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The Radically Affirming Romance of ‘Crazy Rich Asians’

| Monday, August 27, 2018

Joseph Han

I can’t pretend to be objective. I am half-Japanese and I have rarely seen movie stars who look like me. So I approached “Crazy Rich Asians” with barely-contained glee. For the first time in 25 years, there would be a major motion picture with a majority Asian and Asian-American cast.

Based on previews, I expected extravagance and escapism, perhaps a touching romance and family scheming. I did not expect a slyly subversive Hollywood throwback, an intelligent and emotional love letter to Asian-Americans and a charmingly entertaining film that feels both universal and intensely specific. I loved it.

Directed by Jon M. Chu, “Crazy Rich Asians” is an updated, transplanted version of Cinderella. At the behest of her secretly wealthy boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding), Chinese-American economics professor Rachel Chu (Constance Wu, in a star-making performance) travels back to his home in Singapore to attend his friend’s wedding. She soon meets his imposing mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh, fantastic) and reconnects with his kind-hearted cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan). Colorful characters flit across the screen, including Rachel’s college friend Peik Lin (Awkwafina) and Nick’s gay cousin Ollie (Nico Santos). Successive parties crank up the displays of eye-popping extravagance. “Crazy Rich Asians” truly shines in these scenes, visiting over a dozen minor characters, each more ridiculous than the last. Chu’s direction is stylish but rarely in-your-face, and a witty screenplay adeptly weaves an engaging narrative.

“Crazy Rich Asians” focuses mainly on the conflict between Rachel’s Chinese-American identity, with her admirable independence and ambition, and Eleanor’s more traditional Chinese identity, with her focus on family and social norms. Unlike other lead couples, Rachel and Nick have few major misunderstandings; their major obstacle is his family and her own confused identity. This structural choice is the smartest decision in a film full of them. It grounds the film’s swirling luxury in an emotionally involving story centered on identity, a universal theme. Jay Caspian King wrote that “’Asian-American’ is a mostly meaningless term,” but “Crazy Rich Asians” provides a counterpoint. Rachel’s identity crisis feels universal, but the tension between those two words, “Asian” and “American,” is specific to Asian-Americans and beautifully explored by Wu’s complex, nuanced performance.

Of course, we have all seen this story before, just never with Asian-American and Asian characters. Hollywood films generally treat Asian characters as perpetual outsiders, existing only within the context of white expectations. But “Crazy Rich Asians” reveals how thin these stereotypes are. Where Asian women are often hyper-sexualized, here they are down-to-earth, wacky, regal, scheming and sexy. Where Asian men are often emasculated and nerdy, here they are desirable, obnoxious, disloyal, conflicted, romantic and charmingly humorous.

“Crazy Rich Asians” largely positions its characters within all-Asian settings, independent of white expectations. In addition, the film slyly subverts convention by refusing to hold the audience’s hand when navigating through Asian culture. One standout scene shows gossiping text messages sprinkled with Asian slang as shimmering streams of color bouncing across continents. A charged mahjong game dominates the film’s climax — Chu refuses to explain the popular Chinese game’s complex rules. A mouth-watering montage of street food feels like a corrective for all those times white children have pinched their noses after catching a whiff of an Asian peer’s lunch.

Of course there are flaws. The screenplay often settles for easy plot devices instead of deeper nuance, and a subplot concerning Astrid’s marriage feels underwritten. In addition, despite smashing Asian stereotypes, the film still frustratingly casts its only gay character as effeminate and fashion-obsessed, present only to advance the straight protagonist’s story. “Crazy Rich Asians” revolves around only East Asians and neglects to include Southeast Asians, including Singaporeans, outside of servant roles.

Yet ultimately, I can’t help but love this movie. When the Asian-American stories we see are largely focused on assimilation, it is radical and radically affirming to watch a joyful, charmingly entertaining film — filled with faces that look like mine — about learning to love yourself.

Near the end of the film, the opening notes of Coldplay’s “Yellow” fill the theater. A female vocalist sings the opening words. The lyrics, sung in Chinese, praise the beauty of “yellow,” a term often derogatorily used to describe Asians’ skin tone. A laugh caught in my throat as I was unexpectedly moved. I wish I had this film when I was younger, during those dark times when I wanted to be anything but Asian. Now, a whole generation of Asian kids will see movie stars who look like them and, maybe, they will grow up knowing that they are worthy of love, too.

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