Despite its trappings as a rom-com, “Crazy Rich Asians” is also quite the love letter to mothers. Embodied with maternal caution by Tan Kheng Hua, Kerry Chu is the unsung heroine of Jon M. Chu’s film adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s bestseller, which revolves around the complicated love life of her only daughter, Rachel (Constance Wu). Kerry may be a supporting player in her daughter’s story, but the actress maximizes her early screen-time by warning her daughter about the customs of overseas Chinese families before the latter ventures to Singapore, the childhood home of her boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding). The impact Kerry has on Rachel reverberates through the third act, as the protagonist navigates the prejudice of Nick’s Singaporean family, namely his upper-crust traditionalist Chinese mother.
For many Asian Americans, “Crazy Rich Asians” resonates in ways that extend beyond its plot. Although I don’t possess pockets of wealth or estates and I am not Chinese, I recognize general quirks in the matriarchs of “Crazy Rich Asians” that speak to my Vietnamese background. Not unlike my parents, Nick’s mother interrogates her son’s desire to go against her wishes by marrying the American Rachel. Nick’s grandmother Su Yi asks her adult grandson if he’s hungry the same way my grandmother’s (or my bà nội) would probe me, “You hungry?” — and then she would bestow upon me a bowl of pho noodles.
While my family were not communal dumpling-makers like the Young family, a mom or grandmother making culturally-significant meals like spring rolls or pho noodles is very recognizable act of cultural affection.
Since the 1993 film adaptation of Amy Tan’s “Joy Luck Club” over 25 years ago, there has not been another Hollywood production built around a predominantly Asian cast until now, marking “Crazy Rich Asians” as a watershed moment with stakes. And like the “Joy Luck Club,” “Crazy Rich Asians” illustrates the intergenerational anxiety between Chinese mothers and their Americanizing children.
Having grown up under the net of filial piety, I can testify how suffocated a child can feel by parental expectations. I think back to the “Joy Luck Club” when an adult June breaks down to her mother because she can’t live up to her mother’s wishes. It’s not that the children are ingrates, though some mothers may feel that way, but a kid like Nick would experiment with self-actualization beyond the umbrella of their family unit. In “Crazy Rich Asians,” when Nick tells his mother he needs space to find himself in New York City, and she replies, “Is that an American accent I hear?,” I saw my own experience.
As meddling matriarch Eleanor Young, Michelle Yeoh imposes a fierce dynamism into her role. It would have been easy to peg Eleanor and her traditionalist mindset as the film’s “villain,” but while antagonistic, her meddling comes from a place of cultural self-preservation present in many Asian parents. It breaks her heart that her only son is distancing himself from his Chinese birthright in favor of the American ideals of independence.
Expanding on a single line of Eleanor’s line from the source material, Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim’s screenplay devotes more time to address Eleanor’s insecurities and sacrifices as a Chinese mother. For Eleanor, it was a privilege to forgo her law education to raise a family, which is a shock to the Americanized Rachel, who grew up in a country that celebrates independence and being untethered to family obligations. Even the elder Eleanor isn’t exempted from filial piety, being at the whims of a tough mother-in-law who outranks her.
With reverence, Rachel heeds Eleanor’s tale of woe, even if she can’t fully empathize with it. But later, in a desperate move to keep Nick in Singapore, Eleanor and her mother-in-law wield the checkered past of Rachel’s mother as a vicious tool to split Nick and Rachel up.
In a scene created just for the film, Rachel challenges Eleanor to a game of mahjong — which Rachel’s mother tutored her in — and offers a declaration to Eleanor that is equal parts an admonishment and a gesture of respect. She tells Eleanor that she has rejected Nick’s recent marriage proposal because she respects that he shouldn’t have to sacrifice his mother (and his family, his life, his culture) to marry her. Rachel respects Eleanor’s self-preservation as a Chinese mother, but she doesn’t back down from taking her to task for using her own mother’s past against Rachel’s future.
On a second viewing, I teared up when Rachel defended her mother’s honor before Eleanor by affirming that she’s just fine leaving Singapore and going back to America with her immigrant mother, thankyouverymuch. I suddenly remembered how my mother, a Vietnam War refugee who braved a sea of risks, overcame obstacles in order to reach America to have me.
There were only more waterworks when Kerry and Eleanor lock eyes from a distance, across a clattering mahjong parlor, both aware of what has transpired. As women who are classes and seas apart, the gaze insinuates a grudge, since Eleanor has selfishly capitalized on Kerry’s struggles for personal gain, but the gaze also constitutes an unspoken solidarity of maternal sacrifice despite their contrasting histories.
In fact, it is partially Rachel’s devotion to her mother that helps Eleanor accept of change of heart when it comes to welcoming the Chus into her Singaporean family unit. Eleanor’s transgression, as acknowledged, isn’t easily forgivable, though she has begun to take the steps to reform herself, willing herself to be better for child, just as Kerry Chu has done with her own layered struggles.
“Crazy Rich Asians” is in theaters now.