This review contains spoilers for “Crazy Rich Asians.”
Let’s get something out of the way: “Crazy Rich Asians” is not a progressive film.
But the film adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s popular novel of the same name, which arrives in theaters today (August 15), is an accomplishment that could change Hollywood forever. Jon M. Chu (“Now You See Me 2”) directs the first entirely Asian leading cast for a major Hollywood studio film set in contemporary times since 1993’s “The Joy Luck Club.” The cast includes thespians of varying ages, career lengths, ethnicities and countries of origin; they trace the evolving prominence and agency of Asian performers in an industry that largely views them as sex objects (women), sexless freaks (men) and wholly incompatible with anything American (both).
AWKWAFINA (@awkwafina) August 8, 2018
I saw “Crazy Rich Asians” at an advance screening in a theater filled with other Asian Americans. With few exceptions, the audience embraced the movie as I expected they would: ecstatically. We whispered excitedly whenever we recognized the soundtrack’s many Chinese-language covers of Western pop songs. We cheered for sequences showing male leads Henry Golding (“A Simple Favor”) and Chris Pang (“Tomorrow, When the War Began”) shirtless. And we left the theater marveling at all the ways we saw Asians rendered with the glamor, nuance and humanity that Hollywood routinely denies us. If that and the film’s current 94 percent Rotten Tomatoes score offer any indication of how the world will receive Chu’s gamble, then such depictions might become the new normal for Asian Hollywood.
But the film’s resplendent focus on Singapore’s predominantly Chinese and “crazy rich” elite largely erases the lived experiences of other Asian diasporic groups, including those who endure disproportionate poverty (with the exception of brief references to lead character Rachel Chu, played by outspoken “Fresh Off the Boat” star Constance Wu, growing up without money). The script writes off the sexually aggressive behavior of numerous male characters—particularly those played by comedians Ken Jeong (“Dr. Ken”) and Jimmy O. Yang (“Silicon Valley”)—as hilarious and irreverent, not violent or sexist. No screen project should bear the burden of telling every underrepresented community’s story with an anti-oppressive lens, but these qualities make the film far less representative than what the current enthusiasm proposes.
But “Crazy Rich Asians” does accomplish something that no conventional Hollywood romantic comedy has ever done: it gives a voice to many types of Asian women.
Golding and Pang may challenge the emasculated Asian man film trope, but their characters add nothing to the movie’s emotional core. This task instead lies with Wu’s Rachel and her interactions with the movie’s other principal female characters.
Her exchanges with her eccentric new-money-having and American culture-obsessed college friend Peik Lin Goh (Nora “Awkwafina” Lum, “Ocean’s 8”), doting mother Kerry (Tan Kheng Hua, “Marco Polo”) and boyfriend Nick Young’s (Golding) glamorous (and depressed) cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan, “Humans”) demonstrate compassion and empathy that we rarely see when Asian women speak to one another on screen. Their extended dialogues not only guide the most compelling scenes, but also illustrate the varied ways that class, nationality, machismo and capitalism push Asian women around the world to find their own agency in sexist societies.
For instance, Peik Lin hilariously breaks down the ways that old-money Overseas Chinese (those of Chinese ancestry living aboard) families like Nick’s used multigenerational wealth, colonialism and Asian tiger economic ascent to build the Peranakan upper class. Kerry sweats her daughter to impress Nick’s family in accordance with patrician Overseas Chinese traditions that she, as a working-class single mother from the Chinese mainland, did not teach Rachel. The most touching scene shows Rachel and Astrid at a swanky beachside bachelorette party, bonding over rejection—from Nick’s snobby and gossip-prone female acquaintances and a philandering husband, respectively—by burying a gutted fish the snobs left as a threat to Rachel’s claims on Nick. The pair rejects the facades they initially put on to compete with the fish-gutters—who remain committed to a society that pits women against each other to keep up with the Singaporean Joneses—to connect as women hurt by destructive sexist social games.
Even Rachel’s adversarial relationship with Nick’s mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh, “Star Trek: Discovery”), showcases the richness of how Asian women navigate the world. The Youngs’ most emotionally hardened woman reveals the sacrifices she made to fulfill her socially mandated role as the wife of a powerful man (a controlling patriarchal presence who viewers never actually see). As the daughter of a more traditional generation, Eleanor wields this understanding as a weapon against Rachel, saying that her impoverished background will prevent her from entering her family’s carefully constructed social fortress. Their deft war of manners illustrates how these women of different generations push through—or leverage—their socialization to influence their own destinies.
“Crazy Rich Asians” portrays its female characters as what Asian women actually are: resilient, complex and resolutely human.
Though the movie controversially features no Desi leading actors, “Crazy Rich Asians” ultimately showcases the inherent power of Asian women that I recognize in my family and friends. And while the film won’t prevent male Hollywood powerbrokers or White supremacists from fetishizing, ignoring or otherwise erasing Asian women from their own narratives, it makes the most powerful case yet for affirming these women’s existence, from Singapore to the United States and beyond.