“Crazy Rich Asians” surpassed $25 million in ticket sales in the opening weekend across both the United States and Canada, beating Mark Wahlberg’s action thriller “Mile 22.” How did a romantic comedy with an all-Asian cast top the box office ticket sales? Spoilers follow.
The movie is based on Kevin Kwan’s namesake best-selling book. The basic story line is that Rachel Chu (played by Constance Wu from the sitcom “Fresh off the Boat”), a New York University economics professor, travels to Singapore with her dreamy-looking boyfriend, Nick Young (played by Henry Golding of BBC) to attend Nick’s best friend’s wedding and meet Nick’s family and friends.
What Rachel doesn’t know is that Nick’s family is very rich. How wealthy is the Young family? Rachel’s college friend, Goh Peik Lin (played by Awkwafina), fills Rachel in: the Young family is just about royalty in Singapore, and worth billions of dollars.
Rachel, however, doesn’t come from a rich and famous family. She was raised by a single mom. Her story represents a typical immigrant success story: coming from a humble background and achieving her American dream by becoming the youngest economics professor at NYU.
Will Nick’s billionaire family, including some very obnoxious members, embrace a commoner like her? Like the Cinderella story, this one has a happy ending, but there is enough drama in-between to keep the audience who roots for Rachel and Nick nervous.
Plenty of Crazy Rich People and Good Humor
The film wouldn’t be called “Crazy Rich Asians” if it didn’t show off the conspicuous lifestyle some super-rich people enjoy, such as a bachelor party on a barge in international water and all guests arriving by helicopters; a prepaid shopping spree and spa from the bride-to-be for her girlfriends on an Indonesian island; a $40 million dream wedding that includes turning the inside of a church into a traditional Chinese temple; and the bride walking on water. Some of these scenes can be visually overwhelming and exhausting.
Some of these rich people in the film are also rude and shallow. For example, rich girls fight each other for brand name purses during their shopping spree. Then they all turn against Rachel because she caught the heart of the richest bachelor in Singapore. When Rachel goes back to her hotel room, she discovers some unpleasant surprises.
Of course, not all rich people are so rude. Nick’s stunning cousin, Astrid (played by Gemma Chan), who doesn’t blink when putting down $1.2 million for a pair of earrings and married a commoner herself, embraces Rachel warmly, without prejudice.
There is no shortage of humor in this comedy. For example, when Rachel has dinner at her good friend Lin’s very gilded house, which Lin says was inspired by Versailles and Donald Trump’s bathroom, Lin’s dad tells his two young daughters to eat more because “there are many starving children in America.”
Some of the film’s humor comes from mocking some Asians’ annoying behaviors, such as undue worship of brand-name products and excessive picture-taking. For instance, when Lin is at Nick’s grandma’s mansion, on her way to upstairs to change, she takes at least four selfies in various poses.
Awkwafina as Lin is a gem in this film. Her blonde hairdo and funky outfits defy the “China doll” stereotype. Every time she appears on the screen, she brings a good laugh.
Paying Tribute to Chinese Culture and Traditions
I most like that the film has many scenes that pay homage to Chinese culture and traditions. For example, before Rachel leaves New York, she and her mom go shopping for a new outfit. Of course Rachel’s mom picks out a bright red dress, because red is a happy and good luck color in Chinese culture. I can relate: I own several red dresses.
In Singapore, when Lin drops Rachel at Nick’s grandma’s mansion, Nick invites Lin to join his family for dinner. Lin obviously wants to stay, but she still politely declines Nick’s invitation twice, saying “I can’t impose,” like any traditional Chinese lady would. She then quickly accepts when Nick asks her the third time.
This kind of back and forth may seem silly to Americans, who prefer to be direct. Mean what you say and say what you mean, Americans think. But for Chinese people, such back and forth is all about having good manners. Directly expressing likes and dislikes is considered low-class and rude.
