This post contains spoilers about “Crazy Rich Asians.”
There’s a lot to love about “Crazy Rich Asians.”
It’s a delightful, escapist romantic comedy with the rare-for-Hollywood Asian-majority cast. The scenery and costumes are striking. Awkwafina is a scene stealer in her role as Peik Lin, the best friend of Rachel Chu (Constance Wu). The connection between the lead characters is palpable and believable. The mah-jongg scene between Rachel and boyfriend Nick Young’s (Henry Golding) mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), is so captivating and loaded with symbolism that it made me want to take up the game.
As I left the theater, the moment that stuck with me the most was how Nick’s proposal to Rachel resolved the film’s central tension without saying a word. Sure, a marriage proposal after a big fight is entirely predictable. It fits neatly in the rom-com formula, with Nick running through the airport to get there in time — as many a rom-com lead has done before him.
So what makes this proposal different? Well, the big conflict of the movie is Eleanor does not approve of Rachel, an economics professor and daughter of a single mother. Though Rachel and Nick are both of Chinese descent, they come from different worlds: Nick comes from extreme wealth, in a family where marriage is treated as a business merger. Rachel, on the other hand, is a poor American, guided more by passion and free will than filial responsibility.
Earlier in the film, Eleanor tells Rachel she will never be enough for Nick, explaining she too was an outsider in the Young family and has spent her entire life feeling as if she does not measure up. Eleanor was such an unsuitable choice for her husband, she tells Rachel, that he could not propose with a family ring. Instead, he had one made: a gorgeous emerald flanked by two diamonds. Not exactly a story of a couple toiling in economic hardship, but in this film every costume and every million-dollar earring earns its weight.
After Eleanor tells that story, Nick and Rachel go their separate ways for Colin and Araminta’s bachelor and bachelorette parties, where Rachel again gets the message she is an outsider. Like his father, Nick does not plan to propose with a family ring: He has already had one made for Rachel, which he shows Colin during the guys’ escape from Colin’s crazy-lavish bachelor party. However, when Nick uses that ring, Rachel turns him down, saying she cannot take him away from his family. Rather than just slink back to America, Rachel asks Eleanor to join her for a mah-jongg game, during which she explains why she rejected Nick and that his future wife’s identity will still be the result of a choice by Rachel, who’s a “poor, raised-by-a-single-mother, low-class immigrant nobody.” The exchange is the last we see of Rachel and Eleanor on-screen together.
However, when Nick proposes for the second time, on a crowded airplane with passengers all around them, he does so not with the ring he had made for Rachel but with Eleanor’s emerald ring. In a movie with lots of jaw-droppingly beautiful jewels, it was in this moment I actually gasped. Through this one gesture, and the meaning the audience and the characters already knew this ring held, Nick was telling Rachel: I accept you. My family accepts you. You are enough. You are more than enough.
Of course, saying something like those words would have been excessively cheesy, even for a rom-com. Which is why I so appreciated they let the ring say it all on its own. The ring had a way of honoring Rachel’s outsider status and a welcoming of it all in one. The reveal reminded me of those rare and special times between loved ones when words are unnecessary, when an understanding look or a tender handhold — or, in this case, a piece of jewelry — says everything without saying anything at all. The past between you provides the meaning, and the gesture speaks louder than words ever could.