Asian characters throughout cinema have been habitually stereotyped as meek, corner-dwelling folks with little to say. However, In several important ways, the 2018 film Crazy Rich Asians represents a breakthrough in popular culture. Most significantly, it is the first successful Hollywood film since The Joy Luck Club (1993) to present a predominantly Asian cast. However, the film fails to deliver fully expressed characters and continues to rely on the stereotyping it means to overcome. This is in part because it skims the surface of racial realities in both the Chinese Singaporean and American cultures. The film clearly depicts Westernized Asians in a more favorable light than native Asians.
The film follows Chinese-American Rachel Chu, who travels to Singapore with her boyfriend Nick Young to meet his family. Although their relationship is nothing new, Rachel was completely unknowing of Nick’s social status as an Heir to a multibillion-dollar company. As Rachel goes to Singapore, she finds a sense of nostalgia and familiarity with the culture, mannerisms, and language. The audience can easily detect the sense of pride Rachel feels towards her ethnic heritage. Although this is primarily displayed towards her Chinese side, her American upbringing becomes the backbone of how she stands out as the protagonist. During Rachel’s very first meeting with Nick’s mother, Eleanor, she explains her background as the daughter of a self-made immigrant, and how her mother supports her choices as long as she is pursuing a career that manifests joy in her life. She soon comes to the understanding that Eleanor, much like the other Asians represented in the film, do not believe in the concept of the “American Dream” or the “Pursuit of Happiness”. The film uses the protagonist as an instrument to depict how the American way of life is far more morally fulfilling and wholesome. And by rooting for Rachel’s character you are essentially rooting for American ideologies.
In Rachel’s first appearance in the film, she is passionately going through a psychology lesson with her class at New York University. Both Rachel and Nick’s positions at NYU as professors aid into the concept of westernized characters being portrayed more favorably. Both are perceived as hard working, well educated people that are giving back to society through education. Even secondary characters like Rachel’s mother still depicts a pro-American ideology. The only difference is that this analysis is based on the idea of immigration. As Rachel’s mother exposes that her reason for leaving China was to escape an abusive husband and judgmental society, the film only exacerbates the concept of America being a sanctuary. It is implied in the movie that she became a self-made nonnative and single mother that raised rachel to be the girl the audience is supposed to adore.
Early into the film, Rachel begins to recognize unflattering aspects of Asian culture that she had not acknowledged or experienced before. Although the film visually depicts Singapore as a dazzling sunny island with endless extravagant parties, the film implies that this culture provides it’s followers with a feeling of loneliness and a lack of true connection. After discovering Nick’s secret of being “crazy rich”, it becomes evident that before Nick had met Rachel, he was initially in America in order to escape the money hungry, judgmental lifestyle he had in Singapore. Even Rachel’s mother’s background of fleeing China further represents the pain and strife that living in Asia brings. The concept of America being a safe haven becomes an apparent pattern that is followed throughout the film when different characters begin to face adversities. The story told in Crazy Rich Asians is one that illustrates the ideal American identity, especially for immigrants. It essentially states that by coming to the United States you are able to authentically express yourself, find happiness, and true love.
The most transparent implication of Asian American superiority is in regards to how they are portrayed behaviorally throughout the film compared to native Asians. For instance, the representation of Asian Asians are extremely unappealing compared to the bold, quirky, and lovable Asian American protagonist. The young people are grossly materialistic, status-obsessed and back-stabbing, while the old people are illustrated as cynical, narrow minded traditionalists that only care about family honor above basic human decency. Rachel and her inner circle, (Peik Lin, Rachel’s Mother, and Nick) are utilized throughout the film as palette cleansers in order for the audience to pull away from the many obnoxious personalities. The shallow materialism of Nick’s Singaporean world is at times laughable and at times repulsive. It is easy to cheer him for rejecting it. But at the same time, the American idealism set in contrast to it is unrealistic and simplistic. America is not as kind to its dreamers—especially people of color-- as this film suggests. It is much kinder to those who are exceptionally handsome, intelligent, self-sufficient, educated and self-actualized, as Rachel and Nick, but less kind to those who are not. It is less kind to most.
Fundamentally, Crazy Rich Asians is an important step forward in the representation of Asians throughout traditional American film; however it ultimately takes several steps backwards at the same time. Despite years of marginalization, Asians were able to gain dominant casting in a major film that became a box office success. To contribute to that the storyline itself makes clear that Asians cannot be dismissed as lesser players in the world, but the story line also creates new stereotypes that do not serve a deeper understanding and acceptance, and likely creates new barriers. In short, the film holds out hope for more and deeper connection across cultures, but Crazy Rich Asians has only skimmed the surface of racial realities that are far more complex and difficult to reshape in both societies, and in the people who seek a sense of belonging in both.