese mainland, the film’s Chinese backers have already begun pushing for the inevitable sequel — which, if they follow the books, will largely be set in Shanghai — to spend more time depicting the lives and concerns of young and rich people from the Chinese mainland. Those curious about whether the film’s values will resonate with mainland audiences — and whether the sequel will make any concessions to sensibilities found in the Chinese mainland — shouldn't have to wait too long to find out.
Editors: Zhang Bo and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: The cast of ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ takes a group photo in New York, Aug. 14, 2018. Griffin Lipson/BFA/IC)