‘Crazy Rich Asians’ is an addition to the Asian-American canon
A working-class woman meets an outrageously rich man, and they fall in love in much to the derision and outrage of the man’s family (mostly his mother).
It’s a classic formula, seen in works like “Pride and Prejudice” to which some critics have compared “Crazy Rich Asians,” the romantic-comedy released this summer that featured an all-Asian cast. But watching the film on opening day, in a Japantown, San Francisco theater, as a Korean-American surrounded by many other Asians and Asian-Americans, I made the inevitable comparison: “Crazy Rich Asians” is remniscent of every Asian drama I watched growing up, cinematized and Americanized and distributed to a theater near you.
An Asian drama, for the uninitiated, is the term used for mini-series television programs broadcast in (you guessed it) Asian countries including China, Japan, India, Indonesia, South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines. A lot of dramas center around a romance, and a lot of these romances derive conflict from their leads’ different social classes. This rags-to-riches-through-marriage trope is so popular that a Japanese manga called “Hana Yori Dango,” otherwise known as “Boys Over Flowers,” was adapted as a drama in four different countries: Japan, South Korea, Taiwan,and China, with the most recent Chinese adaptation, renamed Meteor Garden, produced by and aired on Netflix.
“Crazy Rich Asians,” give or take a few side stories, seems to follow this trope to the number. Chinese American economics professor Rachel Chu, played with endearing warmth by Constance Wu, is swept off her feet and flown to Singapore by her handsome billionaire boyfriend Nick Young, played by Henry Golding. There, she meets his outrageously wealthy family, including his elegant cousin Astrid, played by Gemma Chan, as well as Peik Lin, her noveau riche college roommate, played with hilarity and no small amount of charm by Awkwafina. Most significantly, she meets Eleanor Young, Nick’s mother and Singaporean socialite, whom Michelle Yeoh captures with sensitivity, majestic grace and a frostiness that hints at the steely demeanor needed to live her kind of life.
The film itself is vibrant, colorful and completely apropos for Jon Chu, a director whose beginnings in the film industry are attached to the never-actualized remake of the musical “Bye Bye Birdie” and his own similarly fizzled adaptation of “The Great Gatsby.” Chu successfully takes the film’s sharp but frothy source material and adapts it into something sweeping and rollicking, with a soundtrack that dips into vintage Chinese jazz songs and Chinese covers of American and British pop numbers. Thanks to such efforts, the movie is big, booming and brassy, yet guided by a meticulous hand that is inevitably rooted in the fact that “Crazy Rich Asians” is the first American film in 25 years to feature an all-Asian cast.
Interviews with the cast and director have made certain that everyone involved with this film feel the weight of its potential failure for Asian-Americans and the delicate balance the film has to play to be a success. The film can’t be “too Asian” because it needs to appeal first to an American audience, but it can’t be so American that it loses sight of representing its characters and their ethnicities accurately. It needs to pay tribute to the significance of cultural backgrounds for Asian-Americans, but it also needs to avoid playing into the “perpetual foreigner” myth.
“Crazy Rich Asians” might resemble an Asian drama, but it is an American film. Despite its similarities to an age-old trope, the film is Asian-American because it plays the same delicate balance that many Asian-Americans play in our day-to-day lives. Its primary source of conflict is familiar to many, of the tensions between motherland and diaspora, of the inner battle between culturally fostered collectivist ideals and individualism that surrounds us socially; essentially, of whether or not we choose to say Asian or Asian-American.
There are many, dramas, films and novels featuring Asian people as heroes, as complex characters who are not simply reduced to a series of stereotypes. But “Crazy Rich Asians” is not one of these works; it instead adds itself to a small and limited canon for Asian-Americans. This canon has sometimes felt so small that it was virtually invisible, only existent on YouTube with content creators such as Wong Fu Productions and on one-off episodes of TV shows such as Glee’s “Asian F.” It’s a canon where I often felt the need to include Asian dramas, so that I could find people who at least looked like me.
In this canon, the last film to feature an all-Asian cast was 1993’s “The Joy Luck Club,” and besides the ethnicities of the cast members involved, the two could not be more different. Where “Crazy Rich Asians” is a purely cinematic experience, almost surreal in its joyful ride through pure affluence, “The Joy Luck Club” highlights the lives and struggles of immigrant Chinese women and their daughters. I remember actively avoiding the film because I didn’t want to watch a film where I could all too acutely feel every micro-expression of grief, hurt and loss. “The Joy Luck Club” was a monumental film because it told the stories of Asian-Americans and highlighted some of what affected us — but “Crazy Rich Asians” is monumental in a different way, not because of the story of it tells, but because it is the first time I have seen a major American film give Asians and Asian-Americans the room to breathe, to be joyful, to simply be part of a good time without being told about our trauma and our history of exclusion over and over again.
For the careful viewer, “Crazy Rich Asians” contains nod after nod to this canon. But the appearances of artists such as Kina Grannis, who is Japanese-American and a frequent collaborator with Wong Fu, the end-credits cameo by Glee’s Harry Shum Jr. and even the casting of Lisa Lu, who portrayed one of the mothers in “The Joy Luck Club,” as Ah Ma, don’t just feel like Easter eggs included for Asian-American viewers. It instead feels like acknowledgement of “Crazy Rich Asians” as a boisterous, long-overdue addition to a canon that is finally expanding.