As the latest movie from director Jon M. Chu (“G.I. Joe: Retaliation,” “Jem and the Holograms”) continues to top the box office, this financial success has intensified the hope that the film, or rather its all-Asian cast for leading roles—Scarlett Johansson not among them—signals a shift in American filmmaking. Regrettably, the dependence on box office in validating the argument for representation pits greed against racism without a thought for cultural or artistic merit.
1993's “The Joy Luck Club” was the last major studio movie to feature an all-Asian cast. For his effort Wayne Wang, working from a script adapted by Amy Tan from her best-selling novel, received mostly critical success and modest box office receipts.
That film's greatest legacy—and an unfortunate, unintentional drawback in that in the absence of other stories of the Asian American experience, the film has had to carry the burden of representation for a quarter century—is its centering of the differences between first-generation children and their immigrant parents as the filter through which the larger culture consumes on-screen stories about Asian-American identity.
Up to now it's been easy to dismiss Chu's movies as puerile fluff. Adapted from Kevin Kwan's bestselling novel by screenwriters Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim, Crazy Rich Asians is as much escapism as his previous work; it's romantic comedy, after all, and in many ways revels in the rarefied world of the super affluent. Yet, the film manages to expand the spectrum of representation beyond what's been offered to a mass audience before, presenting recognizable folkways to those it represents while also critiquing the ills of its own society.
An expert in game theory, New York economics professor Rachel (Constance Wu) travels to Singapore to with her boyfriend Nick (Henry Golding) to meet his mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), and extended family. On the plane Nick confesses he's the heir to a global multi-industry conglomerate, but Rachel doesn't understand the magnitude of Nick's family's wealth—and his responsibility to it—until her former college roommate Peik Lin (Awkwafina) fills her in.
During this set-up, the characters in the film seem flat, like pawns, rather than people. Peik Lin and her family, especially her father played by Ken Jeong, who has made a career out of playing a stereotype, border on offensive. As do the conspicuous displays of wealth—a flyover helicopter shot of Nick's family home, a bachelor party on a freighter ship, shopping sprees and spa treatments for the bachelorette party.
Is this meant to be aspirational? Why isn't Nick's deception alarming to Rachel? Frustratingly, Rachel's naïvete persists through the first two-thirds of the movie until Chu gives us his answers. Like in the best Baz Luhrmann movies, the glitz and glamour twist into grotesque pageantry and the truth is finally revealed. For this alone, it's worth putting our trust in Chu to be our guide in this universe. If the literal definition of escapism is to experience something outside our own lives, the majority of us will do so—and be better off for it.
For the first time Rachel hears her mother's true immigrant story and puts it in a context that lets her finally understand Nick's family and the moves she must make to have a place in his life.
Whether more stories of differing experiences get told should not depend on this film's financial success or its cultural significance. Instead, it's simply that these stories must be told.