A few months ago, I went and watched Crazy Rich Asians. This happened in Philadelphia, during the middle of a cross-country move. Because of the theater’s abnormally strict views on bags, my purse spent the movie out on the curb, u-locked to a friend’s bike. Y’all want to watch this movie that bad? the ticket-taker had asked. Yes, I had replied, already exhausted, I guess we do.
The movie did many of the things which romantic comedies are known to do: spiriting me away to a distant place filled with reasonably interesting people; teasing my eyes with tightly packaged manflesh and Pinterest ready outfits; hammering away at all my affective hotspots until the final exhalation. (I cried; it wasn’t even embarrassing.) Yes, the woman says to the man who loves her, the man now kneeling at her feet. They go together to a surprise party on top of a hotel. The camera pans out wide so the story ends agape—a kiss, a cheer, a skyline riddled with lights.
That wasn’t so bad, my friend said afterward, unlocking his bike and handing me my purse. Better than I expected, his girlfriend chimed in. Hotpot? My own boyfriend wanted to know. The sun was setting then, the color of bruised knees. Soon we were at my friend’s house, stirring a stew of percolating meats. In the morning, I was surprised to discover my stomach calm, unbothered by the excess of it all.
Perhaps this is what I should say about CRA, that it too goes down easy.
In New York City, a woman named Rachel Chu falls for a man named Nick Young. One night, he asks to take her somewhere “out East,” to Singapore, for his best friend’s wedding. When they arrive, Rachel discovers that Nick’s family seems to own the entire island, and that they represent the the kind of money which sniffs at economics professors like Rachel (not because she is poor, per se, but because of her yuppie, can-do attitude). Professor Chu is at first cowed by Nick’s aggressively affluent set. She gets paraded before the wolves and the aunties, the degenerate cousins and night-blooming florals. At a glamorous beach retreat, in ritual fashion, a fish is slain and later buried, allowing Rachel to forget her ambivalence about Nick’s riches and just go for it. She storms the family estate, where Eleanor, Nick’s mother, plays defense. Sartorial gauntlets get thrown, a lavish ball attended and fled Cinderella-style. After retreating to a college friend’s gilded bedroom, Rachel confers with her own mother, who discloses details about an abusive ex-husband to remind her daughter of the origin story which hangs like a heavy cloud over her head. Rachel remembers now her professional interest in game theory (“bok bok bitch!”), leading to what is probably the film’s best scene: a finely orchestrated Mah-Jongg game in which Rachel meets Eleanor on the field of emotional warfare before walking away from the table and, presumably, her relationship with Nick. In this movie, like many others, Age moves aside for Beauty. A guilty Eleanor dispatches Nick to the airport to propose. Rachel, having rediscovered Rachel, says yes.
Watching all this unfold, I was reminded often of Cribs, a reality show my brother and I used to watch as kids growing up in the boringest of boring suburbs. Cribs let us ogle, on screen, the cars, clothes, and domesticity of the rich and famous. Each episode followed the same format. Bow Wow or Mariah Carey or some other obliging celeb would meet us at the door and breezily invite us onto their property. We would look at the infinity pool, the baccarat glasses, the temperature-controlled closet stuffed in ermine. We would feel included and then let ourselves out through the front, our wealthy host waving at us Daddy Warbucks style from the stoop.
CRA is certainly not above its own, sinified brand of conspicuous consumption. The people the film both parodies and humanizes are ever aware of surfaces and commodities, of packing peanut empires and Burmese rubies. Though its social world may feel exclusive, the film occasionally succeeds in sneaking outside the drawing rooms of the hyper wealthy, capturing elements of a hyphenated Asian experience rarely seen in American films. I’m thinking, for instance, of the contrast between Rachel’s awkward Mandarin and her fluent, even sassy English—a linguistic hierarchy Asian-Americans of many classes are likely familiar with—or even the minor presence of a character like Ollie, the self-proclaimed “rainbow sheep” of the Young family, a figure whose sexuality is overlooked as long as he performs the role of the acidic gaysian. (He venerates each outfit and dispenses his gossip.) CRA may not express these subtleties to their full effect—like an arty child, it dreams via etch a sketch—but it would be reductive to pretend it doesn’t at least try.
