Journey to a Land Free of White People

Crazy Rich Asians might best be described as a big-tent romantic comedy. It makes plenty of room for a multigenerational family saga, a modern day fairy tale, a domestic marital drama, a satirical comedy of manners, a slapstick farce, and an epic heroic journey. There are catty asides and subtle and not-so-subtle power plays, farcical set pieces and relationship turmoil. The director John M. Chu, the writers Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim, and the entire cast turned Crazy Rich Asians into a trojan horse for all the unmade Asian American movies audiences have missed out on their entire lives.

Why cohere?

Still from Crazy Rich Asians.

Jon M. Chu. Crazy Rich Asians. 2018.

The day the Crazy Rich Asians trailer premiered online, I watched it on repeat for an hour. Then I watched it a dozen more times, texting a series of half-formed thoughts to a group chat with my three Asian American writer friends. I’d spent the previous year joking that the four of us needed to have our novels ready to sell the day Crazy Rich Asians was released, right at the stroke of midnight. I’d even urged them to join CrossFit, so that we could all confront our breakout literary stardom and our author photos with hard bodies. If Crazy Rich Asians proved to be a hit, studio heads and publishing hotshots would buy up Asian American stories the way my aunt buys dollar flip-flops during Old Navy’s annual flip-flop sale—in a delirious, short-lived mania. If it failed, we’d have to start studying for the LSATs.

This was and wasn’t hyperbole. Ever since the film’s announcement—and especially the news about its all-Asian cast1—I’ve found it close to impossible to avoid what the internet calls the discourse. A quick Google search months before the movie even premiered would have inundated you with think pieces and Twitter reaction roundups ranging from “Crazy Rich Asians Isn’t Just a Movie—It’s a Sign That I Matter, Too” to “An all-Asian cast and no martial arts: Why the ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ movie matters” to “Crazy Rich Asians has some asking: Where are the Brown Faces?” to “Ben Baller Thinks ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ is Going to Set Asians Back ’40 Years,’ Sparks Debate” to “No, Crazy Rich Asians Isn’t the Asian Black Panther.2 Over the past year, the ever-churning hype machine transformed Crazy Rich Asians into a make-or-break moment for Asian American media representation, and many people of different backgrounds bought into the hype—at least according to their Twitter feeds. Paradoxically, the appeal of the novel from which Crazy Rich Asians was adapted was its promise of reprieve from the never-ending battle of racism, yet the discourse surrounding the film has sought to place it somewhere—anywhere—on a barometer of political progress.

As much as I might have wanted to situate myself outside this conversation, it was impossible. I don’t live in a cave. It would have been foolish not to be excited about the biggest Asian American movie produced by a major studio since The Joy Luck Club, which was released in 1993, a year after I was born. So by the time the trailer was uploaded to YouTube, my expectations for it—much less the movie—were high. It would either blow my mind and inspire me with its exuberant diversity, or enrage and offend me due to its total political failure. Supporting or rejecting this movie as an Asian American would be a complicated and tumultuous affair, like loving your tone-deaf grandparents while hating the idea of going out with them in public.

The most surprising thing about the trailer was that I turned out not to have any strong feelings about it at all. I spent over an hour failing to be provoked in any particular direction. In my group chat, my three friends questioned my fixation on what they deemed to be not much more than advertising, but I didn’t understand how we could avoid reading too much into the trailer. The film’s production details, cast interviews, and promotional materials have spurred as much debate as the film itself. Trailers may not be filmic truth, but it’s impossible to pretend they don’t exist. And, in my case, impossible not to watch them over and over again.

What the trailer suggested, above all, was a movie dead set on coasting. It looked funny enough, but never more than that, and many of its punchlines fell flat. (What was hilarious about the moment when Henry Golding smirks and declares that he’s more of a Prince Harry rather than a Prince William? It was a line begging for a laugh track.) The set design and the costumes were brash and opulent, yet somehow everything looked plainer than it should have. It just wasn’t dynamic enough to live up to the hype, and the conventional framing and editing seemed to undermine what should’ve been “crazy.” While the cast in the trailer was, as promised, the most Asian I’d seen in an American movie—and all this without samurais or martial arts moves or corny accents—the omnipresence of fair-skinned model types rendered the diversity more lukewarm than bracing. (Also, the Singaporean characters’ posh English pronunciation was almost as grating as Hollywood’s grotesque array of bad “Asian” speech patterns.) Every text I sent to my chat was muddled. I wavered constantly between admiration and criticism, support and rejection. Several times I texted a punchline from the trailer verbatim, along with, “Is this funny? I think so but I can’t tell.” I felt preemptively let down, and a little sheepish about the intensity of my fervor.

