For a film much anticipated to break the Hollywood “bamboo ceiling,” Crazy Rich Asians falls short of doing justice for the hyphenated Asian community (Asian-American, British-Asian, etc.) As the first major American studio production to feature a primarily Asian cast since 1993 (The Joy Luck Club), the film adaption of Kevin Kwan’s 2013 New York Times Bestseller deserves hard-earned attention. Everyone who’s anyone in Hollywood (and Asian) appears in this film, including ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat star Constance Wu, America’s favorite Korean uncle Ken Jeong, and our pre-teen Glee heartthrob Harry Shum Jr.
Constance Wu floats through the role of Rachel Chu, a wide-eyed New York ingénue stuck in the world of one-percent Singaporean opulence, with grace. She becomes Cinderella in a rags-to-riches fairytale when her boyfriend, Nick Young (Henry Golding), turns out to be the heir to Singapore’s wealthiest private real estate family. Some of the best scenes in the movie are sparkly aerial pans of Singaporean streets, the mouth-watering montage of hawker street food, and the red carpet wedding of Nick’s best friend Collin Khoo and his luxury-hotel-chain heiress fiancé Araminta Lee.
I wanted to love everything about this movie. I really did. How often is it that we get to walk in to an American theatre, plop down in reclining seats with our American bag of popcorn, and watch an American-made movie starring people who look like us? Rachel Chu with her brown, almond shaped eyes and an “auspicious nose” (as is noted in the movie by ah ma, the matriarch of the Young family) looks like a goddess in a girl-next-door kind of way. I was thrilled that in 2018 the all-American girl next door could look like Rachel, a Chinese-American Economics professor at NYU and the daughter of a single-mother immigrant family.
But for some reason, the film fell flat for me. I left feeling amused but disappointed, with a tiny voice in my head nagging at my conscience. Am I even allowed to feel this way? On the occasion of this rare event? A once in a twenty-five year opportunity for Asian talent to finally breakthrough in film and media, subsequently paving the golden brick road to representation in the American Dream? I feel a little guilty saying this, but yes. Yes, I am.
I started to feel queasy when I noticed the screenplay. The lines explicated every second layer of meaning the audience should be able to infer from a well-written script. The film raced through an offensive amount of exposition, force feeding information in mouth-to-mouth premastication. Henry Golding’s soothing, baritone voice was the only thing pulling us through the plot.
When Rachel dreamily stares into Nick’s eyes and asks, “Aren’t good Chinese sons supposed to stay with their parents?” it suddenly hit me: the lines were awful because they carried the burden of explaining Asian culture. From Rachel’s mother (Tan Kheung Hua) telling her daughter that “wearing a lucky color will make a good first impression” to Rachel’s playful response that she’s not trying to look like a “lucky baby maker,” every line is an open-arm plea screaming, let me educate you about the East! No Asian person speaks like the characters in Crazy Rich Asians or a Fodor’s Travel Guide to Asia, in Oriental metaphors and exaggerated imagery evoking the rising sun.
The movie, despite being about Singapore, Chinese-Singaporeans, and Asians in Asia, remains stuck in the American sphere. Have you ever heard the joke, “What do they call Chinese food in China? Food.” Well, why then, must a film about crazy rich Asians starring an A-list cast of Asian actors from around the globe (in fact, only a few cast members are Asian-American) rely on jokes like “Asian Ellen” or the “Asian Bachelor” or “Banana, yellow on the outside, white on the inside” for comedic value? Why would characters who exist in a world where whiteness is just a European brand name for sunglasses measure their identity to the American definition of white?
Bad jokes aside, there are serious concerns about the perpetuation of Asian stereotypes in the American imagination. A recent Pew Research revealed that income inequality among Asian-Americans is growing faster than any other racial group in the United States. While the top ten percent of Asian-Americans nearly doubled their annual income in the last four decades, the bottom bracket only grew by eleven percent, less than low-income whites of the same percentile.
So what does it mean when a blockbuster film made in America portrays Asians as crazy, rich, or crazy rich? For the bottom ten percent of Asian-Americans now represented by the grand luxuries of Singaporean wealth, Crazy Rich Asians does more harm than good by feeding into an irrational fear of rising Asian influence, one America dismisses as being tacky, gaudy, new money extravagance. (And the film plays along without a fight, Peik Lin joking about the inspiration for her family’s gilded McMansion being the Palace of Versailles and Donald Trump’s bathroom.)
In that sense, Crazy Rich Asians is a film made for the White-American imagination, for whom it is most convenient to believe that all Asians are crazy, rich, or both. This is a movie for the girl in your seminar who rolls her eyes every time she has to weave through an Asian tour group on campus then shows up to class to complain about the growing Chinese economy. It’s a movie about fair-skinned, fit, successful Asians who are climbing the world one last-season Gucci at a time, the same people whose kids are taking your legacy spots at Ivy League universities. They’re sucking the good-American soil dry of hard-earned capitalist prowess, and here’s a film to prove it.
With all that said, Crazy Rich Asians opens in theatres on August 15. I recommend you see it. You may have never seen this many Asian talents in one film (or ever), and I don’t know when the next time you’ll see something like this will be. This is a groundbreaking moment for the Asian community, and we should all join in on the celebration. But once the credits roll and Akwafina starts rapping money, money, money, remember that this is only the beginning: an imperfect first step towards visibility.