Well, sort of. Let me explain…
From second grade, I have a vivid memory of walking into my new classroom and facing down a sea of unfamiliar white faces. Having just moved from one suburb of Dallas to another, it was the first time I was aware that my Korean heritage was not the norm for my classmates. Even though I was the first in my family to be born in the states, in my peers eyes, I might as well been ‘fresh off the boat’. Being in a all white context, I was reminded almost daily that I was not like the rest and I would remain in my inferior status all the way through to my high school years. My childhood and teen years were not easy for me and as a result, I went through periods where I loathed my Korean heritage and flat out rejected my own culture. In times of struggle I would turn to pop culture in a desperate hope of escaping this harsh reality; I wasn’t good enough. Sadly media would not help since there was no representation except gross stereotypes. I settled for the fact that I would never be a good enough. Regardless of if I wasn’t white enough for my friends or not yellow enough for my Korean community, my youth would be molded by my feelings of not really belonging anywhere. This experience would continue to inform my adult life and is mainly why I am so passionate about diversity, inclusion and representation- especially in media.
Fast forward to today and enter Crazy Rich Asians. The first Hollywood Studio film to feature an all Asian and Asian-American cast in 25 years since Joy Luck Club. I had heard of the book by Kevin Kwan but knew very little so when I first saw the trailer, I was overwhelmed with excitement but was also filled with terror. Sure the first images looked fun, what if the depiction are yet another gross over simplification of the Asian-American experience? What if instead of challenging and reshaping stereotypes it just reinforces them? What if it’s too foreign for to the masses? Or worst, what happens if it’s just a bad film and we don’t get another attempt for 25 more years?! It’s too much weight for one film to carry, right?
Fortunately, Crazy Rich Asians is a delightful film. Solid cast, lovable characters, great script, exotic locations and a stellar soundtrack. I won’t go into the plot but it’s pretty much a garden variety romantic comedy- almost formulaic in that sense, but that’s the beauty of it. Kevin Kwan took what has been widely consumed by the masses for decades and just merely changed the faces and the locations. Personally I am a huge ‘Rom-Com’ fanatic so my bar is pretty high when it comes to what makes a successful one. Likable character, check. Emotional moments, check. A makeover, check. An airport chase moment, check. Grand gestures, check, check & check! This is already an instant classic and will stand the test of time. However, these reasons are not why this is the greatest film of 2018.
While listening to the pop Chinese music intro to CRA, I was wrought with anxiety about this monumental film. Would white America embrace this? Would it be financially successful? Would critics validate it or excuse it away as yet another shallow romantic comedy. Then suddenly, I was hit with a sobering realization. This film was not made for anyone else but me. For the first time in my adult life, a widely distributed, Hollywood film starring Asian American actors portraying dignified characters was made JUST FOR ME. I was the target audience. Square, right between my eyes. I’ve never had this experience before. I didn’t have a category for it. Sure I’ve seen some fantastic films like Better Luck Tomorrow, Big Sick, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, etc but none of them were released at this level (thanks Warner Bros). Sure, I’m not rich but these character talked, looked and acted like me. They look like my crazy family. They look like my crazy friends. They look like my life (except for the money). For the first in my life, I could 100% identify with them. There have been so many writers that I respect and admire that have helped champion representation and I appreciate everyone of them. However, you can never truly appreciate representation unless you’ve never had it and finally get it. For example, for the first time I could see them struggle with one of THE hardest aspects of the Asian American experience…
In the 2nd act, there is a poignant moment when Constance Wu’s Rachel and Michelle Yeoh’s Eleanor Young have a tension filled conversation on the staircase. Eleanor drops the hammer on Rachel by simply stating that as an Asian-American she will never be good enough. This strange dilemma goes beyond being a protective mother but it’s specific to immigrants and is an issue that has never been addressed so head on in a mainstream film. Just because I look Korean, eat Korean food and understand the customs, in the eyes of many Koreans- I will never be good enough. When Eleanor said those piercing words to Rachel, I was instantly transported to 2nd grade walking to my desk under the glares of my disapproving classmates. This may seem like a nuance moment but it really is everything and is at the emotional core of this film. It has been my exact journey as an Asian-American and it was finally beautifully depicted on the big screen. For more context, there is a sociological term called third culture which is a description of army or missionary kids that grow up in foreign cultures. They feel like they have multiple homes while belonging to no one place. Third culture kids feel like outsiders but also have the ability to blend into many situations. Asian-Americans (along with other immigrant groups) are by nature third culture. To be honest, being with all Koreans kind of creeps me out- but so does being with all white people. I need to be in a mix of the two or more. I’m not enlightened or anything just a product of my upbringing. Fortunately I married a beautiful and amazing third culture white gal from Texas. Our organically grown kids are blended and our adopted kids add even other nationalities to the mix. We are as third culture as it gets. What Rachel’s character struggles with is what my kids will struggle with someday too.
This is part of the reason why I love pop culture. Our favorite stories are filled with third culture characters like Superman, Spock, Star-Lord, Neo, Eleven, Frodo, Rey and that blue dude from Avatar. They are heroes stuck between two worlds- and it’s that tension between both worlds that makes them who they are. It’s not their handicap but their source of strength. Being third culture is a value especially with the globalization of our world. At the end of Crazy Rich Asian (spoiler alert), in her final standoff against Eleanor, Rachel realizes that she’s not scared and that she actually is good enough. She decided the fate of not only hers but Nick’s family and in that moment she became empowered. The burden of family weighs heavy on the shoulders of Asian-Americans- and sometimes sacrifices has to be made. I too left my family in Texas to live in California to pursue ‘my passions’ and I do feel guilt about that at times. It’s not easy.
Filmmakers hardly ever get this right and usually don’t make the distinction between Asian-Americans and mainland Asians. It’s just easier to lump us together and think we all like karate, K-Pop, math and want to be doctors. Nothing further can be from the truth. However, while I am so different from my Asian counterparts, you wrong one of them and you wrong us all. It’s a strange symbiotic relationship that I can hardly articulate but it’s as thick as blood. This movie masterfully and beautifully illustrates that. It’s more than just a love story, it’s a third culture journey of discovery. Like I said, it was a new experience to me to witness it in a film.
Is Crazy Rich Asians the best movie in years? Well even if you consider this year’s Black Panther, Avengers Infinity War and others, no, not by a long shot. Over the past few years, there have been plenty of films that were critically and artistically better. But to me, Tony Kim, the son of Ung Ok and Kum Ja that immigrated here from Korea so that I may choose ‘my passions’, it was the best movie I’ve seen in a long, long time.
Two final notes. You have to read Director Kevin Kwan’s letter to Coldplay requesting the use of their song ‘Yellow’ in the climax of the film. It is beautiful and inspiring and can’t imagine a more appropriate use of a song in cinema. Second, to me, this is one of two of the most important films to come out this year. The other is another mainstream film that is almost just as significant to me (for other reasons) but I bet you will never guess which it is. I’ll blog about that one when we get closer to the release.
I loved Crazy Rich Asians and I hope you did too. I hope you see it multiple times like I did. Let your dollars help shape the landscape of cinema. If the film was important to you, please let me know why by commenting below. Thanks for entering in my journey and I hope you stay ‘crazy’.