Few American minority groups pose such challenges to representation as Chinese-Americans. On the one hand, Chinese-Americans have suffered systemic racism from the moment they started immigrating to the United States, while their presence in American cinema, in particular, still tends to be reduced to a series of colonial and caricatured types. On the other hand, however, the status of China itself has changed drastically since Chinese immigration to the United States began, meaning that while their Chinese heritage may make them minorities at home, it now also connects Chinese-Americans to the most hegemonic economic power on the world stage. For a brief moment, it looks as if Crazy Rich Asians is going to tackle that contradiction head on and, more astonishingly, transform it into the premise for a romantic comedy, opening in New York with the relationship between Rachel Chu, a Chinese-American played by Constance Wu, and Nick Young, a Chinese national played by Henry Golding. Whereas Rachel is the daughter of a single mother and first-generation immigrant, and has managed to become a professor of economics at New York University through sacrifice and hard work, Nick comes from a wealthy Chinese family, although Rachel only discovers the true extent of their wealth when she and Nick get engaged, and she flies with him to Singapore to take part in his best friend Colin’s wedding.
Once she’s there, Rachel also gets to know the Golding family, some of whom are welcoming, and some of whom are not so welcoming, as well as making some other connections and friendships of her own. The stage is set for a comic hyper-correction of some of the perceptions Americans have about the Chinese, not least because this is also Rachel’s first time with the Youngs, and so constitutes a kind of lesson for her, too, in how to be Chinese as well as Chinese-American. And, for a while, there is something really compelling about this vision of an American cinema populated by Chinese and Chinese-American characters – especially female characters, who tend to take the brunt of stereotype and caricature the hardest, and to be relegated to the most thankless roles in romantic comedies in particular. I can imagine that there would be something genuinely liberating, for Chinese-American audiences, about the sheer proliferation of female Chinese and Chinese-American bodies across these early mise-en-scenes, which exude a rhythm and momentum that allows the deficiencies of the screenplay to momentarily take a back seat.
Yet throughout all these early scenes, it also becomes clear that there’s no way to understand China’s place in the world outside of the motifs of classical colonialism and economic neocolonialism. Of course, there’s no reason a film about Chinese characters, or Chinese-American characters, should feel compelled to articulate this situation, but the fact that Crazy Rich Asians centres on a Chinese-American character coming to terms with China makes it impossible to ignore. In fact, the Young family themselves are introduced as the cutting-edge of neocolonialism, since one of their main economic investments is a Malaysian infrastructural project that is clearly modelled on the notorious One Belt, One Road initiative. As a pivotal part of the New Silk Road, then, it’s impossible for Rachel to come to terms with the Young family, and their difference from herself, outside of motifs of neocolonialism either, as much as these might initially be subsumed into the lexicon and palette of romantic comedy, as well as her own relationship with and attitude towards Nick.
Unfortunately, the film deals with all those interesting tensions by way of the blandest imaginable nostalgia for British colonialism, and for the kinds of power that could be brokered through British colonialism, and the colonial mindset more generally. For all its focus on China, the film never once sets foot on mainland Chinese soil, instead offering up a alternate history of Singapore and Hong Kong in which the British simply never left – or, rather, in which the Chinese absorbed all the power and potential of British colonialism for their own neocolonial project. Time and again, the Young clan explain to Rachel that they don’t represent new money, but that their wealth instead dates back to the 1800s, before the 1824 annexation of Singapore to the British Crown, effectively eliding the British altogether to somewhat anachronistically celebrate China as the main occupying force in the Malaysian region: “I came to Singapore when there was nothing but jungle and pig farmers.”
For that reason, it frequently feels as if we have simply stepped back in time, rather than “arrived” in China, as Chu coats everything in a bland retro veneer, and one preposterously aristocratic British accent after another, all scored to the hokiest and most contrived period score imaginable. One of the odd consequences of this register is that Anglophilia ultimately trumps anything that the film might have said about contemporary Chinese life, whether in the form of Nick’s parents, who met at Cambridge while studying law, to Nick’s sister, who graduated top of her class at Oxford, and who we meet inspecting jewels flown in from Antwerp, even as Rachel’s voiceover assures us that she is a regular, down-to-earth person. For all that it pokes fun at Hollywood convention, the same slavish devotion extends to the upper echelons of American society as well, from Nick’s brother, who is determined to get his family on the front cover of American Vogue, to a family friend whose house is inspired by Donald Trump’s bathroom – a comic flourish that might have worked ten years ago, but feels insipid, uninspired and oblivious within the cultural and economic landscape of 2018.
