Crazy Rich Asians is the first major Hollywood movie with an all Asian-American cast to be released in almost a generation – the last being The Joy Luck Club (1993). The 2018 romantic-comedy explores the complex relationship between Rachel, an American-Asian immigrant, and Nick, a man from a wealthy, traditional Chinese family. While the film offers much in the way of comedic value, there are many layers of the Chinese culture deep-rooted within the two-hour runtime.
Director Jon M. Chu immediately addresses the film’s themes of money and power through a shocking opening scene. Eleanor Young and her family arrive at a fancy London hotel in 1995 after travelling all the way from Singapore, only to be turned away by the hotel manager and told they should find a place to stay in Chinatown instead. Little does the manager know, Eleanor is of a wealthy family and after such degrading treatment she phones her husband in a telephone box to tell him to buy the hotel. In just under one minute the audience is given a uniquely empathetic insight into the humiliation this non-white protagonist feels during the racist encounter.
When Nick invites Rachel to meet his family, we are given an insight into the differences between the backgrounds of the two characters. Nick, the son of Eleanor, comes from a wealthy family who are viewed like royals in Singapore. In contrast, Rachel is the daughter of an immigrant who fled from China to the U.S. in order to escape from her abusive husband.
Upon Rachel’s arrival, Eleanor makes ruthless remarks about her pursuit of ‘the American dream’. The difference in ideals is shown to cause a ripple in the seemingly-strong family unit; Rachel constantly suffers from ridicule because she does not come from an affluent heritage like many of the Asians in Singapore. In traditional Chinese culture where it is common for the younger generation to inherit their family’s businesses, Rachel is personified as the threat which will take Nick away from his succession – his mother worries that she is not worthy of their wealth.
At points where the cultural conflict could become overly serious, the film uses comedy cleverly to lighten the tone. In one scene, Rachel visits Goh Peik Lin(Ken Jeong)’s house for dinner – Goh introduces himself with some sort of accent but then reveals he was actually faking it as he speaks American English. While bound to leave the audience feeling slightly uncomfortable, the sharp comedy evidently very intentional; almost like the Asian community is holding their middle finger up to the insensitivity towards minorities which lies within Hollywood.
With regards to representation of Asian culture, we may not have expected much from the film initially – the trailer showed a large number of jokes, provoking worries that it was too focussed on generic comedic appeal. However, Crazy Rich Asians successfully slips in important Asian traditions and practices. For example, street food is a historical aspect in Asia; the film depicts Rachel, Nick and their friends ordering various dishes from different stalls and eating it together with pints of beer. This is not only endearing but nostalgic, as it shows a lot of experiences shared by Asians all over the world. A further scene shows Rachel and Eleanor playing a game of mah-jong whilst discussing Nick’s future. Mah-jong is a traditional Chinese game involving a high degree of skill, strategy and calculation. It fits perfectly with the intensive and strategical nature of this scene as Rachel redeems her pride proving to Eleanor that she is worthy, however is also traditionally representative of a game played by many Asian people.
It is definitely nice to not only see a cast of Asians, but a lot of familiar faces. Constance Wu playing Rachel Chu can also be seen in Fresh Off the Boat, the first American sitcom starring an Asian-American family. Gemma Chan who plays Astrid Leong-Teo stars in Humans on Channel 4. Although Crazy Rich Asians is one of the biggest and boldest movies showcasing the Asian community in cinematic history, its arrival on cinema screens doesn’t come as a complete shock; it’s symbolic of the fact a gradual increase in representation can be seen in western media. The film is great, not only for its commitment to showcasing Asian actors, but because it’s a genuinely well-made, cleverly-written comedy in its own right. Its quality alone is a great step in creating a bigger voice for the Asian community in film.
By Kitty Ma