By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
“Crazy Rich Asians” is the first major Hollywood movie in 25 years to feature an all-Asian cast. (The last time this happened was in 1993 with “The Joy Luck Club.”) However, “Crazy Rich Asians” isn’t a serious cross-generational drama. Rather, it is a glitzy, glamorous, fun, and unrepentant romantic comedy.
I was actually prepared to really dislike this movie but I ended up being pretty entertained by it. I was prepared to dislike this movie because I was raised by Vietnamese immigrant refugees, and we agonize over paying retail for a can of soda — so I anticipated that watching crazy rich Asians drop some serious dollars on frivolous crap would give me a panic attack.
But you know, director Jon M. Chu is possibly the best thing about this movie. The movie was imbued with such lightness, rich color, and was just so beautiful to look at. The opulence and excess dripping off the upper echelons of Singapore’s elite felt fantastical and fairy tale-like. The fact that it didn’t feel “real” to me helped my mind move past the questions and hang-ups I had about inherited wealth.
“Crazy Rich Asians” is in part a fish-out-of-water story, in which New York economics professor, Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), is cajoled into going to her boyfriend Nick’s bff’s wedding in Singapore. Nick (Henry Golding) never told Rachel that he is rich AF, so that’s weird — and when they arrive in Singapore, Rachel spends the first half of the movie getting smacked in the face by money. This part of the movie was delightful and had lots of jokes, many of which were delivered by Rachel’s new moneyed friend from college, Peik Lin (played by rising star Awkwafina).
It’s when the movie started to settle into well-worn romantic comedy tropes that it started to drag for me. Perhaps the second half of the movie dragged for me because I lacked an emotional investment in whether Rachel was ever going to win enough approval from Nick’s mother (Michelle Yeoh) in order to score an engagement ring from Nick. I didn’t understand why this hotshot game theory economics professor and her super handsome and impossibly-perfect-to-the-point-of-bland boyfriend never even talked about marriage or his insane wealth or their views and stances on filial piety, before the movie became about whether or not he will pop the question, whether or not she will say yes, and whether or not his mother will let them. And why is this perfect guy so weirdly close to his super controlling mother that he would take off his shirt and let her dress him alone in his old childhood bedroom? Is this a red flag or what? Was I the only one that was like, WHOA!
Maybe I’m being too American about stuff like that. That was also a theme in the movie: American individualism and the American pursuit of individual happiness versus Asian self-sacrifice and Asian collectivism at the altar of family.
You know, I grew up on romantic comedies, and I think I was messed up a bit by that. I’ve spent a fair bit of my adult life trying to unprogram what ended up being problematic ideas on what relationships are all about — ideas that I picked up from romantic comedies. These are ideas like: Men save women, men chase women, women are supposed to be caught, only incredibly conventionally handsome men are heroic, and everyone not beautiful or handsome is a side character whose life story isn’t that important, comparatively. (Incidentally, I thought that every secondary or tertiary character’s story in “Crazy Rich Asians” was a million times more interesting than the two protagonists’ journey.)
I wonder how “Crazy Rich Asians” and the similar films that are sure to follow will influence young kids — particular young girls today. With where our society currently is, with all of the ongoing conversations around #MeToo and gender equity in general — there were aspects of the “Crazy Rich Asians” narrative that felt a little old-fashioned and conservative to me. I get that it’s a romantic comedy, harkening back to the golden era of romantic comedies — but I’m asking, have we moved beyond idealizing certain tropes?
In hindsight, I think I was perversely lucky that all the romantic comedies I grew up on featured white people because that was a barrier to over-identifying with the characters. Like, Meg Ryan is great, but I will never in my life ever own an independent bookstore that is on the verge of financial collapse because my almost-boyfriend Tom Hanks is trying to woo me by destroying my livelihood and forcing me to let go of my employees. Like, as an Vietnamese American daughter, that would never be my problem.
But the beautiful faces in “Crazy Rich Asians” are so easy to latch onto and identify with for Asian Americans. Of course representation is important, but I still wonder how movies like this will end up influencing the way that Asian girls and young women view relationships. Who knows? Maybe they are all smarter than me and can like, differentiate between reality and fiction.
Stacy Nguyen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.