Why ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ Makes Us Cry

Plan A takes a deep dive into the emotional and political structure of a Hollywood romantic comedy.

6 years ago

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Four out of the four Asian women who I watched Crazy Rich Asians with cried. As reviews and reactions pour in, so do reports of sniffles, red eyes, and streaming tears. For all the talk of this movie being schmaltzy glamour porn posing as a romantic comedy — which it most certainly is — director Jon Chu and screenwriters Adele Lim and Peter Chiarelli are nevertheless able to reliably strike deep, resonant emotional chords in viewers. In doing so, perhaps the lasting legacy of this film is not proving the viability of an all-Asian cast and crew, but rather the existence of an Asian American audience that is ripe for Hollywood’s seduction.

The most remarkable aspect of Crazy Rich Asians is not that it stars Asian Americans, or that it was made by us — these are all milestones that have been passed — but that the film is constructed from the ground up with an Asian American audience in mind. Unlike The Joy Luck Club, or even Better Luck Tomorrow or the Harold and Kumar franchise, Chu’s film is not so much representing Asian Americans, as it is speaking directly to us, to the partial exclusion of all others. This is an experience that, so far as I know, is unprecedented on the big screen (but, I should add, something that YouTubers like the FungBros and WongFu Productions have been pioneering for over a decade). Perhaps this is why Asian American critics and writers are seemingly baffled by what makes this movie so exceptional: it really is something entirely new.

The flowery packaging of Crazy Rich Asians discourages a deep dive. Its promoters seem eager for it to be taken lightly, misdirecting us into believing that it is an unserious entertainment meant simply to prove that “Asians can do it too.” But I’ll try and dive deep here anyway, because it’s no exaggeration to say that Crazy Rich Asians is a quantum leap in the relationship between Asian Americans and Hollywood.

Plenty has been said and written about Crazy Rich Asians being rather good. But its quality is completely uninteresting — it’s good in the same way Bridget Jones’s Diary is good, but no better. What makes this film such a unique experience has little to do with the film’s objective quality, and everything to do with the orientation of ourselves as the Asian American audience with a movie that has chosen us as its object of interest and desire. The feeling is akin to a well-planned surprise birthday party. One Korean American woman who joined me at the theater said that, although she saw it previously at an intimate pre-screening, it was more emotional this time around because the audience was bigger and more raucous. I surmise it’s because she felt even more singled out by the film’s gaze.

We insert ourselves into Hollywood’s blinding gaze, of course, through Rachel Chu (Constance Wu). She is a New York City native whose mother is the “number one real estate agent in Flushing,” and who nearly drinks out of an hors d’ouevres finger bowl. Her otherwise admirable bilingualism is exposed in Nick Young’s (Henry Golding) ultra-elite social circle as a worst-of choice between public school English, and a jilted Mandarin that amounts to a memorized phrasebook. She is exhilarated, bullied, and ultimately rejected. But as any Hollywood heroine must, she rediscovers the inner resolve that made her who she is: a nobody with a surplus of self-respect.

And of course, Chu’s brand of self-respect is a scarce but vital resource within Young’s briskly expanding clan of third- and fourth-generation inheritors of dynastic wealth. The billionaire Mount Olympus of Singapore — a fearsome perch — is under constant threat of collapse by moral decay. A key element to any romantic seduction is in answering the question of “why her?” In fact, Young’s only outburst of violent rage is directed at drunk friends who ask this very question, why this no-name Asian American girl? The answer, of course, is that the wealthy must periodically replenish their supply of virtue through marriage to commoners. Young is not merely accepting Rachel despite her humble naivete, but choosing her precisely because of it. This is the beginning of the Cinderella seduction of Rachel.

It is one thing to see Hollywood tell such stories while sitting on the sidelines. It is an entirely different thing for Hollywood to tell such stories directly to us, because it makes the emotion and seduction real. What’s happening on screen is not a mere representation of what-if, but a realtime, real world offer to take the hand Hollywood has offered to us, and us alone. Above all, Crazy Rich Asians reminds us that it is excluding others from its desires.

In one scene, Rachel plays a round of mahjong with Nick’s mother Eleanor Young (Michelle Yeoh, in an Oscar-worthy performance). It is a critical scene in terms of plot, yet it is covered in esoteric cultural references that go unexplained. Rachel, for example, self-selects (自摸) a tile of bamboo from the unrevealed stacks, as opposed to taking from the pile of revealed tiles discarded by other players. This is an act which alone has layers of symbolism critical to her character, but which are completely inaccessible to those unfamiliar with either mahjong or the Hokkien Chinese dialect.

It suggests in a single moment that Rachel is aware of her inferior status as a Chinese American, but that she is entirely authentic and self-made. She would rather take a risk on the unknown, than to take from others what is already known. Not only that, but such an act of 自摸 receives a much higher reward under the rules of mahjong, than merely taking from another player. In the film’s crowning moment of subtlety, Eleanor takes Rachel’s discarded bamboo tile and wins the round. Rachel earns her pride back. Eleanor simply does as she always does: win by taking from another.

