Representation Matters

crazy rich asians

When I was a kid, a group of middle-aged Chinese ladies shamed me for being too American and for my broken family. They didn’t know me, and I shouldn’t have mattered to them. I think they just wanted to tear someone down. I hadn’t realized that their words and the trauma I experienced was bottled up inside me for more than 25 years until I saw Crazy Rich Asians. All the judgment, the shame, and the anger just poured out of me in haggard sobs, like I couldn’t gulp down air fast enough and the only way was to keep crying ugly, big tears.

So there’s a personal context for my review that I’m sure changes how I see this movie. I imagine that for other writers and publications, they’ll use words like “breezy” and “fun” and “hilarious” and “opulent.” Crazy Rich Asians is all of these things. But for me, it’s also absolutely essential. Because for the first time, a whole swath of East Asian people are seen and heard in a modern movie. Their stories are on a massive screen soon to be playing in more than 3,000 theaters and that has never really happened in my lifetime (I was too young to appreciate Joy Luck Club). I felt included in something without reservation and without a catch. I could just be myself, sitting in that theater, guffawing loudly at all the jokes I think are especially funny if you’re Chinese (like I am) or Singaporean. I felt this movie in my guts. It was like a world created just for me, and director Jon M. Chu was telling me that those ladies didn’t deserve to occupy my thoughts and my time.

Crazy Rich Asians is about Rachel Chu, a Chinese-American economics professor madly in love with her Singaporean boyfriend, Nick. Like in a traditional rom-com (think The Proposal, but turned up to 11), Nick suggests that a getaway to Singapore for his best friend’s wedding could also provide them with an opportunity for Rachel to meet his mother. All is not as it seems, though, when Rachel, stating definitively at the airport that they are “economy people,” is whisked into first class. As it turns out, Nick is a billionaire and Rachel’s story unfolds in dramatic and hilarious fashion as she finds herself a fish out of water in Singapore, trying to win the approval of Nick’s traditional mother, Eleanor.

First things first, this movie is hilarious. There are so many good jokes, so many good moments, I won’t be able to name any because I’d just list them all and spoil them for you. Suffice to say, my audience reacted appropriately, and our uproarious laughter often drowned out the next lines of the movie. What’s more, I felt a camaraderie because everywhere I looked, there were women of color. This is a movie that needs to be seen with an audience.

Second, this cast is incredible. Michelle Yeoh is downright regal as Eleanor. Henry Golding is charming, handsome, and a movie star in the making. Ken Jeong adds an air of chaos to all of his scenes, which is precisely what you hire Ken Jeong to do. There are many faces that are likely unfamiliar to American audiences, but are surely going to be more recognizable in the future. Gemma Chan (playing Astrid, Nick’s cousin) has a fantastic arc and loads of character development all to herself, and her scenes with and without Rachel are full of life. Another audience favorite will surely be Tan Kheng Hua, who plays Rachel’s mother, Kerry. She delivers the sickest burn in the entire movie, all without words. My audience members and I recoiled as if we had been slapped by an auntie’s giant hand.

I want to point out two standouts in a cast of standouts. Constance Wu has ruled the small screen for the past few years on “Fresh Off the Boat,” a comedy so specific to the Asian American experience that it frequently felt like they were reading my old childhood diaries and cringing while they jotted down notes. Her take on Rachel is charming, funny, and clever. I’d like to be Rachel when I grow up. The other is Awkwafina, who is the official queen of this summer. She steals every scene she is in, and I need a sequel if only to watch the continuing adventures of Peik Lin.

Third, this movie is gorgeous. Jon M. Chu is an impeccable director with such a flair for color and detail, and a great sense of when to just let silence take over. Many scenes play out without music, allowing for the dialogue to flow with the right tone to carry a subtle message to the audience. When there is music, it’s often pop songs cleverly done in Mandarin or Malay. There are no fewer than four languages represented in this movie, which will be of particular delight to many people of an older generation who speak Cantonese, Mandarin, or Malay natively. Representation matters.

Crazy Rich Asians pulls no punches. Its opening scene is a salvo. A demand that you take the lessons it is about to impart seriously even when it’s delivered in a gilded red box, and that you give respect to the characters in this story who have faced hardship. Then it never lets up, and never lets any of us Asians forget that where we come from takes many shapes and that no one gets to tell us that we don’t belong. This is a movie that is made for us, by us, about us, in the many varieties our stories take. I felt a righteous fury that we hadn’t had these stories before.

With or without the context that left me shaken and stirred, I think Crazy Rich Asians will delight and entertain you, which is what all good rom-coms should do. More than that, though, I think it’ll help a lot of people understand what it’s like to finally feel included. For the people who already were included, just think about how much more grand and enriching the pool is now that there’s a whole lot of Crazy Rich Asians in it.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the ongoing critique of how the film may mask the complexities of ethnicity and race in Singapore, and how it may relegate certain people to the sidelines. Those critiques are welcome and we should discuss them. We should talk about how we can do better next time. But for now, can we please just exist in this moment? For now, this is a win. I’m going to see this movie again next week and I’m going to encourage everyone I know to see it. I’m going to call my mom and thank her for being strong, and in my mind I will forgive those ugly women for their judgment and shame. I don’t need their words taking up precious space in my head anymore.