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Review: Living in a Material World—Jon M. Chu's "Crazy Rich Asians"

When fakes are more real than the real…
A Confucian Confusion (Edward Yang, 1994)
In 1991, the playwright Frank Chin wrote this of Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club:
“[It writes] to the specifications of the […] stereotype of Asia being as opposite morally from the West as it is geographically. [...] We expect Asian-American writers, portraying Asia and Asians, to have a knowledge of the difference between the real and the fake. This is a knowledge they have admitted they not only do not possess but also have no interest in possessing. [...] They talk about the agony of the stereotype, but when pressed, have no idea how to describe it.”1
Two years later, filmmaker Wayne Wang’s adaptation of Joy Luck Club was a box-office hit that earned nearly three-times its budget in theaters. Frank Chin was labelled a contrarian cynic, and Joy Luck Club continued to rise above all criticism—“It is not deep,” declared the Washington Post—to become a treasured relic of Asian-American lore.2 Today, Jon M. Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians opens on the grounds of false profundity. An epitaph reads: “China is a sleeping giant. Let her lie and sleep, for when she awakens she will shake the world.” This quote, attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte and intended to inspire awe, has been circulating since the age of the Opium War, and is likely fabricated.3 Anointed with Bonaparte’s counterfeit blessing, Crazy Rich Asians is encrusted in sparkling myths of Singaporean culture that are diluted to resemble a dupe of the pan-Asian experience. For this, it will be all the more deified.
Based on the bestseller by Kevin Kwan, Crazy Rich Asians is a fantasy of upward mobility that deviates very little from its rom-com forbearers: Ask anyone with access to a Chinese television station, and you will hear of millionaires descending from their condominiums and sweeping uncivilized peasant girls off their feet. Crazy Rich Asians stretches the geography of this framework across the Pacific, moving from New York and Taiwan, to Hong Kong and Singapore. Like Chu's Step Up 2: The Streets, Step Up 3D, and Step Up: Revolution, the film is about being introduced and inducted into a new culture. The Step Up franchise involved white youth's first experiences with dance as an art form within the academy and on the streets, led by a spirit of multiculturalism among non-white dancers. Crazy Rich Asians is about an Asian-American encounter with the top of the Asian pyramid, shaped by nepotist exclusivity.
On the occasion of his best friend Collin’s (Chris Pang) wedding, British-educated, Singaporean Nick Young (Henry Goulding) brings New York University economics professor Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) to his family estate. Under the heat of a Singaporean sun, Rachel learns that her humble boyfriend of one year is the immediate heir to his father’s real estate corporation. In the words of Rachel’s college roommate, Peik Lin (rapper-turned-actor Awkwafina, whose elastic prancing—accompanied by a disarming "blaccent"—form the centerpiece of the film’s sense of humor): He is not just rich, but “crazy rich.”
Well-intentioned but a little dense—in a calculated, inoffensive way—Rachel stumbles headfirst into the world of obscenely rich aunties and uncles, bachelors and bachelorettes. Comprising Nick's extended family and friends is a group of stunning socialites (an inimitable cast that includes Joy Luck Club's Lisa Lu, and cousins played by Gemma Chan, Sonoya Mizuno, Ronny Chieng, Fiona Xie, Jimmy O. Yang, Nico Santos, Jing Lu Si, and Pierre Png). Not everyone is pleased to meet her—especially not the plastic Chinese girls who deem Rachel a “gold digger”—but Crazy Rich Asians positions the misunderstanding as not a matter of wealth, but of identity politics.
When photos of Rachel circulate across Singapore in a pastel-colored sequence of superimposed texts fluttering from one cellphone to another, a distinction is immediately made: “Looks ABC,” one message reads, an “American-born Chinese.” But teasing pales in comparison to the withering sneers of Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), Nick’s mother, who makes it clear that Rachel will “never be enough.” The passive-aggressive back-and-forth between Rachel and Eleanor threatens her relationship to Nick, but not so far as to cause any irreversible consequences. (Even when Rachel tries to leave, she stays at Peik Lin’s mansion nearby, draped in tapestries in a room of her own.) The ambiguity of Eleanor’s hatred first torments Rachel, but when Eleanor finally reveals that she does not like Rachel simply because she is an American, the claim strikes as a consciously apolitical evasion, a non-answer.  
