When was the last time a generic romantic comedy faced such scrutiny? I am chagrined to pen any self-serious, heavy-handed opinion that treats Crazy Rich Asians as anything other than the lighthearted joyride it attempts to be. Indeed, a critique at this point might only signify misplaced expectation. The hypocrisies and contradictions are obvious: these “crazy rich Asians” are celebrated as harbingers of racial progress while producers bank on the hope that audiences will forget how capitalism has always been inextricably linked to racial oppression.
However, it feels naive to expect authenticity or sincerity from Hollywood when it has always manufactured fictions that seduce us into abandoning our realities. Instead, I ask how Asiatic bodies are afforded such sudden visibility. Is the film really so different from an industry recently outed as one of the most repressive, white, sexist, and exploitative machines via the #MeToo movement? Or, is it more likely that the film too, despite its all-Asian cast and Asian director Jon M. Chu, is still vulnerable to the same racial and gendered logic that warranted its production?
Crazy Rich Asians begins in 1995, when madame Eleanor Sung, played by the elegantly fearsome Michelle Yeoh, glides into a posh hotel and prepares to flip tables as if on an episode of Undercover Boss. Her furs are dripping from the raging storm outside, but we surmise that she can afford to toss them anyway, and her two children track mud across the gleaming marble floor. The (racist) concierge tries to turn them away; but no, they’ll be sorry, because: Eleanor has money! Obscene wealth, and its spectacular power to compensate for racial loss, is the central protagonist we are invited to cheer on in Crazy Rich Asians.
Fast forward to 2018, and Eleanor’s son Nick Young, played by Henry Golding, has grown distant from his wealthy family. Young’s extravagant endowments are slowly unveiled to an unsuspecting girlfriend Rachel Chu, played by Constance Wu, once they travel together to his best friend’s wedding in Singapore. Between then and now, has-beens and soon-to-be’s, cultural wholeness and successful assimilation correlate directly with dollar signs. The bachelor parties would make a Baz Luhrmann remake of The Titanic blush. If McMansions embarrass us in their failed ambition, then try the McAcropolises in Crazy Rich Asians. Throughout these grandiose scenes, no one is more othered or shocked from the spectacle than the most “foreign” Asian subject who just arrived from America: Rachel Chu.
Greed is easy to dismiss, and yes, there is predictably plenty in a film called Crazy Rich Asians. Yet, there has been little examination of what excessive capital promises racially denigrated subjects. In her book The Melancholy of Race, Anne Anlin Cheng writes about melancholia as a metaphor for the process of racialization in America and asks, “How to bury the remnants of denigration and disgust created in the name of progress and the formation of an ‘American identity’?” Apparently, with any major credit card. In a manic gesture that attempts to reverse discrimination through inversion, the film attempts to compensate for the racialization of Asians like Eleanor Young through the performance of overabundance. The primitivist stereotypes of Asia, such as dirty streets and dog meat made popular by films like Mondo Cane (1962), are transformed instead into decorative and ornamental glamor: million-dollar gems and ravenous spending habits.
Like many “Asian” Hollywood films, Crazy Rich Asians relies almost entirely on the bodies of Asian women in order to resolve the anxieties between Eastern and Western identity. Eleanor finds beef with her son’s American-raised, low-income girlfriend Rachel, activating the old (read: tired), binary schisms between seemingly polar opposites that never mix well. Here we are invited to feel fear for a miscegenous relationship: a regressive, traditional, despotic East and a progressive, modern, free-spirited West. Rachel’s illegality and pennilessness (almost equatable with Chinese-lessness throughout the film) is outed by a catty network of primarily women.
The film’s humor relies on the fundamental irony that wholesome Asian beauties like Rachel can be othered in a place that, by Orientalist logic, should be welcoming. The character Peik Lin, embodying the long tradition of simultaneous Black and Orientalist minstrelsy, pokes fun at Rachel’s inward whiteness in saying, “she’s gonna think you’re a banana — yellow on the outside, white on the inside.” Although the banana metaphor identifies Rachel’s interior as foreign, her outer foreignness is just as palpable. Whiteness is continuously mapped onto her body as one that is severely lacking: in ornamentation, vibrancy, luxury, surgical injection, and implants. From recent cinematic tradition such as Blade Runner and Ex Machina all the way back to the 18th-century exhibition of the first Asian woman in the United States, Afong Moy’s “tiny lotus feet,” Asiatic femininity is repeatedly “proven” and theatrically revealed through extreme artifice.
Naturally, Rachel embarks on a quest to prove her racial wholeness through artificial attachment. This forced peacocking is achieved through sartorial transformation, such as her mother’s insistence that she wear a red dress for its auspicious symbolism (as opposed to a later dress disturbingly characterized as a “slutty ebola virus” and thus, unfit), to witty scenes involving mahjong, where Rachel outsmarts her future mother-in-law by beating her in a so-called “intrinsically Asian” game, in which knowing the rules is a form of authenticating her ethnicity.
This compensatory behavior might be taken simply as materialist consumption if not for its racialized connotations. I am reminded of The New Yorker’s “Crying in H Mart,” a powerful article written recently by Michelle Zauner (aka Japanese Breakfast), in which she reckons with how shopping in an ethnic grocery store becomes one of the only viable options in white American society in which to connect with her Korean mother. As in “Crying in H-Mart,” in Crazy Rich Asians the process of being reunified with cultural commodities is only a balm for a deep melancholia. This is perhaps why its storyline — despite all the valid circulating critiques of how it is shallow and uninventive, even racist and colorist — might not even matter for some viewers who are eager to have racial loss compensated. At the end of the film, we see again how this logic is deployed. Eleanor gives Rachel her own wedding ring, which promises not just a moneyed future, but also forgiveness, approval, and cultural belonging. The film itself, like this shiny well-intentioned gemstone, is a glitzy offering that asks for a redemption that perhaps will never be reconciled.
Crazy Rich Asians is screening at theaters nationwide.
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The fever dream of American racism is highly structured, and in this structure two important elements can come into contradiction: degree of skin pigmentation, and wealth. Back in the old days, if someone was ‘colored’, one knew they were poor and to be kicked around. Even the often rather pale Irish, Italians, Jews, and Slavs were somehow ‘colored’. That arrangement began to die out at least by the middle of the 20th century. It is now mostly gone except in retarded pockets of the hinterland.
Today, the structure has shifted. The Europeans who were once Not Quite White have made it over to Whiteness country. And so, to a large extent, have East (not South) Asians — people from China, Japan, Korea. They’re pretty pale and a lot of them have money — serious money. Moreover, most of the people from East Asia were not deracinated in the thorough way the later European and of course all African-descended people were. They still have social structures and cultures they can rely on.
The fiction of ‘race’ is not as simple in the US as it used to be. The fault lines have shifted. And so we get a rom-com that focuses, not on East Asians as an oppressed minority, but people who are making it over into a new world with some advantage and are suffering the in-group conflicts which that situation brings. So — how does it feel to be one of the beautiful people?
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