I’d also had mixed feelings about the source material when I read it a couple of years ago, before the movie was announced. The Crazy Rich Asians novel is an entertaining yet shallow read, refreshing to the extent that it has no patience for the melancholic Asian American literary tradition. But I couldn’t get down with the way Kevin Kwan went about undermining the model minority myth. (Clearly I wasn’t one of the Asians discussed in an Atlantic article titled “Why Asians Love ‘Crazy Rich Asians.’”) Kwan delights in dismantling stereotypes, but he doesn’t have much aim or consistency, and his approach is zero-sum: anytime one character does something dynamic and unexpected, other characters get flattened into reductive caricatures. The male lead character Nick Young’s sexy Prince Charming persona successfully subverts the stereotype of Asian men as effeminate and passive, but in order to emphasize Nick’s appeal, Kwan forces the female protagonist, Rachel Chu, to perform the function of the pitiful Asian American woman who has never once dated an Asian American man—who has spurned them throughout her life only to be converted by Nick’s suaveness. (This aspect of the novel’s characterization of Rachel feels like wish fulfillment for someone who read the introduction to Frank Chin, Jeffery Paul Chan, Lawson Fusao Inada, and Shawn Wong’s Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian-American Writers and cheered when the editors throw Asian women who marry white men under the bus).

But finally, months after I started torturing myself via sustained exposure to the trailer on YouTube, I saw Crazy Rich Asians. Sitting in a half-empty theater in the second biggest mall in America—aptly named Destiny, USA—I was surprised by how emotional I felt. The experience of the trailer dissipated. I thought of my friends and family and wished we were all watching this movie together. Nothing could match the tenderness I felt watching a party scene with a large group of Asian American characters that evoked many—though, to be fair, nowhere near all—of the wildly different aunts, uncles, cousins and second-cousins I grew up around. The challenge was to revel in all this deep feeling while taking seriously the film’s faults and ill-conceived symbolism—and, perhaps, its political utility for the Asian American diaspora.

Crazy Rich Asians might best be described as a big-tent romantic comedy. It makes plenty of room for a multigenerational family saga, a modern day fairy tale, a domestic marital drama, a satirical comedy of manners, a slapstick farce, and an epic heroic journey. There are catty asides and subtle and not-so-subtle power plays, farcical set pieces and relationship turmoil. The director John M. Chu, the writers Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim, and the entire cast turned Crazy Rich Asians into a trojan horse for all the unmade Asian American movies audiences have missed out on their entire lives.

Which is not to say that the film successfully delivers on the potential of all these genres. But the disparate narrative threads, in all their fumbling glory, parallel the heterogenous nature of the Asian and Asian American world. What better way to represent Asian diversity—if, that is, you aren’t actually representing or telling the stories of a diverse array of Asian ethnicities—than to make an Asian American movie filled with clashing tones and genres?

The film’s genres map onto its four central female characters. (Most of the male characters, particularly Henry Golding as the leading man, remain boring and one-dimensional—the creators managed to depict Asian men as attractive, sexual beings, rather than effeminate nerds, it’s true, but they forgot to give them personalities, reducing them to little more than beautiful shells.) Constance Wu’s Rachel Chu, an American-born Chinese game theory professor at New York University, travels to Singapore for the first time to meet her rich boyfriend Nick Young’s entire family, and to attend the Singaporean wedding of the year. Rachel’s Singaporean best friend from college, Peik Lin—played with hilarious abandon by Awkwafina—lives a new-money life in Singapore that barely overlaps with Nick’s elite old-money world. Gemma Chan’s Astrid Leong-Teo, Nick’s favorite cousin, spends most of the movie conflicted about her husband’s adultery. And finally there’s Eleanor Young, Nick’s formidable, traditional, and endlessly classy mother, who views Rachel as “not being from the right type of people,” and, thus, wrong for her son. Michelle Yeoh’s performance as Eleanor is tight-lipped intensity incarnate.

