“Crazy Rich Asians,” currently topping the box office, officially has the latitude to say it’s a hit with all sorts of audiences. The film break barriers, provides romantic escapism and includes Asian jokes that go for broke, like “Two girls, one cup of noodles.” Ahem. But for a lot of Asian viewers, it’s more than wild fun: It’s also an emotional liberation.
It turns out that the movie, the first studio film that puts an Asian-American story at its center, is making people unexpectedly cry. Asian viewers are saying it provided something very specific they didn’t even realize they were longing for until they saw it. The “it” is simply seeing Asians portrayed as human beings beyond hurtful stereotypes, in ways that make Asians feel proud to be Asian.
A Twitter search of “Crazy Rich Asians crying” turns up a lot Jessicas and Sophies ― and also a number of Peters and Justins ― tweeting that they’re not quite sure why, but “I’m not crying, you’re crying.”
Even those who are more than au fait with the concept of the power of representation are saying they got emotional.
Phil Yu, also known as Angry Asian Man ― also known as the last person you might think would tear up ― shared some of his emotions after watching the film.
He said he was struck by the group date scene in which lead characters Nick and Rachel, played by Henry Golding and Constance Wu, go out for satay and beers. It’s a conventional rom-com group date scene, at a food stall in Singapore, where scion Nick will introduce Rachel to his initially disapproving mother and the rest of his family.
“I’ve cried at multiple different points over several viewings,” Yu said in an email. “I definitely get teary-eyed during some of the more signature emotional moments, but the weird one that stands out for me is the first time I saw it. Near the beginning of the movie, right after the hawker centre food scene, when Rachel puts her arms around Nick while they’re driving with Colin and Araminta in the jeep. This simple moment set off something in me. A feeling like, this is really happening, and these beautiful Asian people are unapologetically at the center.”
This idea of Asians being the centered viewer also resonated with R.O. Kwon, the author of the recently released novel “The Incendiaries.” She described the significance of the mahjong scene between Rachel and Nick’s mom, Eleanor, played by Michelle Yeoh. Kwon said she found it moving that Asians were targeted as the clear audience ― that the movie presumed viewers could be fluent in the rules of mahjong.
I was choking up during the whole movie. I wasn’t at all really expecting that. I understood it would be meaningful, but I don’t think I fully acknowledged how hard it was and what it meant to not have had this.
“People who do know about mahjong could be centered as viewers. They weren’t explaining what was going on with mahjong. It’s little things like that,” Kwon said. “I was choking up during the whole movie. I wasn’t at all really expecting that. I understood it would be meaningful, but I don’t think I fully acknowledged how hard it was and what it meant to not have had this.”
She added that the speaking parts in general struck her as extraordinary.
“The talking itself just killed me. I’ve lost track the number of times Asians are mute in movies,” she said. “Seeing Asians in a Hollywood movie just walking around being human. They weren’t being killed in the first three minutes.”
Kwon’s point highlights the fact that Asian actors had 3.9 percent of speaking roles in American films in 2015, a media diversity study found, yet accounted for 5.8 percent of the population in 2017, according to the Census Bureau ― a huge discrepancy from the 73.7 percent of roles for non-Hispanic whites, who made up 60.7 percent of the population.
Kwon also said she teared up at the end of the mahjong scene, when Rachel related her story of being a “nobody” with a single mom to Eleanor. Rachel walks away from the game to her mother, and they leave together ― but not before Rachel’s mom sends a message with a stare that asserts an upper hand.
“I loved when Rachel’s mother looks back. The stare-off they have and her tremendous love for Rachel. It’s in the force of her glare.”
Kwon said other scenes depicting strong family ties also made her tear up.
“I cried at the wedding when Nick interacted with his grandmother. The love was so clear between them. I think it just goes back to seeing Asian people being human beings.”
That viewers are getting emotional over seeing Asians simply being depicted as actual members of the human race is likely rooted in Asians’ often being relegated to limited tropes in media, according to a 2017 study. These archetypes include the foreigner, the villain, the emasculated man and the exoticized woman.
“It is pretty damn refreshing to see all stripes of characters being played by Asian actors. Not just villains or sidekicks or best friends. All of it,” Yu said.
The movie has sparked discussion online about the emotional journey of rejecting and reclaiming one’s identity. HuffPost Asian Voices editor Kimberly Yam prompted a viral discussion over the weekend by sharing her own emotional story about the film’s significance.
“I think Asian-American viewers are getting emotional while watching this movie because it evokes something deeply familiar,” Yu said. “There’s a recognition. This story and genre are well-tread territory, but watching Asian characters inhabit this world ― falling in love, cracking jokes, going shirtless ― and seeing yourself reflected in even the smallest way, maybe for the first time ever? That’s powerful, and sometimes you didn’t even know it was something you were missing. Until you start crying! It’s a release.”
Comedian Joel Kim Booster said that he didn’t tear up but that he recognizes that the emotion comes from a burden Asian-American viewers might not even recognize they carry.
To have to work to find yourself in narratives that aren’t necessarily about or for you ... I think it’s just like this huge weight that we all stopped noticing we had, suddenly being lifted.
“I think we don’t realize the emotional labor of not seeing yourself in 90 percent of the media you consume,” he said in a direct message. “To have to work to find yourself in narratives that aren’t necessarily about or for you, and then to suddenly have this thing where most of that work is taken away, I think it’s just like this huge weight that we all stopped noticing we had, suddenly being lifted.”
Besides its heavy emotional weight, the movie’s jokes that center Asians are also being pointed to as profound. Viewers are saying there is a significance in seeing Asian comedians on a big screen when they are typically reduced to being the punchlines. Even worse, the Asian community is often depicted as being devoid of emotion ― from the Oscars to the Harvard admissions office.
Rachel makes self-aware jokes about being so Chinese because she is an economics professor and is lactose intolerant. Her friend, played by Awkwafina, jokes that Rachel looks like a “slutty Ebola virus” in her makeover scene.
Will Choi, the founder of the Asian AF comedy show, says that the stereotype that Asians aren’t funny is rooted in our simply not being depicted as multifaceted people.
“The movie is breaking stereotypes, but at the same time, it’s not,” he said. “The reason why it’s breaking a stereotype is because, in the past, there weren’t opportunities for different types of Asian people to shine. Asians are funny.”
Choi said he found the targeted humor pretty comical.
“In another movie, it would be offensive to make fun of Asians,” he said. “I’m lactose intolerant, and I thought it was funny. In this context where there are all of these different Asian people playing different types of Asian people, things can be said, and it works. We can make fun of each other. Normally there’s just that one Asian person, and when it is a joke, it can come across as offensive or stereotypical.”
Booster’s take on the film’s humor boils down to one thing. “And as to why the movie is funny: Awkwafina. That’s all I have to say. I just think there is something effortlessly funny about [her] as a person, and she’s one of those rarified talents who can project that through a camera onto a screen and directly into the part of my brain that makes me laugh,” he said.