Despite its provocative title, Crazy Rich Asians willfully relegates money to the corner while crowds in tuxedos, Marchesa gowns, and million-dollar earrings look away to instead focus on abstract debates of “Chineseness.” Aphorisms are declared throughout with the purpose of introducing rudimentary Chinese and American cultural differences. Unlike Americans, who follow their “passions” and selfishly pursue their "own happiness", Eleanor—with cold, weary eyes—states that “we” put “family” first, and "understand how to build things that last." Despite its basis in reality, this age-old positioning of an individualistic American dream as opposite to a Chinese nightmare of constant sacrifice—the phrase "filial piety" is uttered derisively at least once—for the greater good is an American projection that frames the United States as innately free. By presenting this as an irreconcilable division, Crazy Rich Asians erases the fact that U.S. institutions likewise demand sacrifice with the promise of future success, a structure that echoes the Christian notion of an afterlife rewarded to those who suffer. The film coats these dilemmas with trinkets of Chinese identity that are vague enough to be palatable to onlookers who need not see nuance to have a good time. Comments about strict Chinese mothers and being a "banana"—Asian on the outside, white on the inside—are delivered with knowing pause, reminding an audience already inundated with racism that some stereotypes are true. Most importantly, these dilutions and decoys do not involve capital.
The smoke screen surrounding Crazy Rich Asians stems from this central division between capital and history, as if the former is not the driving force of the latter, especially in the context of Chinese global migration, in which wealth is the preeminent reason why one Chinese person is American and another is Singaporean. Besides a brief explanation that the Young family is “old money” that migrated to China in the 19th century, any revelation of their lineage is obscured and relegated to pop culture references, like a Cantopop cover of “Material Girl" and a tongue-in-cheek Mandopop cover of Coldplay's "Yellow". Even more upsettingly, Richard Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyrie" blares as Singaporean-Chinese men slowly descend upon international waters in helicopters for a bachelor party, a tasteless nod to the American imperialism of Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, itself a display of Coppola's megalomania and wealth. But to further interrogate Singaporean-Chinese prosperity would be to stab the nerve of the united Asian-American body, and those longing to see mirror reflections of their selves.
To be clear: The Young family is part of Singapore’s Chinese demographic, a dominant group that directly benefits from the nation’s prioritization of Chinese schools, Chinese languages, and Chinese traditions.4 Blurred by soft focus, the presence of non-Chinese, South Asian Singaporeans—Malays, Indians, Filipinos, and so on—is only made clear when they are laboring for the rich: cooking for elaborate balls, and standing outside the gates as valets and security guards. (The one Pinoy actor of the film's leading cast, Nico Santos, plays Oliver T'sien, described in the titular novel as "another Chinese relative with a British accent.") To produce the fiction that is Crazy Rich Asians, the structural inequalities of the nation must be hidden inside a Louis Vuitton purse. The Singapore that Rachel encounters is formless, loosely held together by montages of sizzling street food and skyscrapers, and the rich are just flagrant and funny enough to forgive.
Revisionism has also made its way off-screen, where headlines declare that Crazy Rich Asians is “the first Asian-American-focused studio movie in 25 years."5 Is this wishful thinking or the result of a miseducation? In 2002, Paramount Pictures released Justin Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow. From 2004 to 2011, Warner Bros distributed the Harold & Kumar franchise. In 2006, Fox Searchlight distributed Mira Nair’s The Namesake, the multi-generational tale of a suburbanite Bengali family (Kal Penn, Tabu, and Irrfan Khan) in New Jersey. Recently, Netflix has released Benson Lee’s Seoul Searching and Andrew Ahn’s Spa Night; and Aneesh Chaganty's Searching, starring John Cho, will be released by Sony Pictures Entertainment later this month. What the headlines and articles grasp at, but fail to articulate, is that Crazy Rich Asians is the first Asian-American film that unabashedly celebrates opulence with an Asian face. In other words, only those Asian-Americans—and films—within a specific tax bracket count as cultural milestones.
