The Reelist is a column featuring Kristen Page-Kirby’s musings on movies. For Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday’s review of “Crazy Rich Asians,” click here.
One of the pivotal scenes in “Crazy Rich Asians” takes place over a high-stakes game of mahjong. And I had no idea what was going on.
It was something different. Wonderfully so.
In the film, the best romantic comedy in years, New Yorker Rachel (Constance Wu) is dating Nick (Henry Golding), who is a member of one of the richest families in Singapore, if not the world. How she managed to not know this after dating him for a year is a bit vague — she never Googled him? Went to his apartment? Noticed that his underwear was made from free-range unicorn flesh? — but just how wealthy he is gets driven home when the two travel to Singapore for his friend’s wedding and she meets Nick’s family.
What sets “Crazy Rich Asians” apart from other, lesser “you’re not good enough for my son” movies is that nearly every character is multifaceted and sympathetic. Matriarch Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh) has doubts about Rachel but they come from a place of love, and they even kind of make sense. In fact, all of these crazy rich Asians are genuine, relatable characters. A movie that makes audiences empathize with a woman who drops $1.2 million on earrings is a movie that gets its characters right.
(Also, just because it needs to be said: Awkwafina, as Rachel’s best friend Peik Lin, is explosively funny, and if she does not complete a buddy comedy with Tiffany Haddish within the year, there is no justice in this world).
Contemporary Hollywood movies about Asians — what few there are — typically focus on tension between Asian cultures and America’s ways of doing things. Last year’s “The Big Sick” covered the conflict between American and Pakistani customs when it comes to dating and marriage. Going further back, to 1993 (I told you there were very few movies), “The Joy Luck Club” and Ang Lee’s “The Wedding Banquet” also dealt with differences in values. Most mainstream movies centered on Asian characters are about their experiences in an American (often code for “white”) worldview. Even in movies about them, Asians are often marked as outsiders.
“Crazy Rich Asians” doesn’t do that. While Rachel is American, that’s not particularly the issue Nick’s mother has with her. Rachel blends in relatively well — she speaks the language and largely knows the customs, thanks to her Chinese immigrant mother — to be Chinese enough to count. Other than Rachel, there are no American characters of consequence. Moreover, there is no white character of consequence at all.
Which brings us back to the mahjong game. Since I have only played mahjong on my phone and this game was definitely not that, I had no idea what was going on as they moved those tiles around. The filmmakers could have changed it, made it a game that more non-Asians (and non-old Jewish ladies) have familiarity with. But they didn’t.
“Crazy Rich Asians” distinguishes itself from other American films featuring Asians because it makes no effort to dilute the culture in which it takes place. It is simply itself, and thanks to that, non-Asian (or, really, non-Chinese) viewers get a look at a culture in a way that isn’t framed through their eyes. This family’s culture does not exist simply in relationship to most Americans’ way of life. The characters are not outsiders. The game is mahjong, and if you don’t know how to play, too bad. Try to follow along.
More Reelists from Kristen Page-Kirby