We Need to Talk About Crazy Rich Asians
A big thing happened this weekend. Crazy Rich Asians hit theaters and brought in an impressive $34 million over its five-day weekend. (It technically opened Wednesday night.) That may not qualify as "crazy rich" in the era of $100 million-plus Star Wars opening weekends, but for context, it's the best-performing comedy since last year’s Girls Trip—which went on to earn over $115 million domestically. Crazy Rich Asians has the power, and buzz, to do even better based on this weekend’s turnout.
But beyond being a big hit, it’s also a big deal. It’s been 25 years since The Joy Luck Club—the last movie with an all-Asian cast to get a wide release—hit theaters, and that’s, frankly, far too long. Like, a quarter of a century too long. But now director Jon M. Chu’s movie, which is full of shining performances by Constance Wu (Fresh Off the Boat), Awkwafina (Ocean’s 8), Michelle Yeoh (Star Trek: Discovery), Gemma Chan (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them), and newcomer Henry Golding, is here, and it’s on track to be the event movie of the summer.
All of which is to say, we gathered a handful of writers and editors—Pia Ceres, Phuc Pham, Brian Raftery, and Angela Watercutter—to hash out their various feelings about Crazy Rich Asians. Read on.
Angela Watercutter: I want to start with a question for everybody: What was your experience in the theater watching Crazy Rich Asians? I went on opening night, and some of the film’s cast—Awkwafina, Ken Jeong, and Jimmy O. Yang among them—came out to surprise (and throw concessions at) the audience at the theater I went to, but even before they showed up everyone seemed amped to be there. And the energy only continued once the movie began. Folks were clapping, gasping, crying. Was it the same for you all?
Pia Ceres: I think there was a bit of trepidation when I walked into the theater. Sitting in a majority Asian American audience, I picked up on collective excitement mingled with worry, like Will this be good? Will this represent us well? But once Jeong landed a perfect joke about Asian accents, the theater erupted with laughter—and I let my guard down.
The gravity of Crazy Rich Asians didn’t fully hit me, though, until I was walking out of the theater. A white man remarked, not unkindly, “Well, that was just another rom-com.” I felt the urge to flail my popcorn bucket in protest: It wasn't just any rom-com to me! But maybe both of us were right. Maybe it speaks to the movie’s historic achievement that these impressions can coexist.
Take, for example, that searing mah-jongg showdown. My grandma taught me how to play when I was a kid, but I’ve totally forgotten (sorry Grandma!). So I was acutely aware of the moments when a character flipped a tile onscreen and other moviegoers gasped. They “got it” just a split second before I did. And I think those disparate perceptions—the gap between what a tile flip means to one viewer or another, a gap that doesn’t compromise one’s appreciation of the scene—makes Crazy Rich Asians such an incredible movie.
You can (and should!) enjoy it as a blithe love story. I rooted for Wu’s heroine, whose pluck brings to mind a modern-day Lizzie Bennet. I swooned for Golding’s abs. I bawled when Kina Grannis lent her soulful voice to a wedding scene. It is so much fun to watch.
And yet. CRA will mean something different for people who are, perhaps for the first time in a Hollywood blockbuster, seeing their music, their foods, their accents represented in a way that feels genuine and normal. I felt that long-awaited flash of recognition in the protagonist’s relationship with her immigrant mother. It’s not reductive to call Crazy Rich Asians a lush, delightful rom-com; but if you’ve had a certain set of cultural experiences, it’s also so much more.
As far as Asian representation goes, it’s obviously narrow in scope (you can glean as much from the title). It does, though, give me a tremendous amount of hope: that everyone in the cast will become super-mega-famous. That this “first” will open the door to “more.” And that future moviegoers won’t have to wait as long as I had to, to see a movie like this.
Phuc Pham: I got to my screening pretty close to showtime, and I was surprised to see how many seats were already taken up. I had been tracking this movie ever since the book got optioned, but that was when it really hit me that CRA could be big.
Like Pia, I’m hopeful that CRA’s success will lead to more robust roles for Asians. But to echo our colleague Jason Parham, if this is the tentpole for Asian American films going forward, I’m worried that America will get used to the representation of Asians as well-to-do—something that feels dangerously close to the myth that Asian Amerians are the model minority. The common refrain I hear from friends who supported this movie and are tuned into Asian American politics is that these are just baby steps.
Watercutter: Totally. Hopefully this film will open the door for a variety of new stories from Asian filmmakers and actors—all of them different from the one told in Crazy Rich Asians. (Hear that, Hollywood?)
Brian Raftery: Of the many milestones achieved by Crazy Rich Asians, it’s worth noting that this weekend marked the first time in a while that millions of people showed up in theaters to see a romantic-comedy-drama (and with its mother-girlfriend showdown and adultery subplot, CRA, to me, definitely feels more rom-com-dram than strictly rom-com). It’s a genre the studios have largely abandoned in the past few years, as mid-budget love stories no longer make quite as much financial sense as they did in the B.C. (Before Capes) era. In the late ’90s, there were still plenty of grown-up relationship tales, like The Best Man and Jerry Maguire. But they’ve all but disappeared from theaters in the last few years, having migrated to Netflix or the Hallmark Channel. So it was kind of a kick to watch a colorful, lovestruck adult drama, while surrounded by other semi-adults such as myself.
