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'Crazy Rich Asians' is a charming indulgence, but frustratingly apolitical

The movie asks us to abandon ourselves to a fantasy land of learning to live alongside the elite without letting them crush us.
Image: Crazy Rich Asians
Nico Santos as Oliver, Constance Wu as Rachel and Koh Chieng Mun as Neenah Goh "Crazy Rich Asians."Warner Bros. Pictures

Crazy Rich Asians” delivers what its title promises: A fantastic montage of the globalized good life, and a tale of star-crossed lovers recast in the imperium of modern Asia, where everything is so beguilingly glamorous that not even its own inhabitants can believe their own good luck. It is, intentionally, too good to be true, because the subculture of Asia's ultra-rich is alien to most Asians and non-Asians alike.

In foregrounding Asians as masters of a billionaires' playground, the film illuminates a facet of the diaspora that seeks to transcend race while rebranding ethnic pride: Whichever side of the color line on which you fall, your money is green and, with enough of it, you can do or be anything. Even ordinary Asian Americans (the upwardly mobile children of immigrants, akin to the film's Queens-born, middle-class heroine) can feast on the eye candy of the all-Asian cast, who have been heralded as emblems of a Hollywood coming-of-age. No longer relegated to the backdrop, Asian faces have crossed onto center stage.

As a Chinese-American New Yorker — and an academic who usually snarks at gratuitous displays of filthy lucre — even I was reluctantly charmed by a film about Asians that is less about being “too foreign” in a white world, and more about being too American in an Asian one. But ultimately, my left-skewed perspective was frustrated by the film's elision of politics in favor of a fairy tale.

By recasting Cinderella in the trappings of a glittering Asian dynasty, “Crazy Rich Asians” plays to the bourgeois sensibilities of an Asian-American audience. Set in the global diaspora, the aspirant elite of Asian Americana have evolved beyond the Horatio Algers bootstraps narrative to pursue a more extravagant lifestyle of the global jet set. From Silicon Valley to high finance, young people are enthralled by the concept that anything is possible if you play your cards right.

It’s vintage tropes of Victorian romance fused with the subversive camp of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” tossed with “Pretty Woman's” rumpled glam, reality TV's post-modern hedonism and the spectacle of gilded Eastern regalia. To the extent that the movie marks any kind of empowerment of the Asian-American community, it’s that “Crazy Rich Asians” doesn't even claim to be consciousness-raising or politically challenging, but makes more powerful pop-cultural statement: Asians can sell at the box office.

Still, the central love story is a strikingly conventional rom-com narrative that delivers a pat Asian variation on the American dream, with a perfect young couple representing different ends of Asiana. Rachel, the young professor raised by a single mom, discovers that her lover, Nick, is the prodigal son of a Singaporean real estate empire, and she's spirited away to the court of Asian new-royalty. In turn, the couple — adorable cookie-cutter archetypes, only Asian — introduce American audiences to an otherworldly elite that revels in its cosmopolitan diasporic identity without the burden of American identity politics.

Even when Rachel confronts social barriers in her lover's family hierarchy, she's not challenging racial divides, but other cultural fissures: It's a story of gritty middle-class “American values” versus Old Money post-colonial elitism. It also dramatizes intergenerational struggles familiar to many Asian immigrant families: Westernized youthful individualism versus old-school filial loyalties and family tradition.

But by placing an Asian inflection on an orthodox romantic storyline against the backdrop of ethnicized grandiloquence, the film cleverly frames the "Crazy Rich" society as a self-contained alternate modernity. Displaying a glossy spectrum of creolized transnational identities, the characters implicitly upend stereotypes of Asians as nerdy, shy automatons. And on this stage, Asians finally get to play all the good parts: The cunning matriarch, the backstabbing vixen, the campy black sheep of the family, and the outsider American, shunned by disapproving elders and viciously catty millennial courtesans.

Rachel's real transformation, however, comes not through transcending class or overcoming racial divides, but in self-affirmation as her own woman, navigating the gender dynamics of a social landscape of caged birds and tyrannical mothers-in-law. Faced with the elite establishment's arrogant alienation, she finds her place as a self-made individual. Her emancipation is, nonetheless, tellingly compromised: She doesn't revolt against patriarchy, but rather, leverages a softer, liberal feminism for liberation through individual achievement and self-confidence. Her happy ending comes with learning how to live alongside the elite class without letting it crush her. In pursuit of love, she eventually makes a resigned peace with the material world of global capitalism.

The women who “win” in the "Crazy Rich" universe, it seems, don't challenge the system but rather learn to survive it; they manage to hold onto their pride while keeping up appearances, capitalizing on their net worth without becoming slaves to fortune. But the rest of us may never get even close to this magical world where money and love are so harmoniously balanced.

Many second-generation strivers learn how to move up only by compromising their heritage — leaving the old neighborhood for white picket fences, blotting out their accents, never feeling quite comfortable in their own skin, besieged by microaggressions and creepy Asian fetishes. “Crazy Rich Asians” asks us, for once, to suspend disbelief and abandon ourselves to the fantasy land of high rollers, with its pure, unrepentant indulgence — carefree, uncritical and apolitical. But for today's real-life Asian Americans, stretched between the struggle to overcome historical discrimination and the rush to “have it all,” if you want to play to win, you've got to learn to hustle.

Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the “Belabored” podcast and Asia Pacific Forum on WBAI FM.