Since food plays such an important role in Chinese culture, it’s a must for a movie about Chinese people to showcase Chinese food. Anyone who loves Chinese food will appreciate how the film presents the colorful, visually stimulating, and mouth-watering street food scenes. As Nick points out to Rachel in the film, street food in Singapore is so good that it’s the only place in the world where modest food stalls have won prestigious Michelin stars. I visited Singapore about 10 years ago, and had some of the best food in my life there.
The Perfect Family Dumpling Scene
I also love the scene where Rachel joins Nick’s family, including Nick’s mom and grandmother, to make dumplings together. Dumplings have been part of Chinese food culture for a long time. It is a food accessible to both the rich and the poor. The crescent-shaped dumplings with pleated edges symbolize wealth and good luck.
Making dumplings is always a family activity. I have many fond memories of my family making dumplings together while laughing and catching up on family gossip. Even for a billionaire family like the Youngs, who have an army of servants, it’s still important for the entire family to sit around the dinner table and make dumplings together.
Nick’s formidable mom, Eleanor (played masterfully by Michelle Yeoh), uses this family gathering to lecture Rachel about a fundamental Chinese belief: the importance of sacrificing personal happiness for the sake of family. It’s safe to say almost all Chinese have heard this kind of talk many times as we grew up.
Later, Eleanor lets Rachel know that she doesn’t think Rachel is “enough” for Nick. It has little to do with Rachel’s lack of wealth and fame. In Eleanor’s eyes, Rachel is a typical “banana,” a disparaging term referring to Asians who don’t act “Asian” because they adopt western beliefs.
Rachel has a Chinese face, but deep down she is an American who believes in pursuing personal happiness and self-realization, beliefs Eleanor considers incompatible to the “family first” demand. Eventually, it takes an epic mahjong match between two strong-willed ladies to battle it out.
A New Beginning for Asian-Themed Films
Hollywood is a hypocritical place where progressives talk the “diversity and inclusiveness” talk but seldom walk the walk. Historically, Hollywood is known to bypass Asian actors for Asian roles. Asian performers have been reduced to playing stereotypical roles such as a Kung Fu master or exotic mistress.
Despite the availability of many talented Asian performers, “Crazy Rich Asians” is the first major studio film with an Asian cast since “The Joy Luck Club” back in 1993. Unlike the tear-jerker “Joy Luck Club,” “Crazy Rich Asians” is light, fun, and entertaining. The secret sauce of this film’s success is that it isn’t a woke film that tries to retell other people’s story with the “right” cast, such as the female rendition of “Ghostbusters.” Instead, it’s about Asians telling their own story with a universal appeal.
Also, the story is presented in such a light-hearted way that almost any movie goers can get a good laugh. Director Jon Chu didn’t try to shovel cultural elements down the audience’s throats. Rather, he serves us a sesame chicken dish. That’s a clearly made-in-the-USA invention with a sufficient dose of Chinese ingredients to delight all sorts of clienteles.
It’s nice to see Asian men play charming and sexy romance leads and Asian women being funky and feisty. That portrayal serves as a good pushback against the stereotypes that Asians are too serious or only know how to work hard but not how to have fun. Maybe the Harvard University admissions office should have a private showing of this film, since it has reportedly given Asian students lower personality scores to cap their admissions.
Not Perfect, But Pretty Darn Good
“Crazy Rich Asians” isn’t perfect. Its script follows a very formulated Hollywood playbook. Some scenes like Rachel’s makeover have been recycled in so many other movies (such as “The Devil Wears Prada” and “Pretty Woman”) that it isn’t funny. It rushes through the main storyline and leaves some interesting plots, like Astrid and Michael’s marriage crisis, undeveloped.
It also tries a little bit too hard to show off rich people’s excessive behavior without explaining how the Young family became so rich (I am sure the money didn’t just fall in their laps). Even though the movie title says “Asians,” it’s more accurate to say this is a story about Chinese and Chinese Americans, a subset of the very diverse Asian population. The rich Chinese the movie portrays are also a small subset of the Chinese community. Not all of us are rich and obnoxious.
Hopefully the movie doesn’t merely replace one stereotype with another. I also hope we don’t have to wait another 25 years to enjoy another interesting story about Asians on the big screen.