What makes this rampant fetishising of wealth all the more tiresome is that it is blandly and aggressively humourless, despite being dressed up with a half-hearted veneer of comedy. Beyond a certain point, it starts to feel quite plausible that we’re watching the very richest people in the world – a fact that inexorably tends to dissolve any conflict before it begins, and indeed makes the film reach new heights of blandness whenever it aims for conflict. To make matters worse, the plot is so staid that it barely qualifies as a plot, instead simply following Rachel as she meets one insanely rich person after another, and goes through one rich ritual after another, with only the slightest of hiccups to give it any texture of rhythm. Granted, plot is by no means necessary for a great film, but it’s so integral to the romantic comedy genre that its absence feels incompetent more than intentional in the case of Crazy Rich Asians, especially since the film does nothing else to suggest it is breaking the mould.
In fact, the more the film strives for pathos, the more ridiculous it seems – and the more offensive, since the attitude of these rich folk towards their servants and other “commoners” is utterly colonial, let alone their attitude to the indigenous Singaporean population. Indeed, we only glimpse this indigenous population once, in the form of the guards to the Young compound, where they are handled in a ludicrously colonial lexicon – as turban-clad savages, lurking and prowling, animal-like, around the outside of the Young car, throwing the passengers into “picaresque” panic before being promptly left behind on the perimeter of the compound where they belong, forgotten as soon as the gates close on them. It’s like a scene out of Gunga Din, or The Lives of a Bengal Lancer – or even worse, since the film as a whole claims to be an exercise in racial sensitivity, implying that indigenous populations, or perhaps just this indigenous population, are so low and so beneath notice that even the claims of racial sensitivity aren’t enough to really dignify them.
Yet the depiction of characters of Chinese heritage is almost as bad, as the film lurches between English private school accents and ludicrous Chinese vocal stereotypes. The only character who’s really allowed to occupy her own Chinese-American voice is Awkwafina, who plays Goh Peik Lin, Rachel’s best friend, and as a result, she’s the only really compelling or comic presence. For all that it supposedly does away with the stereotypical Asians of regular Hollywood, there’s a hell of a lot of great Asian-American actors adopting caricatured Chinesespeak here too, and while Constance Wu may speak in her own voice, her character is too oblivious to ever really feel present. Despite being the youngest ever professor of economics to be appointed at NYU, she seems utterly oblivious to the economic system that she is confronted with, and incapable of engaging with it at anything other than a romantic level, which makes her feel more one-dimensional as well, since any realistic character would have been forced to question the Youngs, and the system they represent, much earlier, and more systematically, that she ever appears capable of doing.
To call Crazy Rich Asians an achievement of identity politics, then, is a bit of an insult to identity politics, since this is only really identity politics in the same way that Queer Eye for the Straight Guy or Sex and the City are identity politics – assurances that minority groups can be every bit as merciless in their capitalism as their majoritatian counterparts. Yet whereas there was something novel about Queer Eye and Sex and the City demonstrating that gay men and single women could be rampant capitalists, the joke falls flatter in Crazy Rich Asians, just because China is the bedrock of the global capitalist economy, and frankly presented that way from the outset of the film. The twist of the film, then, is that there is no twist, as Chu presents us with something that seems like a bind, but rather than resolving or addressing it, instead simply and blithely and blandly assures us that it isn’t a bind after all.
Nowhere is that clearer than in the film’s climactic scene, in which Rachel finds herself ostracised by the Young family at Nick’s wedding, only to fortuitously situate herself next to a Singaporean princess, who she impresses with a discussion of how micro-loans to women can help to prop up economy. For the first and last time, Rachel applies her supposed economic know-how to the situation she’s in, and articulates something resembling a feminist outlook, and a more rigorous identity politics. Yet it’s immediately subsumed into the false choice between the Youngs and the Princess, as Chu simply shuffles us from one source of aristocratic capital to the next, paving the way for a pretty disingenuous ending that plays as propaganda more than anything else – a way of giving Chinese neocolonialism a benign face under the guise of a progressive exercise in identity politics. Caught between the discrimination against Chinese-American minority status, and the horrors of Chinese neocolonialism, Crazy Rich Asians is thus finally inadequate to the task it sets itself, devoid not only of insight and integrity, but even the wit and panache of a conventional, bog-standard romcom, in what has to be, for me, the most ludicrously overrated film of 2018.