At times, Peik Lin, Astrid, and Eleanor embody so many different, non-overlapping affects and tones they appear to operate in completely separate movies. Peik Lin steamrolls through her scenes as the film’s one genuinely funny character, as resplendent as her bright pink Audi, which zigzags through Singapore’s freeways at an ungodly speed. Watching her transform every slight movement into an opportunity for physical comedy, you almost forget that Crazy Rich Asians isn’t a funnier and sharper version of itself—a satire of elite Singaporean society. Astrid, her husband, and their marital issues, meanwhile, are the killjoy melodramatic foil to the movie’s other storylines—a humorless domestic drama trapped inside a comedy. Astrid’s scenes unfold in hushed tones, dark melancholic blues, and shadowy cinematography—a stark contrast to the rest of the movie’s eye-popping brightness. Eleanor remains intensely focused on derailing her son’s relationship with Rachel, who is deemed too American and low-class to marry into the Young family. Yeoh is so good that Eleanor’s grandiose drama of family legacy verges on the persuasive, despite the lack of context for why it’s so important for this family to retain its traditions in the first place, other than they’ve been rich since the 1800s. (The family’s main traditions: be rich, make dumplings, marry rich, have parties, look fabulous.) From the boisterous mess of these characters and their clashing genres emerges Rachel Chu, the film’s one truly Asian American character, the hero of this journey to a foreign land free of white people.

Crazy Rich Asians marks Rachel as different, a true individual who indulges in good food and plays a mean game of poker and possesses a heroic origin story: she grew up with a poor single mom, worked her way up to becoming the youngest faculty member at NYU, and has a secret broken past waiting to be revealed. We watch as Rachel’s mother, after giving advice on dealing with traditional Chinese families, tells Rachel, “Your face is Chinese, you speak Chinese,” and then, pointing at Rachel’s head and heart, warns her, “but here and here, you’re different.” We watch as Rachel tries to prove herself to Nick’s family as something more than a “banana [that’s] yellow on the outside and white on the inside,” while Eleanor and everyone else in Nick’s orbit subjects her to various enhanced interrogation techniques: eye rolls, a mutilated squid, a private investigator. Then, as the movie progresses, we come to realize how this “difference” Rachel possesses—this cultural hybridity—actually affirms her integrity. In this way, we are made to understand that Rachel is our Asian American hero, someone who can merge the movie’s disparate narrative threads—and all the fragments of the Asian and Asian American world—into a cohesive whole. Dressed in floral print after floral print (plus a baby-blue Cinderella gown adorned with fabric flowers) in contrast to Astrid and Eleanor’s muted colors and sleek silhouettes, Rachel symbolizes the spring awakening for a unified Asian identity.

There was something exhilarating about watching Rachel, a dynamic Asian American female character, go up against the antagonistic but complicated Eleanor, while the men of the movie spent their time enmeshed in cringe-worthy conversations and easy punchlines. (I’m still trying to forget that bachelor party yacht scene, and Nick’s cousin Alistair yelling that Rachel has small breasts). But the way Rachel went about ushering in a new era of unified Asian-hood left me uneasy.

In three pivotal monologues throughout the movie, Rachel announces her cultural and socioeconomic upbringing to Eleanor and other characters, a reminder to the audience of the way she’s been coded as different, of her status as an underdog hero to root for. The first time Rachel and Eleanor meet, in one of the film’s clunkier moments of dialogue, Rachel jumps into a monologue about her background after forcing Eleanor into a hug. She tells her that her mom immigrated from China when Rachel was still a baby, how she didn’t finish school but fought her way up from poverty to become one of the top real estate agents in Flushing, Queens. The chaos of the kitchen obstructs Rachel’s attempts to be heard, and Eleanor ignores Rachel’s oversharing. Once the monologue is over, Eleanor dismisses Rachel’s decision to pursue her passion and career, something Eleanor considers a vulgar American antithesis to the Singaporean “tradition” of building family. Later, while making traditional dumplings with Nick’s immediate family, Rachel reiterates that she and her mom had no family support during her childhood. Here again, Eleanor interprets the monologue as evidence that Rachel’s upbringing has not taught her to prioritize family above her own passions. Eleanor proceeds to tell Rachel that “she will never be enough” for Nick.