The day after watching CRA, I got in the car and started driving north. New England highways are tightly packed, ungentle, the kind of driving I—a child of the South and its plangent backroads—can’t really handle. My boyfriend was playing music from the movie though, and we were feeling all the feels which moving can entail, all that optimism muddled by fear or blunted by exhaustion. “我要你的爱,” or “I want your love,” Grace Chang sang, filling our Camry with want. After that line came a question: 你为什么不说出来？or “Why don’t you say it out loud?”
The song Chang sings in CRA is a bilingual cover of Louis Jordan’s 1953 hit “I Want You To Be My Baby.” Chang’s song plays twice in the movie, once during a travel montage in which Rachel tours Singapore with Nick and his friends, a bouquet of balloons in her hand, and again at a wedding reception near the film’s end. Chang’s lyrics pare the Hollywood romance down to its basic elements. One smitten character wants another’s love. That reciprocal love, though virtually guaranteed by movie’s end, must wait until all the little fires are put out, all the skeletons stowed, the parents placated, the lovers’ values debated and quickly reconciled. Only then can both lovers “say it out loud” to satisfaction. Only then is the arc complete, the union vetted and shock-proofed.
In the rare western romance that features non-white characters, an additional problem often emerges. Plainly stated, that problem is one of culture. Movies about interracial dating like last year’s The Big Sick or the 2002 classic (in my eyes) Bend it like Beckham are built on the premise that white and minority cultures don’t quite “get” each other. The black or brown or yellow character must acclimate their white lovers to certain aspects of their culture, introducing them to spicy foods, non-Christian holidays, and the seeming miracle of parents who give a shit. At the same time, minority characters often need to push back against their parents’ “traditional” views, convincing them that the whites aren’t so bad, or that playing sports and listening to rock songs are not unpardonable sins. The goal is often to try and have it both ways, to be the perfect go-between—a state of mediation which immigrant children are expected to understand innately, but which their interracial love stories dramatize to comic effect.
Things are different and yet the same in CRA. All the characters may look East Asian, but they perceive no racial unity with one another. Whatever imagined solidarity Asianness may impart in the West is undermined in the East by other divisions. When Rachel first meets Eleanor behind the scenes at a party, she spills, without much prompting, her entire life narrative. Aiming to impress, she tells Mrs. Young about growing up the daughter of a single, uneducated mother, about her love of economics and her tenured professorship at NYU. Eleanor, for her part, barely reacts to Rachel’s speech, gliding about the kitchen in a caped aubergine gown, taste testing dishes and barking Cantonese instructions to the help. When, at the end of this exchange, Eleanor tells Rachel it was “lovely” to meet her, the sentiment is so obviously hollow we wince. In Eleanor’s eyes, Rachel is too American by far, too fixed on following her own passions, the kind of indulgent banana she maybe expected her son to date while studying abroad but never bring home, to Asia, a serious marriage prospect.
In this sense, CRA plays out like a case study from Gish Jen’s The Girl at the Baggage Claim, a book which explores the tensions between Western “big pit” and Eastern “flexi” identities. Raised on myths of American meritocracy, Rachel arrives in Singapore with all the baggage an individualist, big-pit-self can carry. To the flexi-self locals, she comes off as earnest and naive, a woman enamored with her own, singular self. While Eleanor cuts a commanding figure, she identifies not with her autobiography but with the sprawling commercial empire she helped her husband create. In other words, Eleanor houses her sense of self inside larger networks—a family, a company, a cohort of bible-thumping, kaftan-wearing ladies who dim sum. She is just one crystalline nub within the family geode, not the many-faceted gem Rachel has been schooled to see herself as.
The fact that Rachel’s big-pit-self eventually prevails might help explain CRA’s critical and commercial success with U.S. audiences. Americans take for granted that our basic value system travels well, that the American dream is a kind of universal sermon, as moving in Singapore as it is in Queens. So perhaps Rachel’s happy ending should be seen as a win for Asian-American strivers. The movie shows us that we too can clamber to the top of a ladder and discover not just wealth but belonging, love, a set of washboard abs to call our own.
