When Rotten Tomatoes initially gave “Crazy Rich Asians” the coveted “100 percent fresh” rating, I was greatly relieved. “Crazy Rich Asians” is the first contemporary Western film with a majority Asian cast that my generation of Asian-Americans has seen premiere—the last film of its kind was “The Joy Luck Club” 25 years ago. And if we want to see more films like this, “Crazy Rich Asians” had to be good.
Equal parts Cinderella story, Great Gatsby and Pride and Prejudice, the film adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s bestselling book looks to be a major success this summer, leading the box office with a three-day North American debut of $26.5 million (even if its Rotten Tomatoes rating has slipped to a still-respectable 93 percent).
If we want to see more films like this, “Crazy Rich Asians” had to be good.
“Crazy Rich Asians” begins like many other romantic comedies: with two young, good-looking New Yorkers. Rachel Chu (Constance Wu of “Fresh off the Boat”) and her boyfriend, Nicholas Young (newcomer Henry Golding), are happily in love. He wants to introduce her to his family in Singapore. The problem: His family is incredibly wealthy, and she is not. A formidable network of Singapore’s Chinese elite conspire against Rachel, convinced that she is not a suitable wife for Nick. At the center of this network is Nick’s mother, Eleanor Young (Michelle Yeoh, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”). Now, Rachel must navigate the expectations and pressures to fit in. Lavish parties, extravagant clothes and family drama abound.
The movie graciously sidesteps Asian stereotypes. “No one is doing kung fu in this movie, nobody’s fleeing a village,” said the Filipino-American actor Nico Santos, who plays Oliver T’sien in the film. “Crazy Rich Asians” features Asians who are not tokenized or fetishized. The male characters are not relegated to either the goofy, emasculated sidekick or the murderous martial arts villain. More important, the women of the film drive the plot. Rather than being demure or sexualized, the women of “Crazy Rich Asians” are complex, powerful and unafraid.
The strongest aspect of this film is the centrality of motherhood.
The strongest aspect of this film is the centrality of motherhood. Aside from being a story of romance, this is a story of mothers and children. Eleanor is not the stereotype of a “Tiger Mom” who dictates her son’s every move. Rather, she demonstrates an unwavering loyalty to the family and a sympathetic desire to protect her only son. We also meet Rachel’s mother, a single parent and immigrant who sacrifices everything for her daughter. Finally, there is Ah Mah, Nick’s grandmother and matriarch of the Young family who is regarded by everyone around her as a queen.
While the film is a testament to increasing diversity in Hollywood, it may not go far enough. Some have criticized the movie for showing a glamorized, Chinese version of Singaporean culture. Who are the crazy rich? In this film, they are the ethnically Chinese residents of Singapore whose money is in real estate, manufacturing and technology. While Singapore’s ethnically Chinese residents account for 75 percent of its population, its history as a trading port means it is also home to ethnic Indians and indigenous Malay populations. These communities are largely absent from the film.
As with most adaptations, the film does not fully capture the richness of the novel. But it comes very close.
But as a Filipino-American, I was pleased to see Filipino actors in the movie. Nico Santos and Kris Aquino, a Filipina actress and media royalty, had pivotal roles. And I was moved by a brief scene of Filipina maids, representing the countless overseas Filipino workers who toil in the background, away from the spotlight. Within their ranks are the darker-skinned Asians who served as butlers, drivers and waiters in the film. To me, this is a fair representation of Asian culture, reflecting the reality of colorism and a centuries-old ethnic hierarchy that still pervades Asian society.
As with most adaptations, the film does not fully capture the richness of the novel, a hilariously insightful introduction to the world of Singapore’s ultra-rich. But it comes very close.
Perhaps the only disappointing aspect of the film was its handling of religion. When we first meet Eleanor, she is reading Scripture with other rich wives at a weekly gossip session masquerading as a Bible study. We only get one other mention of religion much later in the film. In the book, religion plays a key part in the dynamics of class and ethnicity.
The Youngs are a Singaporean Methodist family with a dedicated pew at their church. Even the Buddhist characters in the book send their children to the Christian schools and youth groups in order to cement their position in the upper crust of society. As in the United States, in parts of Asia today Christianity is associated with privilege and power. Kwan’s original critique of Christianity could have played well along with the film’s critique of materialistic culture.
“Crazy Rich Asians” is an ambitious film. But it’s not trying to represent all aspects of Asian culture, and for good reason. Instead, its ambition is to tell one compelling Asian-American story, and in doing so prove that Asian-American films can be successful.
In just the past few years, movies like “Ghost in the Shell,” and “Aloha” have been criticized for “whitewashing” Asian stories, casting white actors in Asian roles. These films ultimately fared poorly at the box office. “Crazy Rich Asians” shows that Hollywood has plenty more stories to tell that Asian writers, filmmakers and actors can deliver—and that audiences want to pay for.