When Warner Bros. announced in 2016 that it’d be making Crazy Rich Asians for the big screen, a few things were clear from the start: The movie would be an adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s bestselling novel about a Chinese American economics professor who accompanies her Singaporean boyfriend back home for a wedding, only to discover that he’s from one of the island’s wealthiest families. It would be a rare, major U.S. production with an all-Asian cast. It would also be a romantic comedy, a genre Hollywood has fallen out of love with. And, crucially, it was clear that the stakes for the film would be incredibly—even impossibly—high. If it failed, the thinking went, would big studios want to make more Asian-driven stories in the future?
Less than a week after arriving in theaters, Crazy Rich Asians is unquestionably a critical and box-office success. Directed by Jon M. Chu and starring Constance Wu and the newcomer Henry Golding, the film has garnered praise for its performances, its sleek aesthetic, and its fresh take on the rom-com. The film boasts dazzling sets (despite a modest $30 million budget); a gorgeous, international cast; and a marketing campaign that leans into the film’s significance for Asian representation in Hollywood.
Indeed, for many Asian Americans, seeing Crazy Rich Asians has been not only a fun time at the theater, but also a deeply emotional experience. Here is a summer movie that, in defiance of Hollywood history, casts Asian actors in an array of roles: as snobby socialites, formidable matriarchs, rude frat boys, self-possessed women of ambition, single mothers, and rich eye candy. Chu even turned down a massive deal with Netflix because he felt it was important for his movie to be seen in theaters. “It reflects self-worth and it reflects Asians coming to see this movie,” he told Vulture. “That we are worth your time, your $15 to drive and park and struggle with buying tickets and crowds; to sit down in a dark room and say, ‘Tell me a story.’ We are worth that.”
The film has also faced its share of criticism, which began months before its release and centered on casting decisions, its glamorization of wealth, and its overlooking of working-class and non-Chinese Singaporeans. So to what extent is the movie a “win” for Asian and Asian American visibility in Hollywood? And, as importantly, how good of a film is it? The Atlantic’s Lenika Cruz, Emily Jan, Rosa Inocencio Smith, and Ashley Fetters discuss whether Crazy Rich Asians lived up to their expectations, and which key moments stayed with them after they left the theater.
Lenika Cruz: I’ll be honest; I went into Crazy Rich Asians not expecting much, or at least trying not to. I knew a movie like this was never going to be all things to all people: a solid work of art, cast with the right actors, with the right balance of cultural specificity and broader accessibility, that satisfactorily reflected viewers’ individual understandings of the Asian and Asian American experience. I went in only hoping to have a fine time, and you know what? I did! I laughed, I cried, I decided Michelle Yeoh (who played Eleanor) was my favorite human. I laughed some more.
And then there was, of course, the deeper stuff. I got goosebumps when Jasmine Chen’s “Waiting for Your Return” kicked in at the beginning and she began singing in Mandarin (though I don’t know the language). My heart leapt when I saw all the Asian names in the opening credits. I delighted whenever a familiar face—Constance Wu, Ken Jeong, Jimmy O. Yang, the list goes on—popped onscreen for the first time. Each time Chu decided to linger on a set of abs or squeeze in a random make-out session, I felt a tiny victory had been won for depictions of Asian sexuality in American pop culture. How about you, Emily? What mindset did you have going into the film, and how did you feel walking out of the theater?
Emily Jan: I didn’t make it past the opening credits without bursting into spontaneous tears. Music can be such an emotional part of a movie experience to me, so the second Chen’s cover started playing in Mandarin (transporting me to karaoke-filled, special-occasion dinners visiting my extended family in Taiwan, watching my ah-ma take the mic and command the room) at the top of the film, I was gone.
Like you, Lenika, I went in with mixed feelings. Was I (or anyone) going to relate to the 1 percent lifestyle? Will this perpetuate Chinese nouveau-riche stereotypes? Were the languages going to get butchered? How were historically subjugated Asian groups going to be represented?
I knew there were going to be elements of the movie that didn’t sit right with me, but when I let myself just take the whole thing in, I couldn’t help but delight in the many familiar aspects—the bustling street market, Weibo and WeChat icons flitting across the screen, the various a-yi mannerisms and phrases—all presented without explanatory commas. I don’t think I realized, going into this, how long I had been waiting to see parts of me reflected on the big screen. And, oh yes, there were those ab scenes.
Rosa Inocencio Smith: I’m an unabashed lover of rom-coms, and I expected to have a good time. But I was also a little nervous; I had a feeling that I wasn’t going to be part of the intended audience. I’m half Filipina, but I don’t speak Tagalog, and I often pass for white—all of which has left me feeling shaky about my claim to an Asian identity over the years. So, I wondered, would I miss the references, like the ones you describe, Emily, that made the movie special? If I didn’t get emotional, finally seeing Asians in leading romantic roles onscreen, would I be betraying my background? And if I did, would I be guilty of lumping all Asian cultures together, of pretending to be somebody I’m not?