Ostentatious extravaganzas—filmed by cinematographer Vanja Cernjul—defend a vision of Asia in which class division and social harmony coexist by eliciting oohs and aahs: a close-up on silk pajamas on a first-class flight, a smooth pan into a white flower that only blooms at night, a drone that floats across a luxury resort on Samsara Island, a forty million-dollar wedding complete with fireworks and a stream of glowing water. In one century of Asian-American filmmaking—which began with Marin Wong's 1916 Curse of Quon Gwon, about a Chinese-American woman and her disapproving Chinese mother-in-law—upward mobility has never been as within an entire population’s grasp as this: Nick Young on one knee, holding an engagement ring that calls out to Rachel, the scrappy all-American girl who struck gold.  
Earlier this year, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther partook in an ongoing discourse regarding the shared history of Black American people and those from the surrounding African diaspora—enslavement and war, imperialism and a purging of natural resources. The word “Wakanda” in today’s post-Black Panther landscape is associated with a separatist utopia, a political lineage originating from the first days of Black Nationalism. Advance screenings of Crazy Rich Asians contributed to an initial influx of comments likening Singapore to the mythic African nation of Wakanda, one that has closed itself to international relations for decades. (“Singapore is basically Chinese Wakanda,” exclaimed one attendee.) But whereas Black Panther confronted such optimism through the insurgent Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), in Crazy Rich Asians, there are no outsiders who can resist the allure of Singaporean luxury. Peik Lin lives in a home modelled after "Donald Trump's bathroom." Oliver, who refers to himself as the gay "rainbow sheep" of the family, willingly completes petty favors for his uncaring aunties—a sheepish descendant of the "gay best friend" George from My Best Friend's Wedding, whose wedding-crashing antics stood in direct opposition to capitalist heteronormativity. And Rachel is no rebel; her only stance is her personal commitment to her boyfriend. She is tossed about by the whims of the wealthy, convinced by the lie that there are only two solutions: run away from the problem, or be accepted by the perpetrators, thereby becoming the problem itself.
Solidarity among Asian-Americans—who, through Rachel, step into the glass slippers of the film’s heroine—has long been fraught by an undeniable legacy of colonialism and civil war, genocide and slavery. There is no distinct, collective history of separatism among immigrants whose ancestors fought tooth and nail to gain independence from the clutches of one another. Therefore, Jon M. Chu has converted the impossible into the possible by crafting a fairytale kingdom out of an existing city-state, where all past centuries no longer bear weight upon love—if they do, it is only as tiny obstacle—between families, social classes, ethnic groups, or nations, the entities that infringe upon the free feelings of the individual lovers. The magic of Chu’s Cinderella story is not a fairy godmother but cash to afford first class, dresses with baby blue trails, fireworks, comfort, and happiness. When Rachel finally accepts Nick’s proposal, she is immediately transported to a bar and swarmed by the rich and famous, who welcome her into their clan with open arms. The camera tracks out to reveal that this gathering takes place in an isolated section of a warehouse roof. We are not invited.
 NOTES
1. Frank Chin. “Come All Ye Asian American Writers of the Real and the Fake,” 1991.
3. David Scott. China and the International System, 1940-1949: Power, Presence, and Perceptions in a Century of Humiliation, 2008.
4. Cher Tan, "What Privilege Looks Like in Singapore," 2017, https://www.vice.com/en_id/article/gvqa59/what-privilege-looks-like-in-singapore.
5. Rebecca Sun and Rebecca Ford. "The Stakes Are High For Crazy Rich Asians—And That's the Point," 2018, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/features/crazy-rich-asians-story-behind-rom-com-1130965.

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