That pressure may have lessened after high audience turnout and celebrity theater buyouts helped the movie successfully rake in $34 million in its first five days. And while the film’s defenders have admonished critics for expecting one work to fill the cultural void left by decades of Hollywood exclusion, it’s noteworthy that this is the sort of story that industry advocates and audiences have coalesced around—one that eases collective anxieties about Asian and Asian American difference by adopting the universal aesthetic of the ultra-rich.
Though it has been trumpeted as a landmark victory in the fight for Asian American visibility in Hollywood, Crazy Rich Asians enacts a remarkable disavowal of certain forms of Asian representation. In one notable scene, Goh Wye Mun (Ken Jeong) plays up an affected Chinese accent, repeating Rachel’s surname until it devolves into a parody of the “ching-chong” stereotypes of Hollywood’s past. Then, the payoff: “Just kidding,” Wye Mun says in an assuredly American accent: “I went to Cal State Fullerton.” The scene stands in for the prevailing spirit of the film: We’re not those kinds of Asians. Gone are the “Oriental” accents and broken English, replaced with the sophisticated air of Golding’s British tongue, Wye Mun’s familiar all-American vernacular, and Goh Peik Lin’s (Nora Lum a.k.a. Awkwafina) contrived blaccent.
Later in the same scene, Wye Mun scolds his young daughters to finish their chicken nuggets: “There’s a lot of children starving in America.” The barb—which turns a classic white American parent’s chiding on its head—drew raucous laughter from the mostly Asian audience at the screening I attended. But the punch line also rejects the “wrong” kind of Asians. Look, the joke seems to say, we’re not the third-world farmers or factory workers you might have imagined. We’re just as good as you. Or, more accurately: We’re better—and richer.
Despite the film’s all-Asian cast, and Kwan’s refusal to accept industry suggestions to cast Rachel as a white woman, Wye Mun’s jab suggests that white, Western expectations still cast a long shadow over the movie. Take the opening scene, whose drama hinges on Eleanor Young (Michelle Yeoh) triumphantly distinguishing herself—in the eyes of a white hotel manager—from the kind of Chinese who might stay in London’s Chinatown. While viewers are compelled to cheer these moments as subversive, such scenes stage a certain kind of respectability politics for a presumed white audience (or, these moments assure Asian American viewers that they are, in fact, the “right” kind of Asians).
But it’s unfair to single out Crazy Rich Asians for its apparent concern with white standards of respectability. The arguable crowning of media representation as the defining Asian American issue points to some deep concerns about how we are perceived. While many speak of the legitimate importance of seeing people who look like themselves on-screen, the investment in mainstream depictions in particular—often to the marginalization of a thriving Asian American indie-film circuit—implies a preoccupation with not only (or even primarily) how Asian Americans see ourselves, but also how others see us.
Like the wider fight for diverse representation, Crazy Rich Asians struggles with the conflicting pursuit of a universalism that “transcends race” and a specificity that reflects Asian and Asian American lived experiences. More often than not, it errs toward the former. While the film’s many Chinese-Singaporean cultural details are heartwarming and refreshing—wrapping dumplings at the family table, a climactic conversation over mahjong—at times they feel oddly tacked on, almost ornamental to an otherwise westernized story. In fact, the director Jon M. Chu has been forthright about his desire for the film to transpose Asian faces onto a quintessentially Hollywood—which is to say, white American—story. In an interview with IndieWire, Chu said he wanted the movie to convey “this idea that old, classic, Hollywood movies could have starred Asians with just as much style, just as much pizzazz.” It’s no surprise, then, that the film drips with an art-deco aesthetic, nodding to American cinema’s black-and-white days with one party scene—which rivals Gatsby’s finest—where women in flapper fashion swing and twirl to a Singaporean jazz band.