Even though Asian Americans by and large won’t get these references immediately — I’ve undoubtedly missed many — the important thing is to know that the film was being selective in the first place. Thus a Chinese American like me who later realizes the reference from childhood will feel closer to the film’s gaze. Non-Chinese Asian Americans who have relatives and friends who play the game will feel its pull as well.

But whose gaze is this? Who is seducing us? Henry Golding’s Nick Young is presented more as an ideal of elite masculinity, rather than an actual person. Nobody knows a real-life Nick Young, because they don’t exist. Nor is it the glamour and wealth, which are the inanimate accoutrements of seduction, not the seducing hand itself. It is the great magic of Hollywood to hide the identity of the wizard behind the curtain. We hear its call, this time in our own language. It lays plain our weaknesses and anxieties. And it offers us the redemption and validation we have secretly coveted for so long. Who or what could this suitor be? It is Hollywood’s business to ensure we never know.

But there are always clues.

Edited image of Henry Golding and Constance Wu from "Crazy Rich Asians"
Source: Jong Kim

When Hollywood’s gaze falls upon us, a certain refraction occurs, like catching an angled glimpse of yourself when a mirror reflects another mirror. Crazy Rich Asians as a real world event — the casting, the production, the marketing — is refracted into the movie itself. When Constance Wu watched herself onscreen as Rachel Chu debuting her Marchesa dress on the red carpet to the fictional wedding event, it must have felt like a playback of herself arriving at the debut of the film itself just a few hours prior. Young’s choosing of her character as his love interest must have felt to her a bit like being chosen for the part in the first place. The hall of mirrors effect is taken to an extreme in realizing that the director Jon Chu was, unbeknownst to him, a literal character in the film’s source material.

And in a third refraction of the gaze, the Asian American audience felt that debut and feeling of being chosen as well. This is not the unique magic of Crazy Rich Asians — it is the way it has always worked. We just have never been chosen before. And thus, we have to ask ourselves for the first time: what has chosen us, and for what purpose?

Some partial answer may be found if we trace the refraction back up one level, into the film itself. In a critical scene where Eleanor explains to Rachel the nature of being kaki lang — “one of us” — she says that it requires surrendering the individual pursuit of happiness, and to put the interests of the family dynasty above oneself. This does not break the seduction in the movie, but merely puts a price on it. Being chosen by the billionaire heir is not like winning the lottery, but rather induction into a world where your own sense of individuality is subsumed by adherence to some greater consensus in which a commoner has no say.

Consider Eleanor’s words in the context of Crazy Rich Asians as a real world event (the actual production process, the thousands of screenings). It’s rather obvious that Nick Young and his band of delinquent billionaires is the Hollywood establishment itself. Both are buckling under their own excesses and scandals, and both are in need of an infusion of virtuous blood. Hollywood clearly saw an opportunity to pull in a deprived audience of Asian Americans after the surprising virality of public backlash against the whitewashing of Asian roles. The backlash was no threat to Hollywood. It was merely another opportunity for it to prove that it can do the right thing.

Then consider Eleanor’s words as if they were directed to us, the audience. The movie we are watching is exactly the opportunity for a more glamorous and visible place in the American cultural consciousness, no different than Rachel’s potential ascension into the billionaire’s club.

What happens after that scene is where Crazy Rich Asians reveals itself as much more than a lighthearted romantic comedy. Rachel is rejected. Her opportunity to ascend — which she never even asked for — is torn up like an unwanted phone number. And it is within the turmoil of that rejection — of a request that she never even made — that she steels herself and proves that she is sufficiently compliant to the demands pressed upon her by Eleanor.

Thus we — our new Asian American Hollywood hopefuls, and their future rapturous audience — are given no way out. Just as Rachel never went after Nick for his money, we cannot rely on never having asked for this in the first place as an excuse from Hollywood’s future demands.

If Hollywood’s gaze was indeed speaking to us through Eleanor in that scene, then to remain within the good graces of the silver screen God, we must never put our own individuality above Him. The stories He will allow us to tell about ourselves are not stories that we control, but rather stories we must internalize without question. The legion of Hollywood’s detractors are now enemies at the gate, if we are to remain inside those gates.

We have gone full Hollywood now.

This is why we cry: because as goes Rachel Chu, so goes her Asian American audience. Nick’s offer to her is an offer to us. Eleanor’s demands are the conditions we accept. And in some way we can’t quite grasp in the moment, we are simply overwhelmed by how real all of this seems.

None of the four women I watched Crazy Rich Asians with felt particularly fond of Constance Wu or of her character Rachel. This might suggest that the movie’s emotional heart was placed in some other character. But fondness is not a prerequisite to self-identification. Rachel is more of a thin archetype of the Asian American petit bourgeois, sketched out by her Gap fashion sense, practical career choice, and casual alienation from her ethnic roots. If there is something unlikable about her character, perhaps it’s because we Asian Americans are chronically unable to like ourselves. That should come as no surprise to us. Nor should our tears come as a surprise when Hollywood tells us, finally, that it’s time we do.

Crazy Rich Asians ends with a post-closing teaser, superhero movie style, that the story is far from over. Similarly, the twists and turns of Hollywood’s seduction of us has only just begun.

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Published 6 years ago

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