A few nights ago we went with good friends to see Crazy Rich Asians. Think about it but 2018 has been the year of two definitive “ethnic” movies – Black Panther and now Crazy Rich Asians. Both are redemptive in the sense of giving voice to a group of people who have felt not only left out of the mainstream but stereotyped in movies or, even worse, whitewashed. Here are a few thoughts why it’s an important movie and why I would recommend it (spoiler alert!).
I think it’s really important to keep in mind that what made movies like Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians a success is the script. Before everyone goes over the top and says this ushers in a new day of movies that represent minorities, remember it was the foundation of a great script then actors/actresses and a director that made these movies stand out. Just like Joy Luck Club and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon were touted as game changers only to be met with years of drought, it takes good material to start with.
Second, while it’s a rom-com, unlike many other movies, it’s incredibly nuanced with culture and identity issues. It’s not just a movie about girl gets guy, but girl wrestles with issues surrounding her identity as someone who has roots both in traditional culture but also modern culture. This is the story of Asians who were born in the states but have to jump the cultural fence at times trying to hold to both a traditional and a modern cultural identity. I would recommend people seeing the movie simply for the experience of tying to understand the Asian experience of what it must be like to have to live in two worlds.
What is a person’s identity? Everyone in all cultures and all time periods takes an identity from someone or somewhere. In the movie it’s found in the statement made by Nick’s mother, Eleanor, who is fiercely protective of her son. At one point she tells the protagonist, Rachel, “You will never be enough.” How a person answers this crucial question depends on the source of their identity. Identity in traditional cultures was not discovered. Instead, it was “told” to you by your elders, by your extended family or group, and by society. It might not have come in words but it was something that simply understood. For Asians, who we are (our identity and if we are enough) comes from outside of us. Eleanor’s words reveal the traditional way of identity formation coming from an external source. Not only was Rachel “not enough” with her socioeconomic standing but also the family baggage she unknowingly was bringing along, and finally the coup de grâce that she was not Singaporean.
In contrast, the modern way of identity formation is to receive an identity from without but rather from within. In the movie, it’s seen as “following your passions”, another way of saying to follow your heart. What Rachel arrives at might seem odd to most people as she straddles both traditional identity and modern identity. She experiences an “enough-ness” from her mother who flies to Singapore to console her broken-hearted daughter. But she also looks within to gain pride and conclude she is enough. The director Jon M. Chu says the staircase scene where Eleanor says “‘You will never be enough’… tapped into something very true for Constance (who played Rachel), and I think she had a very difficult time doing that take over and over again. When we watched it back, people were crying on set.”
The search for identity is pervasive today and everyone is engaged in a quest to answer some fundamental questions. An identity is what grounds you even in the face of challenges. It answers the questions, “Who am I?”, “What purpose am I here for?”, “Am I enough?”, “What is the good life?” Even if a person is not intentionally engaged in the quest, culture de facto is forcing a narrative upon people in such a way that leads them to adopt an identity. The story of many American-born Asians (myself included) is the pull between a traditional identity and a modern one and Crazy Rich Asians is a picture of that struggle between identity poles.
The movie gives you an opportunity not only to understand the Asian experience but to reflect on how it is that you gained your identity, if you can articulate it all. How has the core of who you been formed so that when everything is stripped away or difficult times come there’s something substantial still there? It might be worth thinking and talking about and that’s what good movies do!