After resisting Crazy Rich Asians for several weeks, I finally went to see it last night, girding myself for a syrupy, wealth porn, romcom that I would utterly hate. But I burst into tears the minute the movie opened. Then I pretty much cried off and on through the entire fucking film. I’m a skeptical New York snob who is really only moved by moments of authenticity. I’m shocked that this film delivers.
So what got me going was the opening song. Rose Rose I Love You dates from the 1940s. It’s the only Chinese song that ever became a hit in the West. Frankie Laine and Petula Clarke covered the song. David Bowie knew it. The song instantly telegraphed the film’s ambitions, set up a jaunty playfulness, and also relayed that this was going to be a rare Asian-American film that knows its culture. Cue the tear ducts.
Yes, the movie soundtrack does give in to Hollywood moments, with lush orchestral mood muzak over the Singapore skyline. But most of the music is utterly brilliant, eschewing current Mandopop or Cantopop hits (the easy choice) for a cheeky soundtrack that ricocheted from East to West and back again. Material Girl was sung in Cantonese. Money (That’s What I Want) had verses in Mandarin. And of course, there was the crazy heroic idea of turning Coldplay’s Yellow into a heart-tugging Mandarin ballad, reappropriating a word that has been used as a slur against Asians for centuries.
But what I loved most was the choice of several songs by Grace Chang, the Mambo Girl of 1950s Hong Kong movie musicals, including Wo Yao Ni Di Ai, her cover of the jump blues tune I Want You To Be My Baby. The Grace Chang music made me think of a conversation I had with a dance acquaintance who thought that there was no swing and jazz music in Asia in the 1950s. And it made me think of a party that I recently worked outside of Berlin, which was supposed to have some kind of 1920s Asian theme, but all the music sounded like tinkly New Age wind chimes in a minor key, as if no one had an inkling that they could just google “Music, Shanghai, 1920s.”
Yes, white people, I hate to tell you that we Asians don’t live in a parallel universe. We aren’t just some exotic chop-socky “other”. We actually exist at the same time as everyone else. The popular culture of the time does come all the way to Asia. In fact, there was actually some pretty fabulous Asian cha-cha and jump blues and psychedelic garage music.
In this way, the film is similar to the central tenet of The Joy Luck Club. An Asian-American friend said that as he left Crazy Rich Asians, he heard a white woman exclaim, “Wow, Asians are just like us.” That’s something that would have likely been said after The Joy Luck Club too.
But I detest The Joy Luck Club for its dishonesty. No freaking Chinese mother would ever in a thousand years tell her daughter anything about her past. No Chinese family would ever cry and hug one another. Instead, a Chinese mom would show she loves you by telling you how sloppy you look and that you need to comb your hair and wear more makeup. And then she would shove some food in your face and scold you for being too skinny. But I know that why I hate The Joy Luck Club is exactly why other Asian-Americans love the film. It’s wishful thinking. It’s an Asian family behaving like an American family in a beige homogenous suburb like in all the American sitcoms.
Crazy Rich Asians has a mother/daughter pair that is similar to Joy Luck Club. The bonding scene between Rachel and her mother Kerry opens with Rachel jumping into her mother’s arms weeping. And then Kerry actually flops onto the bed as she tells her daughter something about her past. I can’t imagine ever trying to hug my mother. And my mother would never in a million years ever lounge in bed with me. I can hear her dying of laughter if I ever even suggested it.
But the mother/daughter relationship in Crazy Rich Asians is tempered by its direct contrast to the relationship between Singapore-born Nick and his mother Eleanor. The two of them stand awkwardly side by side, staring at some vague middle distance in front of them, neither daring to look at one another. The scene was cut, but if it was truthful, it would have been all pregnant pauses and trailing sentences, and then maybe a moment when someone finally has the courage to take the other person’s hand and squeeze it before they both let go in embarrassment because yeesh, too intimate.
With all these strong mothers in the film, though, I started to wonder where the men were. Nick’s father was ostensibly away on business and his grandfather was presumably dead. He also had no uncles. The older generation of men was completely absent, leaving nothing but a few geeks and lots of eye candy. Both Nick and his bestie Colin take off their shirt at different points in the film and the camera salivates all over their ripped abs, glistening with droplets of water. I wonder how deliberate was the homoerotic undertone between the two men. (Colin actually says to Nick, “If it weren’t for Araminta, I would’ve asked you to marry me.”) I’m sure the topless scenes are a deliberate response to the stereotype that Asian men are unattractive and effeminate. So it’s rather interesting that the power is still all in the hands of Asian women, though the film neatly evades the dragonlady stereotype, with Eleanor clearly struggling to maintain her place within the rigid heirarchal structures of Asian society.
There are other things in the movie that bear criticism. It’s true that Singapore seems to be entirely Chinese in the film, with not one Indian or Malay character except for the docile and silent servants. But then again the film is called Crazy Rich Asians, and in Singapore, all the money does belong to the Chinese. Beyond the invisibility of brown people, the biggest hole was the lack of Singlish with all its rich colloquialisms. On the other hand, it was very enjoyable to hear the upper classes speaking in Mandarin, while Eleanor (the outsider) spoke in Cantonese, and the nouveau riche family spoke Hokkien. And I laughed when Nick's super-wealthy family mentions that they are Methodist, because I know what that means in Taiwan.
It’s details like this that give Crazy Rich Asians a deeper resonance. The genius of the film is that by being so culturally specific, it evades the claptrap of exotica. Rachel and Eleanor don’t play mahjong in the film because they're Asian and that's just what Asian ladies do. There is a pointed significance to their seating arrangement (Rachel is in the West seat, Eleanor is in the East); the meaning of Eleanor’s hand (she tells Rachel that she doesn't belong, while collecting tiles that are all the same suit); and the winning tile that Rachel throws away (it’s lucky number 8 but it’s also Bamboo and Rachel is a jook sing or a hollow bamboo). I got most of that, but I am missing the significance of Eleanor’s dumpling fold… I wish I could bring my mother and ask her why the camera kept lingering on that one bad dumpling. (Was it just missing a fold? Does anyone know?)
And that’s a testament of the film’s success. I’ve never had the privilege of seeing a major film that made me want to ask my parents questions, that reflects the conflicted experience of being from two cultures and from neither. Crazy Rich Asians not only recognizes the divide between Asian-Americans and Asians-from-Asia, but it makes being Asian-American -- a hyphenate, a jook sing, a banana -- into something to be proud of. Rachel can take that bamboo tile and play it if she wants to. Or she can throw it away and go back to acing poker in New York. Because she's got game. Both games.