How Crazy Rich Asians turns a traditional Asian rom-com trope into a modern statementAugust 18, 2018
Minor spoilers ahead for Crazy Rich Asians.
With the new romantic dramedy Crazy Rich Asians, based on the bestselling novel by Kevin Kwan, Warner Bros. is making a rare venture into films with an all-Asian cast. But the Asian romantic comedy is already a wildly popular genre that’s spawned a variety of online fan communities, and it comes with its own set of heavily used tropes, such as buffoonish gangsters who hold the female lead for ransom, or a male lead who gets into a car accident and ends up with amnesia. One of the most common tropes, the evil mother-in-law, appears in Crazy Rich Asians, but the filmmakers subvert it in a quietly revolutionary way, transforming the portrayal of Asian women in Western media. The characters in Crazy Rich Asians are familiar types, but they aren’t the usual American clichés of tiger moms, dragon ladies, or sexualized cardboard characters. They’re a little more human than that, which is unusual and welcome.
Crazy Rich Asians introduces a familiar premise from those Asian films and TV shows: ultra-rich young heir Nick (Henry Golding) falls for NYU professor Rachel (Fresh Off the Boat’s Constance Wu) and brings her home to Singapore to meet his extended family, but his mother Eleanor (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon star Michelle Yeoh) disapproves of Rachel, and sees her as too independent and American. This is a common plot for popular Asian dramas like Boys Over Flowers, an iconic Korean series based off a Japanese manga and adapted into many forms, including the new Netflix original series Meteor Garden.
In the standard Asian-drama version of the trope, a rich man takes an interest in a woman from a poorer background, and they fall in love. When he brings her to meet his family, his evil mother decides the woman isn’t wealthy enough, and plots to keep the two separated, often using bribery, bullying, and even reintroducing the man to his long-lost childhood crush. His young love interest is intimidated, and realizes she can never fit in with this rich family. And the man is forced to choose between his snarky mother-in-law and his soon-to-be wife. Inevitably, he chooses the wife, and wins her back.
Crazy Rich Asians changes the dynamic largely by fleshing out the characters, and shifting the balance of power to the female lead rather than her boyfriend. Director Jon M. Chu and screenwriters Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim have all said in past interviews that in their film, they gave the agency to Rachel, not Nick. In the end, Rachel is the one faced with the decision of whether to marry Nick or let him go so he can maintain ties with his beloved mom.
Lim, who Chu brought on to add cultural authenticity and a female perspective to Chiarelli’s script, explained at a talk after a Writers Guild of America screening that giving Rachel the power in the story was important because of the established power dynamics of a middle-class woman coming into an immensely wealthy family. “You want to make sure that she’s got agency in her decisions. So ultimately, what it became, it wasn’t about, ‘Does the guy choose me or his family?’ It had to be that Rachel made the decision, she was the one who had the card and gave it away. And so it was her decision to make, and it was heartbreaking for her to do. It wasn’t an easy or glib thing, but she did it out of love, and out of respect and honor for this world that she’d been brought into.”
But the director and screenwriters didn’t want to lose touch with Eleanor, either. As the antagonist of Kwan’s novel, Eleanor is more clearly a shallow adversary who spends much of her time scheming against Rachel, and snooping through her family details. Kwan’s version of the character feels like she was transposed from a drama like Boys Over Flowers or School 2017 — she’s willing to go to horrendous depths to see her son maintain his social status and wealth.
Yeoh told Chu, according to IndieWire, that she refused to take the role if the film portrayed Eleanor as so conniving. “‘If you expect me to be a villain the way she is in the book, then I’m not doing this movie,’” Chu recounted Yeoh saying, “‘I can’t be mustache-twirling. I need to make this person a full human being, and I’m going to defend our culture in the best way possible, and you defend the American culture, and we’ll let the audience decide.’”
“Eleanor was very representative of some of the most beautiful women I’ve met in Asia who take a second seat, because that’s how you manage your husband’s position in the society,” Yeoh told The Hollywood Reporter. “And I don’t think it’s just Chinese women — I think it’s very universal to be self-sacrificing, first to your husband, and then to your children.”
That meant that Crazy Rich Asians ends up not only being an opportunity for Asian-Americans to see themselves represented on-screen as positively and vividly as they are in Asian media, but also for Asian characters to be reflected in a more feminist and appreciative light. Lim added more culturally specific scenes where the characters gather to craft dumplings or confront each other over mahjong. Eleanor becomes not a mustache-twirling villain, but a respectable matriarch with her own hardships and desires. She shares tender moments with Nick on-screen, and faces humiliation from her own mother-in-law, Ah Ma (Lisa Lu, The Joy Luck Club).
Those moments are crucial for painting Eleanor as not just another judgemental mother-in-law trope, but a more fully realized woman, defending previous generations’ cultural values. While Asia can be deeply patriarchal, it also has its outspoken, confident women, like some of the legendary icons featured on the film soundtrack. As Chu said in an interview with the LA Times, Crazy Rich Asians offers role models for Asian women in ways that other stories don’t. “I think about my daughter who was just born a year ago, and the world I want her to live in,” Chu said. “I want her to live in a world where she’s seeing Constance Wu, Michelle Yeoh and Lisa Lu be these strong independent people that don’t need a man in their life to be fulfilled, and that love themselves and know that they’re worth every inch of their existence, and can be anything and do whatever they want.”
Stories about growing up as a second- or third-generation Asian immigrant often focus on the culture clashes between America’s focus on individual freedom and the personal “pursuit of happiness,” and the way Asian traditions value self-sacrifice and respect the family, in order to benefit future generations. The clash can leave younger generations bitter. Chu told IndieWire that he wanted to push back against the clichéd depiction of traditional Asian culture in film, and treat them more like glamorous old-Hollywood stars: “We usually see Chinese people, Asian people as ancient, and in this other time, definitive time, and it’s just not true. This idea that old, classic, Hollywood movies could have starred Asians with just as much style, just as much pizzazz… I was really excited to dip our whole movie into this color and this vibrancy.”
And Eleanor is part of that vibrancy — she stands in the way of the film’s central love story, but she does it as a stalwart defender of Asian culture. While she tells Rachel that in her family, “we understand how to build things that last,” sneering at the idea that people should prioritize their own happiness over their family’s success, her background lays out a compelling character story that gives her strong emotional reasons for wanting to see Asian women stay in traditional gender roles.
In the novel, Eleanor speaks of how much she has given up for her son’s sake (“I haven’t sacrificed my whole life for you just to see you waste everything on that girl”), but Nick laughs it off, saying, “I’m not sure what you mean, when you’re sitting here at the chef’s table of your twenty-million-dollar apartment.” Yet in the screenplay version, that humiliating moment for Eleanor is turned into a triumphant intimidation, as she towers over Rachel and denigrates her as unworthy of Nick: “You will never be enough.”
As Lim described it at the WGA talk, these character interactions depict a common experience for young Asian women entering a new family, that “every female in your family feels like they own you.” She told The Hollywood Reporter, “This hold that parents have on their children is a specifically Asian thing. It presents itself in really aggressive ways sometimes, but it comes from a place of deep devotion.”
Crazy Rich Asians acknowledges often-seen aspects of traditional Asian family culture —filial piety, notoriously mean in-laws, disdain for outsiders and foreigners — and couches them in emotional context and understanding. It passes no judgment on whether Asian-Americans, in taking steps away from their ancestors’ values, should feel guilty over not meeting those standards, and it expands the evil mother-in-law trope into a more humanized mom who’s painfully relatable. In the process, Chu and his team attach a new flavor of cultural understanding to an old genre that was in need of innovation.