“Crazy Rich Asians” Doesn't Care About Your Impossible Expectations

Crazy Rich Asians and To All the Boys I've Loved Before may be making history, but all they really want is to entertain. Isn't there something historic in that, too?

A fight broke out on Twitter over Crazy Rich Asians not long after the first audiences got to see the movie, in a series of carefully curated word-of-mouth screenings back in April, just after the trailer dropped. The argument wasn't about the inarguable milestone Jon M. Chu's romantic comedy represents — it's the first Hollywood studio movie in 25 years to feature a heavily Asian American cast and to come from an Asian American director — but over how people were talking about the film. “Is this our Black Panther?” wondered one person, while another insisted “Singapore is basically Chinese Wakanda.”

The pushback was immediate, and pretty much what you'd expect: This comparison was appropriation of a black success story. It was a clumping together of disparate movies in a way that regrettably implied the POC blockbuster was its own genre (or that the two titles were in competition, and one had to come away the winner). It equated a film with a sharp political edge to one that is decidedly disinterested in politics. Also, guess what, Singapore is a real place, not a fictional creation — a warts-and-all country that, unlike Wakanda, has very much been shaped by the forces of colonialism. All warranted points, all true, but perhaps overlooking what people were trying to articulate with the misguided parallel and why, exactly, Crazy Rich Asians feels like such a big deal to so many people.

The film is not just a new Asian American story writ large, finally, after a quarter century in which the only way you could really find Asian American–centered fare on the big screen was in smaller indie releases. It’s not just another historical marker to be crossed in the industry’s glacial push toward greater inclusivity and toward more Asian American visibility in particular. Crazy Rich Asians is remarkable largely because it is a swoony, sumptuous fantasy, a movie made with the underlying assumption that people will see it not just because they should, because of its importance, but because they will want to, because of the pleasure and the emotional journey it offers. It is a good time.

Crazy Rich Asians feels blithely liberated from the obligation to offer up suffering.

And there is something exhilarating about that, about the film’s effortless indulgence, even as it also gets scrutinized for perceived shortcomings — with regard to what it owes the sprawling Asian American population, for how it portrays the country in which it takes place, and for the pass it gives to the incredible privilege most of its characters enjoy.

Crazy Rich Asians feels blithely liberated from the obligation to offer up suffering that has long been part of the implicit bargain made with so many mainstream movies focused on characters of color — that they are treated as marketable in relation to the pain they portray. The film isn't devoid of drama or of cultural specificity, but there's nothing dutiful or didactic (or, for that matter, especially progressive) about its content. It aims to entertain, to serve up the sacred cinematic gratifications of watching beautiful people in beautiful settings overcoming obstacles in order to be together — only this time, you know, with Asians.

Crazy Rich Asians wasn't intended to be an awardsy movie (though with the new Oscar category, who the hell knows), and it isn't a superhero story, either. It's a reworking of another traditional mainstream genre that’s jolted back to life recently — the rom-com. It’s a genre that, with Netflix original To All the Boys I've Loved Before also out this week, is shaping up to be the format of choice for something so new that we’re still feeling out what it means. These films are trying to carve out space not just for Asian American narratives, but for glossy Asian American escapism. And when you’re dealing with the weight of immense and decades-in-the-making expectations from a whole host of different communities grouped together under an overarching label, spinning out fizzy, lighter-than-air delights is not nearly as easy as it might, on the surface, appear.

The last big Asian American feature film produced by a US studio is generally accepted to be The Joy Luck Club, Wayne Wang’s classic 1993 adaptation of Amy Tan's novel about the sometimes turbulent relationships between four Chinese immigrant women and their American-born daughters. It is, in many ways, the type of movie Crazy Rich Asians appears to be distancing itself from. It’s a movie that has cast a long shadow over a lot of Asian American narratives — a litany of intergenerational anguish and affection that generated critical acclaim and great sobby gouts of tears from its audiences. God knows, it extracted them from me — I've never cried as hard during a movie as I did the first time I saw The Joy Luck Club. I was torn between shocked recognition, as the Californian daughter of a Chinese Singaporean mother, and resentment at being twisted into knots so easily.

The Joy Luck Club, with its assimilationist assumptions and arrays of long-suffering women and absent or oppressive men, hasn't aged as well as Wang’s 1982 movie Chan Is Missing, which remains rough and vibrant and the greatest onscreen evocation of the kaleidoscopic, contradictory concept of Asian Americanness I’ve seen. But its power is undeniable. The Joy Luck Club is the most full-throated chorus about the heft of immigrant parent expectations, the theme that's become a maybe too stubbornly inescapable throughline in Asian American output, from Justin Lin's not-your-model-minority 2002 debut Better Luck Tomorrow to Master of None to the most recent Pixar short.