What does it mean then that Rachel finds this aha moment abroad and not in New York? That her Americanness coheres most when it comes under threat? I’m speculating here, but maybe traveling “out East” gives Rachel the context she needed to assert her big-pit self to its fullest. By claiming all her American virtues before a foreign audience—the working-class mother, the academic laurels, the Alger-esque gumption—Rachel finds a way to dissolve her otherness, graduating into a post-racial world where white people tip their hats at her from across the first-class lounge. “Hubba Hubba,” she says in an early scene, pulling both man and dream back into bed.
Watching Rachel Chu from Queens insert herself into the Singaporean upper crust made me think of the stories I sometimes tell about my own family history: how my mother was the one girl in her Chinese high school to test into college; how she met my father at one of China’s top universities; how the two of them scrimped and saved until they could get out, to America, where both of them kept their heads low and worked on their Ph.D.’s; America where I was born, where I grew up, where I realized I was a “model” minority and so needed to work hard, needed to test well, needed to go to that Ivy League school and get that post-Ivy League job. I worked hard. I tested well. I went to that Ivy League school and afterwards spent time shuttling between America and China, between my big-pit dreams and an ever-pliant reality. Somewhere along the way, I forgot what all the fuss was about, which isn’t to say I wrote myself out of this narrative but that the narrative was harder to take so seriously.
One of the weird things about a self-mythologiy is how difficult it is to give up. I hear myself crowing about the big-pit inside me even if I know that this story forgets, intentionally, much of what has actually sustained me in life: unstinting support systems, functioning public schools, all the books in libraries and on my bookshelf. So when Rachel both gets the man and reaffirms her hardscrabble, immigrant identity at the end of the film, I am moved but also doubtful. She has achieved the model minority’s perennial fantasy of having it all, and yet she has done it at no apparent cost. Accepted into the cosmopolitan fold, she can forget all the ways her dreaming has been curtailed in America, how her big-pit self has at times weighed her down or left her adrift in bamboo shoals.
Despite all this, CRA manages to end, as perhaps it should, on an optimistic note. As the film rolls to a close, the soundtrack plays a mandarin rendition of “Yellow,” a musical appropriation which feels ecstatic, earned: an Asian woman’s voice living inside a Coldplay song. “I want to know,” Katherine Ho sings, “how far the comet can fly, and whether its beauty is worth chasing.” In the weeks after I watched CRA, I could not expel this song or its various symbolisms from my brain. I would wake up in an unfamiliar room and hear the lilting cadence already there. I would get in the car and automatically want to listen to it again, to hear the pretty tune with its only half-intelligible lyrics and its sweet, sweet hook.
Writing about CRA now is like dissecting a poof of my cotton candied emotions. To dismiss the film for its clichés doesn’t change the fact that I relished watching it, that I can’t stop hearing its music in my head. Nor does a dismissal account for the cultural moment which has burgeoned around CRA, how I have heard from so many friends that they both wept and laughed while watching the film, how I have read so many articles and email threads dedicated to this movie, to its joy and its sadness. My own parents, who are not cinephiles by any measure, even went to watch it on opening weekend. They told me over the phone that they found the movie “cute.”
Many of the criticisms of the film—that it glorifies affluence, that it excludes the stories and bodies of South and Southeast Asians, that its jokes are just not that funny—point to issues which are real and ongoing. I’ll admit that I wasn’t thinking about any of this when first the credits rolled. I was riding the easy high of catharsis, ambling through a city I barely knew. Theodor Adorno writes: “Every visit to the cinema leaves me, against all my vigilance, stupider and worse.” He might be right, in my case, though I think he’s underestimating the value of letting one’s vigilance lapse from time to time, of drinking the Kool-Aid for a dizzy two hours of summer. Watching CRA didn’t make me feel smart or represented, but it didn’t make me feel guilty either; it felt good, and I’m trying still to understand the basic components of that goodness.