September 13, 2018 | Arts and Culture
crazy rich asians from page to screen
When Crazy Rich Asians came out this summer, I was determined to read the book before seeing the movie (a point of pride as a self-proclaimed booklover). A friend warned me that doing so would dampen my enjoyment of the film, and he was right—but not in the way I expected.
Though I almost always believe that books are better than their movie adaptations, I still enjoy book-based films: I’m fascinated by how stories transform in their journey between mediums. For a book with as many characters and subplots as Crazy Rich Asians, I was prepared for some dramatic cuts from page to screen. The changes, however, were too detrimental, stripping away the complexities necessary for full and authentic characters—a weakness compounded by the film’s burden of being the first Hollywood movie in twenty-five years to feature a majority-Asian cast in a contemporary setting.
Watching the movie as a Chinese American, I felt a small, electric thrill every time a piece of my parents’ culture manifested on the big screen. Hearing the song “Tian Mi Mi,” playing softly in the background, felt like a voicemail from a forgotten friend. Watching the Mahjong game scene triggered a primal muscle memory, reminding me of how the large and cold tiles felt in my childhood hands. Understanding the Mandarin dialogue felt like an invitation re-extended after years of rejection. For me, these details—catering exclusively and unapologetically to a specific subset of American audience members—are the film’s biggest triumph. In a Hollywood that had the audacity to suggest reimagining the movie’s Chinese American protagonist, Rachel Chu, as white, Crazy Rich Asians is a win for mainstream Asian American representation.
But despite its progressive casting (by Hollywood standards, at least), the movie has garnered controversy over its uncritical portrayal of extravagant wealth and opulence, the erasure of brown faces in its Singaporean setting, and Awkwafina’s “blaccent” in her performance as Peik Lin, Rachel’s friend from college. It’s clear that the movie was intended for an American audience: The film revolves around Rachel, its only Chinese American character, whereas the book divides its attention between characters. More importantly, while Chinese Americans make up less than two percent of the U.S. population, ethnic Chinese represent almost 75 percent of the population in Singapore. In the United States, Crazy Rich Asians champions an underrepresented group, but in Singapore, the movie would be complicit in the country’s racism towards its Malay and Indian minorities.
The conversations raised by these criticisms are important; in every piece of cultural production, there is something worth interrogating. The only way for Hollywood to reconcile the issues related to Asian underrepresentation, however, is by supporting a proliferation of Asian American narratives. Asking Crazy Rich Asians (which doesn’t pretend to be anything more than a light-hearted rom-com) to provide insightful visibility for all Asians who are not crazy rich and not Chinese Singaporeans is a burden no single movie should bear, especially one that struggles with providing holistic, empathetic portrayals of its own characters to begin with.
The movie’s Peik Lin (dissimilar to the book’s) gets to the heart of my biggest issue with the film: the truncation of character dimensionality as Crazy Rich Asians made its way from page to screen. Out of all the problems brought up by critics, Awkwafina’s “blaccent”—which does an alarmingly large portion of the work of characterizing Peik Lin—cannot be even partly justified by the movie’s limitations and intentions.
There’s a lot to unpack about Awkwafina’s performed Blackness by a non-Black (but also non-white) American, and that unpacking requires more space and depth than the scope of this article allows. For now, though, I’ll say this: Peik Lin’s caricature sends the message that Asians (and Asian Americans) are one-dimensional characters lacking unique narratives. Awkwafina’s Peik Lin steals the show with sheer energy, yet she has no motivations, no nuance, and no inner story. Though the novel’s Peik Lin is less visible, she is inflected with a broader spectrum of emotions. She’s still the unabashed woman who, “while being filthy rich, [i]s never a snob about it,” but she is not immune to the natural vulnerabilities we endure when comparing ourselves to our peers. At one point in the novel, Peik Lin quitely acknowledges how lucky her friend is to be dating Nick Young, heir to the fortune of a powerful family clan. The envy is implicit and fleeting, its presence endears her to the reader.
My greatest fear is that Crazy Rich Asians hasn’t done enough to encourage a mainstream desire for more Asian and Asian American stories. Walking out of the movie, a friend mentioned that Rachel’s character felt flat and repetitive until the majiang showdown between her and Eleanor (Nick’s mother); another friend said Astrid (Nick’s It Girl cousin) was the subject of the most boring subplot he had ever seen, a comment that both disappointed and resonated with me.
Reading the book, Astrid was my favorite character: beautiful and kind, unpretentious and original, an idea existing in the imaginations of others, but also a woman struggling to find an identity that is hers alone. Her (ostensibly) cheating husband, Michael, reveals that being married to her—the daughter of one of Asia’s wealthiest families—has made him feel inferior and ornamental. In a moment met with snaps and whoops from my fellow audience members, Astrid ends the relationship (“It’s not my job to make you feel like a man”), putting on a pair of $1.2 million earrings before making her defiant exit. But, to me, this moment isn’t cause for celebration—it feels like a perversion of Astrid’s complexity. In the book, Astrid acts in ways both strong and vulnerable as she struggles to define her relationship with her family’s wealth, attempts to empathize with Michael, acknowledges her mistakes and thoughtlessness in their marriage, and prioritizes her son’s interests over her own emotions. However, in this applauded movie scene, she seems to, rather simplistically, embrace her extraordinary wealth as a defining aspect of her identity and use this reclamation to alienate Michael—becoming alarmingly less nuanced than the Astrid I admired in the novel.
Having read the book—knowing what the adaptation could have been, recognizing the choices that were made and the choices that weren’t—I am, overall, disappointed by the movie and its portrayal of Asian and Asian American characters. I wanted Crazy Rich Asians to feature characters swathed in the kind of cultural and individual specificity that injects fictional personas with humanity, to leave the audience no choice but to feel invested in their stories. That is the great paradox of storytelling: that universality comes from a place of specificity—it’s why figurative language can be so powerful, why the details can make a story. This movie took the opposite road, paring down each individual character as if the sheer number of Asian characters could do the work of imagining Asians complexly. The rom-com genre is notorious for its predictability and reliance on character tropes, but Crazy Rich Asians deserved more. The novel deserved more. Asian Americans deserved more.