Having grown up mixed race, British and Taiwanese, I had largely experienced my national identities in two very separate spheres. However, within the last few years there has been a gradual spread of East Asian influence in Western media. From the age of 15, I began to overhear boys in my class discuss Naruto and Dragon Ball Z; last year I began to see American teenagers on YouTube rave about popular Korean Pop groups such as BTS and Girls’ Generation. And now I see an all East Asian cast for a Hollywood romantic comedy? I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t excited to see how realistic and significant it’s representation would be – especially since the most memorable East Asian characters in Hollywood I remember are unfortunately yellow-face: Audrey Hepburn’s angry neighbour in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (sorry to ruin a childhood classic), Mickey Rooney playing I. Y. Yunioshi, and Scarlett Johansson’s portrayal of Motoko Kusanagi, conveniently rebranded as Mira Killian, in the American remake of Ghost in the Shell.
Despite its place in race politics, it is important to remember that Crazy Rich Asians is first and foremost a romantic comedy, and should be judged as such. The problem with representation can often be seen in a problematic emphasis of quantity over quality. We should not be approaching the matter of representation as something to be quantified by numbers- the number of non-white models we see on a magazine cover- but instead the way in which we represent people as whole human beings with multi-faceted lives. Crazy Rich Asians is about a lower-class girl struggling to win the approval of her wealthy boyfriend’s family and high society. She eventually overcomes the boundary of class and has a happily ever after in what is essentially a Cinderella story.
The first scene of Crazy Rich Asians is the sole scene addressing racial prejudice. It depicts an instance of racial and misogynistic prejudice against Nick Young’s (Rachel Wu’s boyfriend and played by Henry Golding) family while he is a child. It is 1993 and himself, his mother, and sister are refused a room at a prestigious London hotel in heavy rainfall. The injustice is blatant. And just when all hope is lost, the owner of the hotel welcomes the family warmly and respectfully, revealing to the employees and the audience that this family from Singapore are the new owners of the hotel. Cue the flabbergasted faces of hotel employees. This scene establishes the family’s place in the social hierarchy of the Western world, and thus probably in relation to the audience: their wealth overcomes their expected lower status as foreigners. There is a reversal of norms as the ‘American’ is deemed undesirable- embodied in Nick’s mother’s disapproval of her son picking up the American accent of his girlfriend.
Humour is central to the film, as almost every sombre scene is followed by a punch line or light-hearted moment. Constance Wu, who plays Rachel Chu the protagonist, is an extremely talented actress with a natural flair for comedy, as seen in her performance in Fresh off the Boat. There is fantastic chemistry, not just between her and her romantic interest, Henry Golding, but also Awkwafina (Nora Lum) who plays her hilarious college best friend. I can proudly say that my favourite line of the whole film is Awkwafina’s dramatic exclamation of: “Rachel, Chu are you?!”
Crazy Rich Asians is a film dripping with a sense of internationality prevalent in many modern wealthy East Asian families. Nick and his best friend joke about ‘tuck shop money’, a quintessential feature of British boarding school. Astrid, Nick’s cousin played by the Gemma Chan, reads to her child Le Petit Prince in French. Nick’s other cousin works in Taiwan and is dating a Taiwanese actress, who is a modern reinvention of the dumb-blonde-gold-digger persona.
An unexpected wonderful surprise in this film is the upbeat soundtrack that features jazzy tunes, lively drums, and a mix of traditional and modern Mandarin and Cantonese songs. These songs are catchy, cheerful, and add an element of immersion and appreciation that the novel could not achieve as simply a text. It perfectly complements the overwhelmingly decadent, Great Gatsby-esque, glitz and glamour cinematography in which Singapore is a country of new money and East Asia a dominant force in the modern economy. This film also features the most stunning, ethereal wedding I’ve ever seen in film with a beautiful performance of ‘Can’t Help Falling In Love With You’ by Kina Grannis.
Crazy Rich Asians is a film, much like many nowadays in the social media age, that had a certain expectation placed upon it by its intended audience; in other words, Twitter went wild. Kimberly Yam’s viral thread recounts her experience of alienation, rejection of cultural heritage, and then reclaiming of identity in relation to this movie. It is an experience many people can connect with. But approaching Crazy Rich Asians as a triumph in representation for all Asian people would be a mistake. Despite being called Crazy Rich Asians, it only features the lives of the ridiculously rich East Asians. This is not a fault in the film, or the director, or the writers. It is simply just that this film is a romantic comedy – and a pretty good one too.
~ Alyx Morley
Img source Warner Bros. Pictures