One of my oldest friends, the Bay Area–born child of Japanese Peruvians, occasionally trots out lines from The Joy Luck Club when she’s feeling especially pinned down by obligations, usually ones she’s put on herself. It's a kind of mantra for warding off feelings of internalized inadequacy. She likes the four-hanky scene involving June (Ming-Na Wen) and the aftermath of a dinner party at which a childhood frenemy immediately went for the nicest food on the table, when June’s mother offers her daughter some rare words of praise. “Waverly took best-quality crab. You took worst. Because you...have best-quality heart,” my friend will intone, and the two of us, children of different Asian diasporas, will howl with laughter, united in amusement at all that weaponized guilt and self-sacrifice and a little horrified by the hold it still has on us.

They're movies that aim not to break open forms or to reimagine storytelling, but to simply put Asian American characters front and center. 

Maybe that's why the idea of Asian American escapism feels so radical, even as there is, pointedly, nothing radical about the content of either Crazy Rich Asians or To All the Boys I've Loved Before. They’re movies that aim not to break open forms or to reimagine storytelling, but to simply put Asian American characters front and center and declare, counter to years of showbiz bias, that they are compelling, endearing, desirable, and worthy of audience attention by themselves. Putting so much pressure on the value of representation can be a dicey thing, especially when both movies offer narrow spectrums of experiences on screen. They are both about characters of specifically East Asian descent only, and they're set in bubbles of either extreme, insular wealth (Crazy Rich Asians) or upper-middle-class suburban comfort (To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before), with no interest in looking outside.

There’s much more to Asian American cinema than the few titles that have gotten mainstream attention — films as varied and diverse as Asian America. Even this week, there's Bing Liu's excellent and decidedly non-escapist Sundance doc Minding the Gap, which just premiered on Hulu, and which considers modern masculinity through the experiences of the filmmaker and the friends he made while growing up in a Rust Belt town and seeking solace in skateboarding. But the stories that have gotten mainstream attention have almost all been threaded through with concern about not measuring up, either to parental hopes or outside perceptions — about doubt. And so, seeing these new movies and their creators shamelessly claim the spotlight, it feels like it’s been a long time coming.

Authors Kevin Kwan and Jenny Han, whose respective novels are the source material for Crazy Rich Asians and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, have both shared stories about meeting with would-be adapters who wanted to whitewash their work, to erase part or all of their Asianness. “The more alarming part of it was that people didn’t understand why that was an issue,” Han told Teen Vogue. I can’t dismiss the frustration some feel about the constrained ambition of these features, but I can’t shrug off the poignance of their modest aims, either — to insist on not just visibility but stardom, the right to be projected larger than life.

If there's some irony to the fact that Crazy Rich Asians needs to travel to Singapore in order to make a film about Chinese American identity, it's reflected in the long tradition of Asian American talent heading east in search of work because there's been so little place for them in the US landscape. Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), the NYU economics professor who gets whisked away on an intense trip to meet her boyfriend’s family, is the lone American in the movie’s sea of Chinese scions. But there's no mistaking the fact that the movie is about her, and how she stands her ground against an overseas aristocracy intent on casting her as an unworthy upstart, a gold-digging interloper.

Crazy Rich Asians has been criticized for not portraying the full reality of Singapore, a country that’s only around three-quarters ethnically Chinese and heavily propped up by migrant labor. But it doesn’t really try — it barely sets foot on the country’s soil before ascending to the selective, nearly nationless space through which the Youngs and their equally monied compatriots move. The ending literally takes place high above the cityscape, on the elevated SkyPark of the Marina Bay Sands, one of the most expensive resort casinos in the world.

The movie’s lack of a critique or even an examination of its outrageous opulence is its most uneasy aspect, though that gives some cynical bite to its opening flashback, in which Eleanor Young (Michelle Yeoh), the mother of Rachel's eventual boyfriend, buys a London hotel out from under the sneering employees who snub her and her family when they try to check in. Money is the great equalizer for these characters. It allows them to push back against racism, take care of their own, and demand to be seen. And that has in some ways filtered into the public messaging around the movie: the idea that the future of mainstream Asian American cinema rests on its box-office returns.

Like any good glossy rom-com, Crazy Rich Asians provides its heroine with certain expected beats; there’s a makeover montage, as well as a truly moving last-minute confession of love. But it’s never really Nick — played by handsome-as-the-sun newcomer Henry Golding, who is half English and half indigenous Malaysian minority, and whose casting has become a fascinating inflection point in American attempts to discuss Asian colorism — who has to be won over. It's Eleanor, with her serene smile and razor-blade asides, who’s the final boss at the end of a Jane-Austen-by-way-of-Singapore matrimonial gauntlet.

It’s Eleanor who finds Rachel wanting, believing her to be too individualistic for her golden princeling of a son, too much the American-made overachiever, her striving suddenly turned against her. It’s Eleanor who sets up the film’s most singular moment of triumph, one that has nothing to do with wealth but is instead a heady evocation of laying claim to and drawing power from an identity that is neither Asian nor American but something in between. Rachel ultimately defeats her foe and proclaims her own worth — by out-martyring her. The Joy Luck Club moms would be proud.

