crazy rich asians starving in america
Wye Mun Goh (Ken Jeong) in Crazy Rich Asians ( Jon M. Chu, Warner Bros., 2018)
Stories & Ideas

Thu 01 Oct 2020

Crazy Rich Asians – Children starving in America

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ACMI Profile

Blake Howard

Australian film critic and award-winning podcaster behind Michael Mann’s One Heat Minute

With just a line, Crazy Rich Asians takes aim at American exceptionalism.

Crazy Rich Asians (2018) is a 21st century all Asian rom-com – adapted from Kevin Kwan's novel of the same name – that was a double threat box office juggernaut and critical darling. It's a rom-com with specific representation and a universal appeal that revitalises the genre. It followed the rules and changed the game. Rachel (Constance Wu) and her beau Nick (Henry Golding) travel to Singapore for a friend's wedding. On the trip Rachel, takes the opportunity to visit her former classmate Peik Lin Goh (Awkwafina) at her family's insanely opulent home. The house, to paraphrase the pride of Peik Lin's mother Neenah (Koh Chieng Mun), is Versailles by way of Donald Trump's golden toilet. Visiting this brash palace illuminates the varieties of crazy and rich (and combinations of the two) Asian families we'll be exposed to in the film. The other, Nick's family, carry themselves as royalty, and Michelle Yeoh's graceful and glacial Eleanor ensures that the audience is immediately in awe.

Seated for a banquet lunch, Rachel meets Ken Jeong's Wye Mun Goh, Peik Lin's father. Jeong starts in pure caricature mode, feigning a stereotypical and likely offensive accent at the outset, pacing at the head of the table, holding court in an opulent couture tracksuit. Rachel looks confused, and the Goh family's disproval eventually forces him to relent, quit the fake out and reveal his American English fluency. Jeong's Wye Mun Goh speaks in a fluent American English accent acquired from studying abroad in the United States. That entire riff in the scene was improvisational. Jeong credits director John Chu for allowing him to bait and switch the audience with this flourish of The Hangover's Mr Chow-style accent. Jeong calls Mr Chow a "meta-joke on the stereotype where you're actually making fun of it. You're playing something so hard where usually the Asian is very passive. I've never done a live-action role in an accent since The Hangover because… you're just going so hard that you can't even stop it." It's propagating Asian stereotypes, to refute them, and you'll have to judge if you feel that they've been successful.

Here in this moment, Jeong delivers a beautiful barb; eat up because "There's a lot of children starving in America". The line flows past with the same detachment and disdain that he criticises his son for an obsession with K-Pop starlets or pressures him to look at Rachel as an emblem of American Asian beauty. It's a sniper shot of socio-political commentary, briefly bursting the bubble of American exceptionalism and saviour behaviour worldwide. It was poised in the middle of Trump's term, as racial progress regressed to turbulent levels that echoed Civil Rights-era unrest; so in the middle of this flagrant and exotic rom-com, it's nice to see that it's aware that it's a rare unicorn in Hollywood. It won't go down without taking every shot.

– Blake Howard

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