Crazy Rich and Misrepresented Asians
Photo Credit: Miles Aldridge
Crazy Rich Asians (CRA) was as exciting a movie to me as it was to the legions of young Asian-Canadians who had grown up being misrepresented by an airhead rich girl (Brenda Song in the ever-fantastic Suite Life series) and a non-singer in a show about singing (Harry Shum Jr. in Glee).
Despite not having read the novel, I looked forward to Hollywood accepting Asian storylines and actors as legitimate players in the industry. But I was more intrigued by how the movie would present traditional Asian societal structures and expectations. In other Asian-centric pieces (think Fresh off the Boat,) the stereotypes of the strict mother, the overachieving child, and the stern-abidance-by-family-rules are present, but merely used as a crutch for comedic effect and/or setup for the storyline of the episode. The lack of exploration of the tangible effects this has on the family makes it shallow. So when the plot of CRA suggests its cause of friction is a result of the clash between a traditional Asian family and a set of new, alternative values, I hoped that CRA might be able to visualize on the big screen an everyday conflict of mine.
I found it disappointing that the movie came so close to telling a story that would have successfully encapsulated the strife that defines the lives of many Asian-Canadians’ upbringing but disregarded it in the last fifteen minutes of the movie in favour of a more classic, crowd and box-office appeasing rom-com cliché ending. Not to say I found this movie a complete disappointment; the vast majority of the film succeeds in painting an relatable, yet accurate depiction of traditional Asian familial structures. It’s exaggerated to several times the proportions I experienced growing up, but the core principles of family before all and the expectation of children to succeed for the sake of furthering and supporting the family prevail.
I noticed the wide-ranging reach of these structures taking form in a multitude of ways, from the oft-mentioned but ever-lingering expectation of Nick to ascend as the Young family’s next hierarch, to the fact that Rachel’s NYU professorship means nothing in the face of unyielding family standards. Eleanor, Nick’s mother, and the personification of the stubborn traditions of Asia throughout the movie, crystallizes the feeling many Asian-Canadians, including me, experience growing up when she hisses at Rachel, “You will never be enough.”
However, the fantastic job the film does in capturing how Asian traditions feel only makes its ending even more lamentable. The cinema offers an immersive narrative atmosphere where the audience can experience the overwhelming expectations set out by Asian customs, but CRA spoils it by giving us an unrealistic ending where Rachel triumphs over Eleanor.
For Rachel to topple the traditions and hierarchy cemented through thousands of years, and billions of lives, over a sacrificial play in a game of mahjong is a slap in the face. Tauntingly, the fairy-tale ending of CRA seems to suggest that all I need to overcome the overbearing force of family values enforced since birth is love and some willingness to self-sacrifice. The denouement tosses away the reality it had cultivated through the rest of the film—a reality where Rachel most certainly would have fallen in the face of the Young family’s pressure.
Even assuming Eleanor still gives Rachel her blessing as in the movie, which is unrealistic in and of itself, the grandmother surely would have stepped in, and if not her, the never-present but ever-important father and patriarch of the Young family certainly would have. Rachel being able to marry Nick despite flying in the face of the family’s wishes is nigh impossible. Structures as historically rooted as those that are the foundations of many Asian families are not so flimsy as to fall under the breath of a single non-conforming outsider.
I didn’t want to see this movie end in despair. Certainly, Rachel could at least shake and perhaps even crack the veneer of those beliefs, or be the first of many to slowly chip away at what is and isn’t acceptable for the Young family. Instead, the movie chooses to sacrifice a faithful portrayal of a struggle against the walls of expectation constructed by Asian society. The movie blatantly betrayed me, as if someone had spent hours sympathizing and sharing in my feelings before flippantly dismissing them as trivial. With the movie’s fairy-tale ending, it is relegated to being yet another tale failing to address the Asian condition as the daunting behemoth it often feels like by belittling it as a foil within the story to be jovially conquered by its characters.
Article Photo Credits: Vadim Makhorov, Alberto E. Rodriguezcomments powered by Disqus