Also, CRA plays beautifully on the big screen: Director Jon M. Chu has a wildly varied filmography, one that includes everything from a G.I. Joe sequel to a pair of Step Up movies to a Justin Bieber 3-D concert documentary. His movies are often in motion, and there’s a vibrant, fast-moving, yet unshowy energy to CRA, which moves briskly from one ornate setting to the next (though none of the film’s visuals can match the majesty that is Ken Jeong’s Versace bomber jacket, which looks like it was flown in from Sgt. Pepper’s residency in Las Vegas). And the Mahjong duel at the end of the film is one of the most impressively staged scenes of any movie this year: a tense battle of wills that’s no less dramatic if you don’t know the rules of the game.
But the precision and flair with which CRA is directed only serves to highlight what, to my mind, is the film’s biggest detriment: a script that throws together way too many subplots, feels oddly uncurious about its characters—is there anything to know about Nick, other than he’s, you know, pretty nice?—and is overloaded with exposition. Granted, CRA is partly pure big-screen fantasy, which is A-OK with a softie like me. (Did I get teary during that first-class proposal scene? MAYBE.) But at times I longed for conversations between the characters that didn’t involve them reiterating the past few years of their lives for the audience. I wanted more scenes along the lines of the dumpling tutorial, or even the food-stand binge: relaxed, revealing, and a lot less hand-holdy.
Watercutter: Side note: Anyone remember when Chu and his Step Up 2 crew got into a YouTube dance battle with Miley Cyrus?
Ceres: What, how did I miss this?! Adding to the YouTube queue, stat.
Watercutter: It ended with a battle at the Teen Choice Awards, but before that everyone from Lindsay Lohan to Adam Sandler got involved. Anyway, sorry to distract. Carry on.
Ceres: I agree with Brian’s point on extraneous subplots. That had bothered me about the book, and the movie adaptation seemed like a missed opportunity to prune some exposition in favor of fully realizing its characters. One secondary character’s arc, in particular, had so much potential to complicate this extravagant world, but the film moves at such a clip that we couldn’t fully appreciate it.
Pham: Brian, that proposal scene was top-notch, but I think it happened while they were still in budget economy, no? (Sorry, I had to.)
Also, I have to admit that I initially wasn’t planning to see this in the theater. Despite being a fan of romantic comedies, I never really make a conscious decision to see them in theaters, let alone on opening weekend. I think the first and last time I ever said “I have to go see this” about a movie in this ballpark was Hitch, all the way back in 2005. The same people I know who are glad for some Asian representation onscreen are also the ones that commiserate with me about the lack of good rom-coms. Double win. What about, you, Angela—what were your thoughts coming away from all this?
Watercutter: I think you all got at most of what I felt about this movie. To your point, Phuc, I hope that this is the start of something. I hope it gets a lot more movies from Asian filmmakers greenlit so that a wider variety of stories can be told.
Now, can I ask an unrelated question? What was everyone’s favorite scene/joke/bit? I mean, I think the mah-jongg scene is going to end up being the one people think about when they think about Crazy Rich Asians years from now, but what else stood out for you guys? For me, I think I laughed the hardest when Jeong called Awkwafina “Ellen,” presumably because of her short blonde ’do. In a movie full of great moments, what were your faves?
Raftery: I think Ken Jeong’s just-slightly-off dad—who’s in the movie for just a few minutes—gave the film a comic unpredictability it needed at times, to break up some of the constant backstory logjams. (He was also one of the few characters without any hang-ups, dramas, or big challenges to deal with, which may be why he came off as so relaxed.) He’s really one of the great supporting comedy players of the ’00s, and yet I can’t remember the last time he was so comfortably loosey-goosey as he is here.
Pham: I’ve been consumed with the idea of Asian masculinity lately: How is it defined? In what ways does it manifest itself? Is it possible to correct for misrepresentation in a way that feels genuine, wholesome, and not ultrabro? Jimmy O. Yang’s character and his over-the-top “boys’ club” bachelor party is pretty representative of the approach of many men who seek advice on r/AsianMasculinity. So seeing Golding and Chris Pang steal away from all that to a secluded beach in order to discuss anxieties surrounding marriage and the future really resonated with me. Sure, their naked abs do something for Asian male representation, but to see the two of them talk candidly about serious feelings-type things reminded me of the men in my life whose support and advice I treasure.
Ceres: The opening song gave me goosebumps! The first strain of music you hear in the film is this old-Hollywood big band intro. Then the vocalist comes in … and the song is in Mandarin! The first track, “Waiting for Your Return,” is a Chinese jazz classic, delivered with renewed verve and glamor by vocalist Jasmine Chen. It’s a thrilling opening for a thoughtfully curated soundtrack, interspersed with Chinese classics along with covers of American pop songs in Mandarin and Cantonese.
I now listen to the soundtrack religiously. When I walk into the office with my headphones in, know that I’m fueling up on confidence from “我的新衣 My New Swag” by Chinese rapper VaVa (feat. Ty. and Nina Wang), and that you shouldn’t mess with me during that time.