Crazy Rich Asians Movie: Filial Piety wrapped in Social Hierarchy with pinches of Feminine Self-Empowerment
*Spoiler alert” This review is full of spoilers. Watch the movie first.
Sometimes you watch a movie and it feels like coming home. No, not coming home to the palatial mansion Nick Young spent his childhood in but the familiar refuge of people who get you - who understand and accept your idiosyncrasies and love you regardless.
What makes Jon M. Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians movie so enjoyable is the subtle and over-the-top ways it captures the diversity and nuance of Chinese culture. Nothing speaks home more than food and music. Cuisine plays a pivotal role in the film, and though most of the characters are absurdly affluent, the night market food scene and dumpling-making scene resonated strongly with me. Those moments were relatable on many levels. Asians of all socioeconomic classes are familiar with night markets and sitting around a table making dumplings. Food is comfort and the ultimate nostalgia. I’m reminded of Pixar’s Ratatouille, when callous food critic Anton Ego bites into Remy’s dish and is instantly transported back to his childhood.
To see the food was to journey back in time to the table at my parents’ house and listen to my grandma criticize my misshapen dough balls. She would warn me that poorly pinched dumplings would open up during boiling and inevitably, some would. I defended myself by claiming my brother made those. The tradition of making dumplings carries on in our household and both Judy and I must closely supervise our younger children to enforce strict dumpling standards and make sure my daughter doesn’t eat too many raw dumpling skins.
Chu, from the Los Altos Hills, also kills it with the music. The soundtrack is ridiculous. Ren Sheng Jiu Shi Xi (1959) is a song I grew up hearing and instantly recognized, though I never knew what it was called. American pop songs re-done in Mandarin? Sheer genius and just another layer of symbolism representing the confluence of two cultures. The story of how Coldplay’s Yellow (re-done in Mandarin by Katherine Ho) closes out the movie is a story in itself.
The core of the Chu's Crazy Rich Asians is filial piety. That’s the dumpling filling of the movie. Filial piety is respect for one’s parents, elders, and ancestors. It is distinctly anti-individual. It’s all about family and personal fulfillment is irrelevant. "All you Americans want is to be happy” is one of Eleanor Young’s attacks on Rachel. This is required territory because it is the defining conflict for Asians in the West. Any movie juxtaposing Eastern and Western cultures must address the intersection of collective and individual identity.
The screenwriters, Adele Lim and Peter Chiarelli, did a fantastic job. I believe they succeeded in making the movie at least as good as the book, which is a near-impossible feat. In the book, the social hierarchy of elite Chinese is the central theme. The romance between Nick and Rachel functions is really just a vehicle for cultural critique of Singapore’s 1%. The movie makes elitism the wrapper surrounding the filling of filial piety but the theme still emanates strongly. The racist dimensions are blunted in the movie (the guards of Ah-ma’s palace are not ethnic Chinese) but still lurk in the background.
The scene where filial piety and social hierarchy most viscerally collide is Rachel’s introduction to her boyfriend’s mom, Eleanor. The tension for this meeting has been building and the viewer knows it’s going to be ugly - it’s like watching a car accident in slow motion. It’s both horrifying and captivating and a poignant image of how Chinese dismissiveness works. It’s never about the actual words exchanged and all about tone and body language. The scene finds Eleanor managing her kitchen in preparation for the meal. A traditional Chinese woman rules the house and no room more so than the kitchen. She runs her staff like Gordon Ramsay. Rachel’s introduction is an intrusion and the way Eleanor instantly sizes her up is telling. Throughout the interaction, Eleanor barely makes eye contact as she attends to more important duties than meeting her son’s girlfriend, who she obviously feels is beneath her and her son. I’ve seen this scene play out many times in social encounters between Chinese women, a calculated non-chalance that belies superiority and tacit disapproval. It’s tragically beautiful and Michelle Yeoh’s Eleanor hits each note perfectly.
