Although the mahjong scene is the most explicit example of the ways the film prioritizes Asian viewers, many critics have pointed out how even the subtler details made them feel seen. As Hua Hsu wrote for the New Yorker, “I found myself moved by moments when very little was happening, the kinds of everyday moments that I’ve always wanted to see onscreen: friends eating at the night market, an elder slowly studying the face of a newcomer, the pained but sympathetic expression of a native speaker trying to decipher another’s rusty Mandarin.”For the Atlantic, Emily Jan praised “the bustling street market, Weibo and WeChat icons flitting across the screen, the various a-yi mannerisms and phrases—all presented without explanatory commas.”Aside from the mahjong scene, my own favorite detail is when comedic supporter Ken Jeong, playing Rachel’s friend’s ridiculous father, introduces himself to Rachel with a cringe-worthy stereotypical Asian accent, then a minute later cracks up and reveals he actually doesn't have much of an accent (beyond American) at all. It’s a silly gag, but one that succinctly speaks to the history of Asian-American actors—including Jeong, in most of his prior roles—being confined to very specific, and often offensive, ideas of Asianness in Hollywood films. What Crazy Rich Asians gives us, though, is a movie in which Asianness is not a defining character trait. We get to see the hunky guy, the silly sidekick, the evil mother-in-law, the kind best man, and all those other familiar people all played by great Asian actors.What the movie’s mahjong scene and other cultural coding makes me yearn for, though, is movies in which Asianness is a core character trait—but in a way that feels authentic rather than prescribed. In other words, not just a Hollywood that places Asian-American actors equally in the existing plot formulas and cookie-cutter characters that make up most of our movies, but a kind of cinema that is itself distinctly Asian-American, with our own familiar formulas and stock characters that aren’t tied to whiteness (or white ideas of Blackness, as has been argued to be the foundation of Awkwafina’s character in the film). In Crazy Rich Asians, there are moments and characters that come close to that, but I kept wanting for Rachel to dig into her identity just a little bit more and give us a deeper sense of what it’s like to be an American of Asian diaspora—the painful cultural gaps, the lack of a sense of home both in Asia and the US. This movie gave me a taste of that, and I want more.
It’s a bold move to make something with Asians, but it’s bolder still to make something for Asians.
Perhaps that’s an unreasonably ambitious request. I appreciate that, as a rom-com, Crazy Rich Asians did what it set out to do, and in a highly entertaining way. I came away from the film, though, hoping that we don't stop at hiring Asian and Asian-American casts, but instead go on to further our prioritization of Asian-American audiences. Because once we move beyond the economy of actual bodies on screens, we can focus on the ability to tap into a new level of affect and poeticism that Asian Americans have barely been offered cinematically. I’m excited now, but I’ll be even more excited then.