Chinese-American professor of economics Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) is Chinese-American, and the adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s best-selling book Crazy Rich Asians starkly makes that point, repeatedly. Rachel’s college best friend Peik Lin (an ebullient Awkwafina) calls her a “banana”: “Yellow on the outside, white on the inside,” and attaches a superlative when she says this. Her mother (Tan Kheng Hua), on the occasion of finding out Rachel will be traveling to Singapore to meet her hunky boyfriend’s family, tells her a somewhat uncomfortable truth: “You are Chinese, you speak Mandarin, but in here,” she says, pointing to Rachel’s heart, “You are American.”
It is a bittersweet, but rather perceptive observation, one that finely articulates a compounded sense of otherness Rachel feels throughout the film, particularly once the plot gets rolling and Rachel realizes that her debonair Nick Young (Henry Golding) is the son of an obscenely wealthy Singaporean family who leans heavily on traditional Chinese family values and matriarchy. She is middle class, raised by a single mother and, as everyone has been quick to point out, Chinese-American.
Crazy Rich Asians is fairly impressive in its subtle subtext about Chinese—or, more broadly, East Asian—diaspora in the United States, as if the prickly, arch accusations of being “not Asian enough” heavily inform the emotional currents in the film. Compounding Rachel’s culture shock, as she comes to encounter an extreme amount of affluence in Singapore, is the internal dialogue she seems to be having with herself about what kind of life she wants, revealing her relationship to class. Crazy Rich Asians’ selling point is certainly a kind of affluence porn, and its attempt to critique that kind of wealth is probably where the film is weakest, but the way director John M. Chu recontextualizes a The Prince & Me story to lend more cultural texture to outsiderness is fascinating. What would it mean for Rachel to buy into this world, when it is implied that everywhere she walks she exists in a space where she is not enough?
An acquaintance and I recently spoke about the film, about notions of Asian American identity in culture as both political and personal, and she conceived of a term that describes how Asian Americans live their lives. Neither visible nor totally invisible, often relegated to an assimilationist survival mode, self-isolating in small communities: “In a state of in-between.” We don’t explicitly see Rachel’s life in New York besides when she’s teaching game theory in one of her classes, but that absence seems like Crazy Rich Asians’ implied scar. She isn’t friendless, but she, too, must live in the in-between.
Which means that marrying Nick, and facing up against his Miranda Priestly-esque mother (Michelle Yeoh) would mean that Rachel would have to, once again, try to occupy a space in which she’d need to play act a sense of belonging. Constance Wu, so outstanding as a parody, deconstruction and icon of the “Tiger Mom” stereotype on Fresh Off the Boat, easily nails the impeccable comic timing required of Adele Lim and Peter Chiarelli’s very funny script, but it is her ability to convey a sort of wise-beyond-her-years emotional intelligence which elevates the film even further. In a series of carefully edited shot/reverse shots during a wedding, to the tune of Kina Grannis’s cover of “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” she is able to evaluate exactly what does and does not work about her relationship with Nick, and what the risks would be were she to enter this world where she is not welcome, bullied not only by the family but by the constellation of rich friends. Wu was adept at dramatic work in the web series EastSiders, but here she radiates a fierce willingness to show her heart.
“I make clothes for a woman who is not swayed by what her husband thinks,” fashion designer and Comme des Garçons founder Rei Kawakubo once said. It is fitting then, that the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute Spring exhibition covering her career was called “The Art of In-Between”; her avant-garde, anti-utilitarian designs paradoxically work with and against the body, tuned into and atonally apart from the spaces around them. So, too, are the other women of Crazy Rich Asians. Peik Lin sports a short blonde haircut, an aggressive style and sense of humor, both at odds and yet adherent to her eccentric (and also rich) family. Astrid (Gemma Chan), Nick’s sister whose marriage to CEO startup commoner is on the rocks, has an ambivalent relationship to her own wealth. Eleanor (Yeoh), who, despite her ostensible cruelty, has her own complicated understanding of family and happiness. Even Oliver (Nico Santos), the self-proclaimed “rainbow sheep” of the family, continues a strange, compelling, all-too recognizable push-pull relationship with his relatives. He, with his ability to curate and accrue the finest of fine objects, is still called “poorer.”
If Crazy Rich Asians is not as barbed in its satire about the bourgeoisie as one might want in a cultural landscape where it has become more popular to be vocally anti-capitalist (or at least skeptical of capitalism as a system and ideology), it nonetheless sparkles in its in-jokes about Asianness and Chinese families and the interconnectedness of other Asian people. In the skin of a very competent romantic comedy, it is slickly directed by Chu, whose strength in making champagne on a beer budget lies not in the objects on display in and of themselves, but in the color correcting and cinematography by Vanja Cernjul. However, in its keen and sensitive and moving observations about the uncertainty in being Asian-American, it’s always drifting, and Wu’s incredible ability to convey all those ideas wordlessly is what makes the film more than just about a material China girl.