Of the many things Asian Americans have been stereotyped to be for the past two centuries (and Asians for far longer), charming has seldom been one of them. The “model minority” myth paints us as smart, diligent, and meek. The negative corollaries of that image—of Asians as uncreative, unemotional, and lacking individuality—continue to proliferate, with real-life consequences. Asian American men are often viewed as asexual and less attractive. In contrast, Asian women here and abroad are fetishized for being docile and submissive when young, and feared as abusive and obsessive when they become mothers. In mainstream American media, the characters of Asian heritage afforded uncomplicated winsomeness are few and far between.
You might have heard that Crazy Rich Asians is the first major release by a studio about Asian Americans in a quarter-century. (Its predecessor is 1993’s The Joy Luck Club.) The film’s arrival is undeniably momentous. But it’s nearly as vital that Crazy Rich is a romantic comedy—a genre that relies on charisma above all else. The film’s stereotype-busting approach is multifarious.
There’s the everywoman warmth of Rachel Chu (Fresh Off the Boat breakout Constance Wu), a young Chinese-American economics professor at New York University who hopes that her boyfriend, Nick (BBC TV host Henry Golding, making his acting debut), will propose during their first trip together to his hometown of Singapore. There’s the dashing romantic pluck of Nick, his best friend Colin (Chris Pang), and his fiancée Araminta (Sonoya Mizuno)—heirs to inconceivable wealth whose simple tastes belie the grandeur of their imaginations and opportunities. There’s the gaudy lure of East Asia’s nouveau riche, embodied by Peik Lin (Awkwafina), Rachel’s best friend from college and the American’s wake-up call that Nick isn’t just well-heeled—he’s so loaded he’s famous for it. Then there’s my guilty favorite, the sleazebag draw of Nick’s cousins (Ronny Chieng and Remy Hii), who might as well have the words “dynastic decline” tattooed on their foreheads. Nick is certain Rachel’s the One. But choosing Rachel—and thus staying in America against the wishes of his mother, Eleanor (a fantastically subtle Michelle Yeoh)—puts him at risk of being disinherited, and Rachel of being tormented out of not-so-polite Singaporean society.
Author Kevin Kwan, himself a member of the Singaporean aristocracy (but now a U.S. transplant), suffused his Crazy Rich trilogy with gabby, catty, name-dropping, secret-whispering intimacy. Director Jon M. Chu’s adaptation, written by Adele Lim and Peter Chiarelli, largely forgoes Kwan’s designer-label obsession to tell a trans-Pacific love story whose charms are distinctly American. Emotionally layered, culturally specific, and frequently hilarious, Crazy Rich is a transportive delight, with food montages to die for (the film offers a splendid showcase of Singapore’s justly celebrated street-food scene) and a wedding processional so exquisite I started crying at its sheer beauty. (Not that the latter’s marvels keep the aunties from tutting that the $40 million event is too extravagant—it’s just tacky to spend more than $20 million on a wedding.)
As a product designed for crossover appeal, Crazy Rich is canny, too: Here in a single package are characters of Asian descent as both relatable and exotic. The Oxbridge-educated Anglophiles of Singapore’s upper crust that Nick hails from, especially, offer an unexpected mix of the familiar and the foreign, shades of Downton Abbey among tropical foliage and spaceship-resembling skyscrapers. Crazy Rich’s Dowager Countess, Nick’s grandmother (Lisa Lu), naturally sniffs at her daughter-in-law’s handmade dumplings.
To satisfy, a rom-com just needs its emotional beats to land, and Chu hits most of his marks. We get nervous and excited for Rachel as she heads to Singapore, unaware that the closer she gets to an engagement ring, the more unwelcome she will be in Nick’s world. (At Araminta’s bachelorette party—on a private island, obviously—Rachel finds in her bed a bloody reminder that The Godfather was an international phenomenon.) The more she learns about Eleanor’s maternal sacrifices, the more convinced she is that she doesn’t want her boyfriend to choose between his girlfriend and his family. But Rachel also realizes that, marriage or no marriage, she can’t leave Singapore without earning the older woman’s respect.
Much of that tension between Rachel and her potential mother-in-law has to do with Rachel’s American-ness—or as Peik Lin sees it, Rachel’s status as a “banana.” (If you’ve never heard this term before, think of what color that fruit is on the outside vs. on the inside.) Crazy Rich’s most Asian American element might be its simultaneous skepticism of and pride in the U.S. To goad his younger children into finishing their food, Peik Lin’s father (Ken Jeong) chides his children, “There’s a lot of children starving in America.” (Sad, but true.) Rachel’s own urban-professional-on-vacation wardrobe is treated like a quirky costume by the always dressed-to-the-nines Singaporean elite: “Your Gap look? Brilliant.” I’m sure I won’t be the only Asian American viewer who felt at home when the movie mined for humor in the space between Asia and Asian Americans, as well as what the blog Ask a Korean! calls the “immigrant time warp,” i.e., the fissure between the version of the Old Country that the immigrant remembers when they left decades ago and the contemporary Asia they no longer know as well as they think. Before Rachel leaves for Singapore, her mom (Tan Kheng Hua) suggests she take a red dress, as the color symbolizes fortune and fertility. At Peik Lin’s parents’ home—a gilded monstrosity inspired by Versailles and “Donald Trump’s bathroom”—Rachel parrots her mother: “Red is a lucky color.” Scoffs Peik Lin’s family, “If you’re an envelope.”
The satisfaction that Rachel is ultimately able to find in the hardscrabble existence and aspirational success that she and her single mother eked out—a fight for survival both widespread and remarkable—feels like a triumph not only for our protagonist, but for the affirmation of Asian American identity. It’s only because the friendship scenes between Wu and Awkwafina are so funny and easygoing—and the inevitable proposal scene so damn moving—that the achingly realistic heart-to-heart between Rachel and her mother, in which the two reflect on their lives together as first- and second-generation immigrants, doesn’t become the film’s emotional climax.
But Crazy Rich’s American-ness also becomes its greatest area of (niggling) critique. The film’s agog celebration of wealth and excess—necessary for its Cinderella-like structure—is an unnuanced departure from Kwan’s portrait of his native land, which is quite attuned to the deeply ingrained sexism, classism, and ethnic discrimination within Singapore. (You can hardly detect the ethnic and religious diversity of the actual city-state, which boasts four official languages: English, Malay, Mandarin, and Tamil.) Save for Eleanor and poor cousin Oliver (Superstore’s Nico Santos), the Singaporean characters mostly get the short shrift, including Nick and his glamorous fashion plate and philanthropist cousin (Gemma Chan), whose marriage to a resentful commoner (Pierre Png) is meant to serve as a mirror image of Rachel and Nick’s relationship but is too underdeveloped for that symmetry to resonate. But Crazy Rich Asians isn’t really about crazy rich Asians anyway, so much as one American who gains a greater appreciation of where she comes from. It’s a great romance, but it’s most powerful as a story of her love with herself.