There have been complaints that the film doesn’t represent the true diversity of Southeast Asia or Asia or the Asian-American experience. And they are absolutely right; it doesn’t. In fact, it doesn’t even come close.
The richness and complexities of the Asian diaspora cannot be tackled and addressed in a rom-com that takes place in a country that’s two-thirds the size of New York City.
But nevertheless, about a third of the way through “Crazy Rich Asians,” I found myself tearing up — and I’m not part of Singapore’s 1%. It was an emotional experience, not just because of how funny Ken Jeong and Awkwafina are every time either is on-screen. Or because I could hear Michelle Yeoh’s subtle Malaysian accent juxtaposed with Constance Wu’s distinctly American one punctuated by Henry Golding’s polished British intonations. Instead, it was the singular portrayal of a very real issue many Asian-Americans encounter. I was overwhelmed at the sight of an Asian-American-centric story on the big screen for the first time in a generation.
Based on the book by Kevin Kwan, “Crazy Rich Asians” centers on Chinese-American Rachel Chu (Wu), her boyfriend, Nick Young (Golding), and the shenanigans that follow when Nick takes his beloved to his home country of Singapore for his best friend’s lavish wedding. Rachel soon discovers that her humble professor bae is a member of one of the wealthiest families in Southeast Asia.
Hilarity, of course, ensues, as do the typical rom-com tropes: the pursed-lip matriarch (Yeoh), the sassy best friend (Awkwafina), the over-the-top cousin (Nico Santos), classism (everybody) and a hodge-podge of flamboyant characters who seem to only swirl around in the upper crustiest of the upper crust, no matter the culture. In this case, it’s Peranakan, or the descendants of Chinese immigrants who moved to and settled in Southeast Asia centuries ago and grew their fortunes. There are shirtless guys and petty, pretty ladies in frothy couture and blinding bling. It’s silly and fun and OMG, will Rachel keep her guy despite his overbearing mom!?
You can probably guess the answer just by watching the trailer.
And yet it’s that sweet rom-com banality, against a booming big band mandopop soundtrack, that makes it so revolutionary. As director Jon M. Chu has said, “It’s not a movie. It’s a movement.”
Simply put, we just haven’t seen this many Asians with those many accents (Malaysian, American, Singaporean, British, Australian) being that many things ever before — sexy, funny and outrageous — and not doing martial arts. Or escaping war. Or being generally tragic.
But the broadness of “Crazy” doesn’t take away from the very specific experiences of being Asian-American and coming to terms with what that means when you are, quite literally, not in Kansas anymore — or in Rachel’s case, New York.
It’s an experience many Asian-Americans, like myself, know well. Like Rachel in the film, I’ve been accused of being a “banana” — yellow on the outside, white on the inside — a pejorative assigned to Asian-Americans who have lost touch with their roots.
On the surface, perhaps this jab isn’t entirely unwarranted: I can’t read much Mandarin, despite attending Saturday morning Chinese school throughout my childhood. I don’t speak Hokkien, the dialect that my father’s family speaks in Malaysia, his home country, and incidentally where much of “Crazy” was shot. In the spirit of a uniquely American mandate of pursuing individual happiness — before pragmatism or what might appease a community or a family — I decided to follow my dreams of going into journalism.
And the giant maraschino cherry on top of this banana split is that I’m engaged to a Jewish-American guy from Arizona, who recently underwent his own Rachel Chu-esque hazing when he met extended family in Southeast Asia this summer.
This singular aspect of the Asian-American experience — the one of straddling two cultures, always afraid that you will slip and fall into the crevasse in-between — is portrayed with stinging effect in the film. There is a moment between Rachel and Nick’s mother, Eleanor, where Eleanor says that no matter what, in the world of Singapore high society, Rachel will always be a foreigner.
It’s poignant and heartbreaking, feelings that my fellow Asian-Americans might recognize as we are consistently asked to prove our authenticity as Asian or American, depending on where we are in the world and with whom. There’s something powerful about seeing that discomfort on screen, of reminding people that being considered foreign is a status that changes with latitudes and time zones.
Because seeing your existence not just represented, but also acknowledged and understood is deeply moving when you’re only used to seeing shoddy, cheap facsimiles. Invisibility doesn’t have a stinging effect as much as a numbing one; you get used to just not being there.
As an on-air host, I have felt that perhaps in an even more visceral way and have engaged that numbness to shield myself from when my ethnicity, coded as “my look,” has been used an excuse to not consider me for a position. One instance stands out in particular, an executive who wrote to my former rep that he didn’t feel the need to meet with me because “he already had someone Asian, thanks.” Numbness, then, acts as a buffer. It lets you budget your frustration, your disappointment, your anger.
So, to see the existential crises I have personally undergone as Asian-American, to feel the internal struggle of both belonging and not, told through authentic voices at a pitch that anybody can hear but rings particularly true and clear to me — it’s the opposite of numbing. It’s catharsis.
“Crazy Rich Asians” puts these varied experiences — of being Asian in Asia, of being Asian in America or Australia or in the U.K. — front and center as if to say, “Look. We’re not all the same.” Because the persisting assumption that we are mitigates our unique perspectives of the world and lived experiences moving through dominant cultures where we are seldom represented.
And a lack of representation has only contributed to the systematic racism that’s kept minority storytellers and performers from flourishing. When the excuse for not casting an Asian-American actor is because there’s not one bankable enough when Asian-Americans are hardly cast period, it becomes a self-perpetuating cycle that only keeps it from happening. According to a study released by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, underrepresented groups have hardly seen any increased representation on the big screen in the past ten years; of the top 100 grossing films of 2017, 65 had no Asian or Asian-American female character.
To paraphrase one actor I recently heard comment on this issue, when Hollywood says there isn’t an Asian actor big enough, it’s like a farmer saying that he doesn’t have any crops — Hollywood, you didn’t even plant the seeds.
“Crazy Rich Asians” has shown that Asian-American-centered stories can bring in domestic crowds. And because of that, the hope is that it opens the door for more Asian stories — from across class and regional divides — to finally get the attention they deserve from Hollywood.
The film’s stars are already well on their way: Wu stars in the ABC sitcom “Fresh Off the Boat,” now headed into its fifth season. Golding will co-star in the Paul Feig-directed “A Simple Favor,” alongside Blake Lively and Anna Kendrick, out later this year.
The seeds may have finally been planted. I can’t wait to see how they blossom.