Jon M. Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians (2018) centres on Rachel Chu, a young Chinese-American economics professor at NYU, who has been dating Singaporean Nick Young for a year. He invites her back home to meet his family, which turns out to be one of the richest in the world. The family and their social group are horrified that he is dating an ABC (American Born Chinese) from an undistinguished background. Drama ensues.
Michelle Yeoh, playing Nick’s mother Eleanor Young, is a fabulous anti-hero. Eleanor is a slender, composed woman, whose mouth rarely twitches into a smile. She immediately takes against Rachel. But as the story unfolds, we learn about the sacrifices she has made for her son. Yeoh conveys Eleanor’s emotional intensity with small gestures – in one scene, brushing her hand tenderly across one of Nick’s shirts.
Crazy Rich Asians is delicious, if at times frothy. The dialogue pops with humour. The female characters sport a Paris fashion season’s worth of dresses. Six-pack flaunting male leads find a reason to be topless every other scene. We are treated to travel-brochure worthy shots of Singapore’s skyline and enough sumptuous meals to get the saliva glands churning. A lush cross-cultural aesthetic is set early on by the Los Angeles-based Malaysian singer Cheryl K’s bilingual version of ‘Money (That’s What I Want),’ the rhythm and blues number made famous by the Beatles. This time, the song begins in Mandarin. In the cinema, the person sitting next to me leaned over to whisper, ‘I think … maybe … that’s ‘Money’.’ The song is familiar but the rendition is all new. The Singaporean society presented by Crazy Rich Asians has the features of any global elite – fancy food, expensive jewels, first class plane tickets. But it is also proudly and contentedly itself, unwilling to break down for any American.
But the setting somewhat outshines the plot. Cute guy reveals surprising riches is not exactly a groundbreaking story. Nor is the romance particularly compelling. Our female lead, Rachel (played by Constance Wu), is sparky, inventive, brave and intelligent. But her romantic interest, Nick, has few interesting traits (if you don’t count abs and fortune) – actor Henry Golding does what he can with the fairly cardboard Prince Charming role. Nick’s behaviour for most of the film is characterized by a degree of cowardliness; he has not prepared Rachel at all for meeting his family. We only root for Rachel and Nick to get together because that is what the dramatic conventions demand.
A more complex second plotline follows Astrid Leong, Nick’s cousin, and her ‘commoner’ husband. The power dynamic is muddied – Astrid is wealthy, but female, while her ex-military husband has machismo but is socially vulnerable. He is treated badly by her family and takes his bitterness out on her. Gemma Chan’s portrayal of Astrid’s restrained misery is moving.
Before the film was a film, it was a book: Singaporean-American Kevin Kwan’s 2013 novel of the same name – the first of a trilogy. The details differ slightly and the film is unable to devote quite as much time to Astrid and her husband as Kwan’s novel, which is a pity. On screen, some of the novel’s snark and social satire is lost. In the film’s opening scene, the Youngs show up to a London hotel soaking wet. In the book, the same scene occurs. The difference – in the novel we know it is because, Felicity Young believes, ‘it was a sin to take a taxi nine blocks’ and to save money they have walked from Piccadilly tube station. Kwan presents the Youngs in all their contradictions. They will suffer to save a taxi fare, but buy a whole hotel to flout a racist hotel manager. Kwan’s books are society novels of a breed familiar to British readers. Think Jane Austen or William Thackeray, there is a love for the characters but also a raised eyebrow. Still a simplification may be inevitable in novel-to-cinema adaptions – book lovers will always claim you need to read the original.
Up until now, I’ve been writing this like Crazy Rich Asians is just another film. But it isn’t. It’s a film that is bearing the weight of expectation. It’s a splashy Hollywood production with a largely Asian or Asian American cast. White characters appear in the background in a story that is not about them. It’s been a long time since cinemas have seen anything like it. The Joy Luck Club, a family saga adapted from Amy Tan’s eponymous 1989 novel, came out in 1993. The Harold and Kumar franchise not only began way back in 2004, but mocked its two Asian male leads. The buzz around Crazy Rich Asians, especially in the Asian American community, has, understandably, been huge.
A lot of this buzz has been positive. My Twitter feed is full of testimonials from Asian Americans who have longed to see faces like their own on screen. Many cried with joy or relief. Then there is the criticism: the film’s fixation with a small sliver of the wealthy global elite. Others complain that it doesn’t even live up to promises of diversity: the majority of the cast are pale-skinned and of East-Asian descent. A debate has erupted over whether the accent used by Rachel’s college friend Peik Lin (played by Queens-born rapper Awkwafina) appropriates Black culture.
Is it fair to criticize the film for not portraying every type of Asian person, or portraying Asian people behaving in troubling ways? It certainly is fair to criticize a cinema culture in which this is THE Asian movie. There shouldn’t be only one slot. No one is worried that because ITV is running an adaption of Vanity Fair, those will be the only white people, or even the only English people, we’ll see all year. The failure or success of that one show will not determine whether white girls ever get to see themselves portrayed on television again.
I didn’t cry watching Crazy Rich Asians. Last year, sitting in a small art-house cinema, I watched Steve James’s Abacus: Small Enough to Jail (2016). It’s a documentary about a Chinese-American family-run bank. The father is accused of fraud and his three daughters try to prove him innocent. I wept constantly. The sisters dress, act, and sound like the Asian American New Yorkers they are. They reminded me of my mother and her friends. My mother’s father worked for the UN, not a bank, was Japanese, not Chinese. But her similarity to the film’s bossy eldest sister was enough to soak my tear ducts. The sisters held themselves in a way I recognized. They were proud and defensive in a way that reminded me of the women I’ve looked up to all my life.
Although I didn’t tear up in Crazy Rich Asians, I know why so many did. Representation is powerful. And when you ask a delightful, slightly silly, rom-com to represent so many people, it may not stand up to the weight of their expectations. Still, I’m glad it exists. It is a start. But is it the Great Asian American Movie? I really hope not. There are so many more stories to be told.
Main image: Jon M. Chu, Crazy Rich Asians, 2018, film still. Courtesy: Warner Bros. Pictures
Rowan Hisayo Buchanan is a Japanese-British-Chinese-American writer. She is the author of Harmless Like You (Sceptre, 2016), winner of The Authors’ Club First Novel Award and a Betty Trask Award. Her writing has appeared in The Guardian, Granta, The Atlantic and The White Review, among other places.