As the only high-budget Hollywood film in the past 25 years with a majority Asian cast, Crazy Rich Asians offers a much-needed reprise to an industry dominated by — to put it delicately — not, not white people. And because the movie holds such historical significance, it also inadvertently takes on the role as the only compelling narrative of Asian and Asian American identity for the next few years or so. And so, as a result, the film is subject to a higher standard than any other film.
Taking place mostly in Singapore, we follow the struggles of Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), a Chinese-American economics professor, navigate her way through as series of cultural and social shocks as she visits the home of Nick Young (Henry Golding), her boyfriend and the representation of metaphorical royalty, for his friend’s wedding. Though within the beginning couple of minutes, their relationship could have been categorized as any other relationship, we are soon revealed to the main conflict of the story through a short animated visualization of the network effects of one simple photo, leaving Nick’s family to wonder.
We are revealed to Eleanor Young (Michelle Yeoh), Nick’s mother and the film’s main antagonist, within the first couple of minutes of the film. As she is repeatedly denied lodging at a hotel for her being Asian, Eleanor quickly earns our respect as she extracts revenge by buying the hotel she had been denied entry to. Through the showing of a series of quiet and calculating emotions, we quickly learn that Eleanor is the perfect complement for Rachel. While Rachel had never concerned herself with status or family objectives, Eleanor has lived her life making sacrifice after sacrifice for her family. We can sympathize with her, albeit questionably misguided, desire to act in her family’s best interests.
Eleanor repeatedly mentions Rachel’s inability to assimilate within her family because of cultural differences, mostly between being Asian and Asian American. It is a central theme of Asian/Asian American identity that is alluded to throughout the entire movie, although I do find that the idea had been underdeveloped. While Rachel’s mother had immigrated to the United States and built her life with almost nothing, Nick’s mother lived an extravagant life filled with other problems, mostly concerning her family’s status. Rachel and Nick, to put it simply, each grew up with a different set of problems.
Crazy Rich Asians reignites much desire for high-profile romantic comedy movies in Hollywood through the creation of a compelling conflict as well as sympathetic protagonists. Rachel and Eleanor accomplish what most romantic comedies cannot: create strong female leads each with compelling motivations and the discipline to accomplish them. Their respective incentives are unique to themselves and paired with a formidable discipline to see through their objectives to the end. Eleanor is confident, committed, put-together, but Rachel demonstrates the same, avoiding cliché tropes such as tripping over her dress or other social mistakes. Rachel, to put it simply, does not need saving from anybody.
I do, however, take issue with the film’s lack of representation of other minority groups in Singapore, which is composed of Indian, Malaysian, and other ethnic minorities in addition to Chinese. Although within the scope of the international community, the film offers a compelling narrative of Asian inclusion in media, within the context of Asia itself, it just reaffirms notions of Chinese elitism and cultural hegemony, similar to western European countries and the rest of the world. And although the film serves as a landmark of representation within the entertainment industry, it also illuminates other issues within Asian representation itself.
It is refreshing to see a high-profile Hollywood movie with such strong Asian representation. It is refreshing to see a female romantic comedy lead with such compelling discipline and motivations. It is also refreshing to not see Scarlet Johansson playing an Asian person, but that’s beside the point.
Crazy Rich Asians opened in North America on August 15th.