I wanna preface this by acknowledging that Crazy Rich Asians is not a representation of all Asian ethnicities. Its cast and highlighted culture is majority East Asian — even though it is set in Singapore — and particularly megawealthy Chinese. As an American child of a Chinese immigrant parent, this movie resonated powerfully with me, but it’s worth noting that Crazy Rich Asians is not a universal expression of Pan-Asian culture and should not be reviewed as such.
Crazy Rich Asians is a celebration of wealth, culture, and the decision-makers of families. It is a raucous blend of spicy street food, glistening banquets, and homemade dumplings. Its characters are silly, sometimes full-fleshed, and possess faces that are iconic and yet isolated in their Asianness within their respective careers — whether they belong to international film legends, American comedians, YouTube stars, and/or hiphop artists — and are therefore extra powerful when all on screen at once. This film is full of glowing, classic moments, from the Cinderella-esque makeover to Astrid’s donning of the earrings in the mirror after she leaves her unfaithful husband to the heart-wrenching proposal with the ancestral ring in the airplane’s economy section. And yet the moment where its genius is arguably most felt is that snapping, climactic scene where everything comes to a screeching halt and the tables do a full 360-degree turn.
Mah-jong tables, that is. Yes, I’m talking about THAT beauty of a scene. Because this moment is when the clash between Eleanor and Rachel truly comes to its head, and where Rachel finally plays to win, instead of, as she cautions us all at the film’s beginning, to simply “not lose”.
Let’s rewind. We’re introduced to Rachel at a gambling table, where she successfully bluffs her opponent and wins all of his money. The lights go up, and we see her students in their lecture hall, where we quickly learn that Rachel is NYU’s youngest professor of economics, specializing in game theory, and we watch as she advises her students to have their eyes always on the endgame, not just on surviving each round. This lesson becomes subtly central to the plot as she and her (crazy rich) boyfriend Nick travel to a friend’s wedding in Singapore, home to Nick’s family of old Chinese money and cutthroat status-keepers. The moment Rachel meets Eleanor, Nick’s powerful, traditional, and breathtakingly protective mother, is when she enters the game of…well, in a way, thrones, as Eleanor believes that Rachel is not well-connected or devoted enough to be the family heir’s wife. Throughout the movie Rachel faces jealous bachelorettes, obnoxious relatives, and always the stinging words of Eleanor Young as they circle each other.
The game culminates in a bout of mah-jong the day after Nick (spoilers) proposes, when Rachel reveals to Eleanor that she rejected him because if she had validated his choosing between the two women, he would always resent the one he had chosen to spend his life with. As they speak, Rachel deliberately discards a tile, which allows Eleanor to display her complete set. But after Rachel reveals that she is done trying to simply survive in the game of family tradition and chooses to win by pursuing her individual happiness, she shows her own hand and wins the game, at the same time exposing to Eleanor that by simply playing to “not lose”, she has acted directly against her own interest of helping her son be happy.
Rachel’s symbol in Crazy Rich Asians is strategic game theory, and just as the film uses games to unite the Western philosophy of navigating individual happiness and Eastern familial power structures, Rachel rediscovers how she fits into the Youngs’ world by uniting her personal aspirations with her ancestral culture in modern day: a powerful lesson of hope to American children of immigrants who struggle to bridge the gap between the factors that shape us. To others, the thing that most stands out about Crazy Rich Asians could be its pantheon of East Asian media legends (which comes with its own delights and detriments), or perhaps how seamlessly cultures (Chinese-European-Singaporean) and languages (Mandarin-Cantonese-British/American/Singaporean English) blend together, or even maybe the majority-Mandarin soundtrack choices. But the reassurance that one person can belong equally and wholly to more than one culture is woven into the silken fabric of this film, in its use of symbolic and literal games and in its mere existence in American cinematic canon as a celebration of modern, fantastic East Asian excess that claims rom-com for its own without a second thought.
And it gives us this gift of a quote from Awkwafina’s Peik Lin, on what to say to someone who ever tries to play a game of psychological chicken with you: “Bok-bok, bitch.”