Fortunately, I forgot my anxiety a few minutes in, swept up in the sheer fun of it. The soundtrack, with its glorious mash-ups of Chinese and American music! All of the beautiful women with their different styles and body types! All of the beautiful men with their toned physiques! These characters were reminders that there are so many ways to be Asian and beautiful (even if the cast is hardly representative of that full spectrum). It took me a while to process what it all meant to me, but several blocks away from the theater, I realized I couldn’t stop smiling.
Ashley Fetters: My experience was a lot like yours, Rosa—I’m part Filipina and my adoptive family is white, and my familiarity with the type of crazy-rich Asians in Crazy Rich Asians extends only so far as the original novel’s introduction to them does (though to be fair, the book takes a good deal of care to explain many of the class- and nationality-related nuances of mainland and overseas Chinese society). So I was a little worried going in that any specific cultural references not explained in the source material would sail right over my head.
Happily, I can think of only one instance in which that happened (which I’ll talk about later). For the most part, I found Crazy Rich Asians to be precisely the kind of romantic comedy I’ve been craving ever since the much publicized death of the rom-com. It’s a relatively low-stakes modern comedy of manners, just like the book; a delightful summer moviegoing treat in the same way the novel is a delightful beach read. I even thought it improved on the book slightly in that it snipped out a few particularly convoluted subplots (e.g. Astrid’s husband Michael’s affair).
Cruz: Unlike you, Ashley, I didn’t read the novel—with the exception of the prologue, which I sought out after seeing the movie because I was curious how the writers adapted it into the opening scene. It turns out they’re mostly similar: In the film, Eleanor Young (Yeoh), her son Nick Young (Golding), Eleanor’s sister-in-law Felicity, and Felicity’s daughter Astrid (Gemma Chan), arrive at a fancy London hotel one stormy night in 1995 after a long journey from Singapore. Eleanor asks that her family be shown to their suite, only to be informed by the manager that her family could find a place to stay in Chinatown. Moments later, Eleanor gets her revenge: She convinces her husband that they should buy the hotel, making her the new benefactress—a power she promptly uses to order her horrified employees to clean the muddy floor.
This scene actually had me thinking about the opening of Get Out (bear with me). Both sequences place viewers—whatever their race—into the shoes of a non-white protagonist during a racist encounter, forcing them to viscerally identify with the character’s humiliation (or anger, or fear). Of course, Get Out and Crazy Rich Asians are dramatically different films, but their first minutes do a lot to tell audiences whom they’re supposed to care about. The hotel scene has to do the tricky work of making the “crazy rich Asians” feel relatable, and it does that by making them—if only for a few moments—vulnerable. The result is you don’t feel too bad for the xenophobic manager who might now find himself out of a job; when Eleanor coolly told him to fetch a mop, my audience cheered, seemingly reveling in his degradation alongside her. But the other not-so-subtle message here is that money, if you have enough of it, can make you untouchable. That it can be a deliciously effective weapon against prejudice. Or that it can, at least, buy you a break from the indignities of racism once in a while—a luxury that not many people have.
Smith: To your point about making the Young family accessible versus untouchable, Lenika, I was noticing the movie does a lot of that work through food. When we first see Nick and Rachel together, he’s stealing bites of her dessert—it’s a sweet, playful moment that sets the tone of their relationship.
Later on, the mouthwatering montage of street food that welcomes Rachel to Singapore communicates friendship and celebration—it’s the kind of meal that can include all kinds of dishes and all kinds of people. But a similar montage in the Youngs’ kitchen, when Eleanor is directing the cooks, shows off their wealth and her exacting standards. And in both of these scenes, disorienting swoops of the camera and quick cuts from close-up to close-up help to show that Rachel—who playfully (and oddly) tells Nick that a shaved-ice dessert looks “vomit-y”—is out of her comfort zone.
On the other hand, food is sometimes used to express care and comfort. Both Nick’s and Rachel’s mothers show love through food, prescribing herbal soup for tiredness and ginseng tea for heartbreak. In the scene when the Youngs are making dumplings together, we get to see a softer, more down-to-earth side of the family and the teamwork that brings them together. We also, of course, see the pressures that comes with that closeness via Ah-Ma’s criticism of Eleanor’s dumpling technique.
My favorite food-related detail: the Tupperware meals that Rachel’s mom packs for her to take on the plane to Singapore. (If you spotted it, Mrs. Chu is also holding a Tupperware when she says goodbye to Peik Lin at the end of the film!) It’s such a tiny detail, but I’d bet it’s one that resonates across the Asian diaspora—it certainly reminded me of my lola, who once had to be talked out of bringing a ham on the plane to my brother’s graduation. When food means family, packing it up to send with your loved ones is a way of staying close to them even when they’ve moved overseas. And like Eleanor says in the dumpling scene, traditional dishes are one of the major ways that many immigrant families stay connected with their heritage.