Feminine self-empowerment is the path Rachel takes to navigate through the maze of filial piety and social hierarchy. Peik Lim exhorts Rachel to apply game theory tactics and out-manuver her future mother-in-law in a game of chicken. The mahjong scene sets up like an old-fashioned Western gunfight duel except Rachel and Eleanor wield ivory tiles instead of six-shooters. A real Eleanor would not have stooped to take that challenge and this type of explicit confrontation is pure Hollywood. It doesn’t matter though, it’s an incredible scene. The game as a metaphor for their conflicting values is masterful.
The movie isn’t perfect. There’s gratuitous male eye-candy. We are seriously targeting the straight female / gay male demographic here and the film makes no apology for its asymmetry. I get it - so many negative stereotypes about the Asian male body so therefore let’s compensate. And yet men are objectified in this film and the mahjong scene can be reduced to two women competing for the hand of a man. I don’t mind the discomfort of the role reversal, seeing how much women have been objectified in the past. However, I’m not convinced flipping a bad script is the best way to value both men and women.
To that point, there are no positive husband or father figures in the film. Peik Lim’s dad, played by Ken Jeong, is pure comic relief. Nick’s dad is conspicuously absent. Colin and his groomsmen are foils - merely distractions and voices to keep him from Rachel. Oliver is social/cultural commentary plus comic relief. Lastly, Nick is all smolder and no substance. Really, Nick, you weren’t going to prepare your girlfriend of two years that you’re from an ultra-rich, ultra-crazy family? That strain on credulity could have been updated from the book. He evidences a remarkable lack of empathy after Rachel tells him about the dead fish incident - “What else happened?” and then immediately “Hey let’s do something together just the two of us".
That’s why when Nick and Rachel are mouthing “I love you” to each other during the wedding, it’s easy to hold back tears because unlike Nick’s mom, I’m struggling to see how Nick is worthy of Rachel. I’m unable to root for a flourishing relationship between an emotionally handicapped Nick and a courageously vulnerable Rachel.
In the end, this is a movie about Eleanor Young. She undergoes the greatest transformation and she has the most at stake. Rachel can find another man but Eleanor can’t find another son. In the brutal staircase scene, Eleanor reveals the pain of falling short of her mother-in-law's and as a result, she’ll make sure this potential daughter-in-law knows her place with the damning words: “You will never be enough”. This is the dark side of filial piety - the enduring shame of children who can never live up to the legacy of their parents and ancestors. In Chinese culture, one's elders cast a long shadow.
The climax of the movie is the mahjong scene where Rachel’s decides to sacrifice winning by surrendering the winning tile to Eleanor. It is the perfect resolution to the conflict between individualism and community. Rachel, as an individual, chooses to sacrifice her personal fulfillment by giving Nick up for the good of the family. And then during Nick and Rachel’s engagement ceremony, we discover Eleanor, in giving Nick her engagement ring, has in turn sacrificed her insecurity for the good of Nick’s future family.
The viewer doesn’t see the workings of Eleanor’s transformation - only that it happens. We’ll find out in the sequels how that turns out. If it’s anything like the examples I’ve seen, a mother’s surrender of a child is a bumpy process and not a one-time decision. What typically happens is the mother’s sense of inadequacy is projected onto her daughter or daughter-in-law and that’s how generational sin is transmitted. The burden of shame and disappointed expectations are expressed through perfectionism and fixation on image and status. It is the classic example of the controlling mom and absent/passive father. Mother bear is wounded and the wounds are passed down.
Thus Eleanor’s conundrum is the universal conflict every mother experiences. In surrendering her son, I hope Eleanor does not find her value in being a worthy daughter-in-law or in finding her son a worthy daughter-in-law but rather in her worth as a beloved daughter of the most high king. Instead of telling her Bible study girlfriends to read Corinthians without her, Eleanor would be wise to meditate on 2 Corinthians 5:17 - that she is a new creation in Christ. In doing so, Eleanor can rest - surrendering the two things she wanted most to keep: her son Nick and her mother-in-law’s expectations - because she already possesses what is of greatest value. Acceptance and belonging are the only crazy riches worth having.