And they’d likely be bemused by To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, in which the Korean American mom died years before the movie starts (no direct applications of intergenerational immigrant guilt here), leaving Lara Jean Covey (Lana Condor) to live with her doctor dad (John Corbett) and two sisters. There's a touch of Wes Anderson to director Susan Johnson's carefully composed frames, depicting the fetchingly smooth-featured suburbia in which Lara Jean lives, but the film’s heart belong to another auteur whose perspective has always been firmly white: ’80s teen movie maestro John Hughes. At one point, Lara Jean and her lacrosse-bro love interest Peter (Noah Centineo) even watch Sixteen Candles on her laptop. “Isn't this character, like, kind of racist?” he muses as Gedde Watanabe’s Long Duk Dong appears onscreen. “Extremely racist,” she sighs, smiling anyway, while her sister explains that they’re watching it for the romantic lead, the forever hunky Jake Ryan (Michael Schoeffling).

If the escapism in Crazy Rich Asians rests on the assertion that Asian American characters are just as deserving of aspirationally gorgeous romps through unquestioned extravagance as any of their predecessors in the genre, To All the Boys I've Loved Before opts instead for a more willfully limited act of wish fulfillment. The Netflix movie wants to racebend the traditional Molly Ringwald figure into one played by a winsome hapa heroine, and to allow her to be the center of all those teen-movie adventures. Lara Jean might have come across as a bit of a pill on the page, but thanks to Condor's immense charm, we’re willing to afford her that ultimate high-school-movie privilege: to pass herself off as an invisible outcast with quirky taste when she’s clearly the most beautiful girl on screen, wearing enviably dorky-chic outfits, with a bedroom right out of an Anthropologie catalogue.

Lara Jean tangles with various layers of popularity. She samples not just one teen movie contrivance but a series of them — she has forbidden feelings for best friend/boy next door Josh (Israel Broussard), she writes confessional letters to her five biggest crushes that someone finds and mails out, and she embarks on a fake relationship in order to make someone jealous. Most importantly, she wins the heart of the popular jock, the dreamy white boy, the king of the cafeteria, the Jake Ryan.

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before revamps and updates John Hughes so that the school is no longer so racially monolithic, the gender politics no longer so objectionable, and the depictions of characters of color no longer so racist. But it doesn’t change too much — it loses Long Duk Dong while keeping its object of desire pretty much exactly the same. In that, it plays like a tentative half-shuffle forward next to Crazy Rich Asians’ confident stride: wanting change, but not too much. But when something is as sweet and cozy as a mug of cocoa, it’s hard to criticize it too much — familiarity, after all, is the point.

A few months ago, I was on a panel alongside some other writers from a variety of big and respected outlets, and we talked about a few of the various crises journalism has been dealing with, and we did not manage to solve them. Afterwards, a few of us were lingering nearby to chat when one of the panelists brought up the event’s unignorable lack of diversity. Everyone onstage and in attendance was white, she pointed out, not clocking that I’m biracial — or maybe she did, because she added, “unless you want to count the Asians.”

I did, in fact, want to count the Asians. I probably could have done it on my fingers, because there weren’t many in the crowd, certainly not so many that you’d ever describe the gathering as mixed. I have no doubt that they were acutely aware of being the scattered few in the room, because that’s what it means to be in the minority, to be forever surrounded by people who don’t look like you.

It was far from the first time I’d heard someone talk about Asians as basically white when we are not and have never been. But it might have been the first time someone had said it to my face so baldly, as if it were a compliment instead of a casual rhetorical act of sweeping erasure — that Asians shouldn’t need to see themselves, because we should be content to see ourselves in white people. Amazing how this alleged interchangeability only ever goes one direction, to rendering one party invisible, to the point where 25 years can pass between Asian American projects you could catch at the cineplex. And even then, when something marketable comes along, a producer will say, hey, maybe the main character could be a white girl, because then people might actually want to see it, might actually care, and what’s the big deal anyway.

There isn't a “relatable” white girl inserted into the middle of Crazy Rich Asians, and while it’s ridiculous that that was ever a vague possibility, it’s also a huge relief. But even more of a relief are the fights being had over the movie in addition to the praise it has gotten, that it’s being called too Asian and not Asian enough, that there are arguments about whether its portrayal of Singapore is accurate and whether it needs to be, or if its collection of pan-Asian actors all playing Chinese is actually the most American thing about it. Because Crazy Rich Asians isn’t the great Asian American movie. It doesn’t remotely begin to reflect the whole Asian American experience — only an entitled fraction of it. And there is never going to be a definitive Asian American movie, because Asian American identity is too wide-ranging and debated a concept for a single narrative, or a hundred of them. The answer is only for there to be more, until we stop needing to debate whether we all see reflections of ourselves in any one particular title, because there are so many of them — some that are serious, and some that are sweet, and some that are allowed to be soap-bubble light. ●


Michelle Yeoh's name was misspelled in an earlier version of this post.

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