Fetters: For as widely appealing as we all seem to have found the movie to be, I really respect how at certain points Crazy Rich Asians resists bending over backwards to make sure non-Asian (or non Chinese, or non-Singaporean) viewers “get” it. Sure, overall it does hew to a pretty universally relatable storyline about the tensions between family loyalty and romantic loyalty, but there’s a pivotal moment in the script that I found really striking for its deliberate decision not to be universally understandable: the game of mahjong between Rachel and Eleanor, which serves as a backdrop to the final showdown between the two over whether Rachel and Nick’s relationship would continue. (It’s not in the book; this scene was added just for the film adaptation.)
Mahjong is most commonly played in China and in Chinese communities, and the fact that there’s a dramatic close-up of the markings on one specific tile in Rachel’s hand, but no explanation of what that tile means in the game or how it changes Rachel’s chances, means you have to be familiar with the rules and strategy of mahjong to understand precisely what’s happening in the scene. And if you know mahjong, it’s likely you’ve been considerably well exposed to Chinese culture more broadly, too. In other words, in this moment, the movie implicitly assumes its viewer is Chinese or is somehow otherwise well versed in Chinese culture. (Though of course, there are enough context clues given that even someone like me, with no mahjong experience, could understand the outcome of the game at the scene’s conclusion.)
It’s not uncommon for big-budget, mainstream Hollywood movies to assume audiences are familiar with games and sports ubiquitous within particular cultures. It’s just that most of the time, those games and sports are ubiquitous within one particular culture; namely, middle-class white culture. Plenty of mainstream Hollywood features assume their audiences understand baseball or American football or golf; it’s not uncommon to see a dramatic poker scene feature a close-up shot of one player’s hand, absent of any explanation in the script of how poker works. If you’ve never played poker, you might have to rely on context clues to pick up what’s happening—and I think a lot of viewers who don’t usually find themselves on the outside of an insider reference might have to do exactly that with Crazy Rich Asians’ mahjong scene. But it’s a bold move on the film’s part to deliberately tailor its assumptions about audience familiarity to a different audience.
Jan: Ah yes, that mahjong scene. Of course there’s a mahjong scene. But this one is so well done, establishing Rachel’s strength and pride in her identity, while giving Yeoh’s Eleanor some added nuance and vulnerability. I’m totally with Ashley on how awesome it is that the audience doesn’t get hand-held through this scene. Even if you’re not familiar with mahjong (here’s a great explainer of that scene), you know what has happened here, and you recognize that Eleanor and Rachel have been playing a mental and strategic game—in that moment, but also figuratively throughout the film.
I will also add that it’s just a gorgeously shot sequence—using the fluid movements and rhythm of the game to move along the tension in the scene. The lines are sparse, but they’re delivered with such quiet intensity (after all, Rachel knows better than to make a scene, lest anyone at the table lose face). And boy, did I cry—just as Wu did, while shooting that scene—when her mom joins her at the end and they walk off together in unison, almost physically supporting each other.
Cruz: Having seen Crazy Rich Asians twice, I can say the mahjong scene (which made sense to me even though I don’t know the game) holds up for me as the movie’s standout. I loved that a film that was otherwise so indulgent opted for such a stripped-down climactic moment, one whose power derived from its subtlety. Wu is spectacular in the scene, and the shots are edited together perfectly. It is, I think, the real spiritual ending of the movie—one that’s more satisfying than Nick’s charming and flustered airplane proposal, and the final, fireworks-filled rooftop party.
It’s interesting to me how, despite the fact that this movie is very much a comedy, the scenes that stuck with all of us weren’t the most spectacular ones or the ones we laughed the loudest at. I can’t remember the last rom-com that drove friends to text me things like, “Did you cry? I’m worried I’m going to cry” because they couldn’t wait to see so many people who looked like them on the big screen. I can’t remember the last rom-com that inspired Twitter threads as powerful as the one HuffPost’s Kimberly Yam shared after seeing Crazy Rich Asians, in which she detailed the corrosive, cumulative effects that everyday racism had on her ability to love herself and her Chinese heritage. “You’re 25 years old. You see a movie with an all-Asian cast at a screening and for some reason you’re crying and you can’t stop. You’ve never seen a cast like this in Hollywood. Everyone is beautiful,” Yam concluded. “You’re so happy you’re Chinese.”
The terms “Asian” and “Asian American” can, unfortunately, serve to flatten myriad identities and experiences into a unified abstraction that doesn’t actually exist. But to me there’s nothing abstract about the enthusiasm for this movie—even the deeply conflicted enthusiasm—that I’ve seen from viewers of Asian descent in America. In some ways, both the affection for and the sharp criticism of Crazy Rich Asians are symptoms of the same thing: the desire to see more films like this one out in the world, and the fact that there’s a massive, passionate audience out there that is paying attention.
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