After these failed attempts to be recognized, Rachel pierces through Eleanor’s classist condemnation in a showdown that literally happens over a game of mahjong. Eleanor and the audience listen as Rachel, determined to say her last piece, her expression full of grit, acceptance, and heartbreak, explains her reasons for rejecting Nick’s marriage proposal. As the women play mahjong in seamless, calculated moves, Rachel says that she doesn’t want to marry Nick if it means taking him away from his mother, again communicating to Eleanor that she knows that Nick lived with his Ah-Ma as a child, a sacrifice Eleanor made to ensure Nick’s status in the family. But then, as she knowingly forfeits a mahjong tile that allows Eleanor to play a winning hand, Rachel asserts that in the future, when Nick has grandchildren, Eleanor will have to grapple with the fact that her whole “traditional” world only exists because of the actions of a “poor, raised by a single mother, low-class immigrant nobody.” Donned, yet again, in a floral print dress, one decorated in tree branches blooming red, pink, and yellow flowers, Rachel demonstrates to Eleanor that she has allowed her to win, both in the mahjong game and in their conflict over the handsome and unremarkable Nick.

Here, Rachel’s declaration of identity is at last heard by Eleanor. This last monologue prompts Eleanor to give Nick her own wedding ring, a symbol of her acceptance, so that he can, in full rom-com trope mode, propose to Rachel on an airplane. Which leads directly to the final scene of the movie, an engagement party for Rachel and Nick where every Asian character gathers to celebrate this union of East and West, tradition and modernity, every genre, tone, and storyline the movie checks off. Floating above Singapore on a rooftop garden bridging three skyscrapers, this party scene represents the new Asian world Rachel has brought forth, one so coherent, resolute, and unified that the synchronized swimmers who perform routines in the background can’t help but feel symbolic.

But what are we supposed to do with all this? Are we, as actual participators in the political landscape, supposed to buy into the idea that the mere announcement and subsequent acknowledgement of Rachel’s identity has the symbolic power to unify the heterogenous characters of this Asian and Asian American society? Are vocalization and acceptance strong enough to resolve political tensions and reconcile cultural contradictions, such as Eleanor’s adherence to a Singaporean “tradition” that is—somehow—at once diametrically opposed to Rachel’s Western upbringing and structured by Western capitalist and colonialist influence? (The first time we see Eleanor she is conducting a Bible study group, and every character and their mom went to Oxford or Cambridge.) The answer is obviously no. The recognition of difference isn’t potent enough to dismantle harmful cultural institutions. And a very American form of individualism—embodied by our hero—is unlikely to bring about a progressive future.

By funneling its chaotic jumble of characters and genres into tenuous coherence, Crazy Rich Asians ends up as a lukewarm reminder that we should embrace those different from us, rather than a gloriously messy celebration of a huge population’s heterogenous population. Still, watching Crazy Rich Asians upend its promise of diverse representation is politically useful. The film’s misguided ending mirrors the grandiose claims of praise and rejection commentators have made on its behalf. On one hand, Rachel’s triumphant assertion of her identity parallels the inflated idea that Crazy Rich Asians can dismantle barriers just because it features an all-Asian cast and people will watch it—that representation in of itself is always powerful. On the other, to be too strident in one’s criticism of the film’s politics is to buy into the idea that there could be some great work of art, some truly “authentic” representation, some hero like Rachel, who might bring us the enlightened future we deserve. To accept or reject a story implies a standard that needs to be met, but how else can we continually revise our standards without accepting stories like Crazy Rich Asians as they are? Crazy Rich Asians might not be an authentic portrayal of our world, but it conveys enough truth to show us our own biases. In the end, that’s more than enough.

  1. In addition to the controversy over Henry Golding’s biracial background, one producer originally wanted Constance Wu’s protagonist, Rachel Chu, to be rewritten into a white role for a white female. 

  2. I might get my woke card revoked for saying this, but I think the Crazy Rich Asians/Black Panther comparison is useful, insofar as both films attempt to reimagine societies from the perspective of a race marginalized in the US, where white people appear to have almost zero relevance, in ways that are culturally specific to their respective races. 

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