Dumplings Over Flowers

K-drama and J-drama fans, stop me when it rings a bell: A lower-class girl enters the glitzy world of the wealthy elite where she clashes with the pretentious snobs who bully and intimidate her. There’s a glamorous romantic foe, a scheming rich mother, and a group of suave bros being bros. Yes, I immediately thought of the popular Japanese television drama Hana Yori Dango, and its Korean remake Boys Over Flowers, too, as Crazy Rich Asians rolled into its second act. As many tropes as Crazy Rich Asians shares with its rom-com forbears, it also makes quite a few nods to the hugely popular K-drama craze. These dramas are often centered around wide class divides, with a scrappy heroine going up against wealthy, upper class villains who are standing in the way of love, career, happiness, or all of the above.

It’s most apparent when the film reaches impossibly soapy heights, like during the two-pronged dramatic reveal at the Colin and Araminta’s bachelor and bachelorette parties, respectively. Just as Nick shows Colin the ring he intends to propose to Rachel with, much to Colin’s concern, Rachel learns from Nick’s ex Amanda (Jing Lusi) that she is the one keeping Nick from assuming his rightful place at the head of his father’s billion-dollar company. The reveal ends in — what else — a bloody, gutted fish left as a warning to Rachel on her bed. The sequence provides a sudden jolt to Crazy Rich Asians, which until now has been lazily cruising by on wealth and food porn. But it also becomes a dangerous turning point for the film, as Crazy Rich Asians teeters on the brink of all-out soap opera madness. But thankfully, thanks to the subversion of one particularly prevalent trope of K-dramas, the movie takes steps beyond its rom-com structure.

One of the most common tropes of these dramas is the character of the evil stepmother who only cares about status, wealth, and power. But Yeoh’s complex and multi-faceted matriarch Eleanor Young is much more than that.

She wasn’t like that originally. In Kevin Kwan’s novel, Eleanor was a much more shallow antagonist who schemes against our heroine from the beginning, and goes to horrible depths to maintain her son’s wealth and status. But when Yeoh signed on to the film, she told Chu, according to IndieWire, that she refused to take the role if the film portrayed Eleanor as deliberately underhanded. “‘I can’t be mustache-twirling,” Chu recounts Yeoh saying. “I need to make this person a full human being, and I’m going to defend our culture in the best way possible, and you defend the American culture, and we’ll let the audience decide.’”

In the film, Eleanor seems willing to give Rachel a chance — at first. Their first meeting in the bustling kitchen of the Young estate is a blast to watch, as Rachel makes all the wrong moves with an already suspicious Eleanor. Rachel gives Eleanor an awkward hug, Rachel stumbles between calling her Mrs. Young or the more familiar Auntie, Rachel mistakenly boasts about her career passions. But Eleanor understands. Rachel is American.

That brief meeting essentially dooms Rachel in Eleanor’s eyes. Rachel is not just undeserving of Nick, but she’s not deserving of occupying the same space as Eleanor. Because Eleanor had gone through exactly what she was putting Rachel through with her own mother-in-law, Ah Ma (The Joy Luck Club’s Lisa Lu). When the Young family sits down to make dumplings (a culturally specific scene that Chu added to the film), Crazy Rich Asians deepens our understanding of Eleanor. She was not Ah Ma’s choice to marry Nick’s father, and thus had to prove herself worthy by sacrificing her law career and even her relationship with Nick — and yet was never able to truly earn Ah Ma’s approval, as evidenced by Ah Ma’s terse dismissal of Eleanor’s handmade dumplings and by Eleanor’s glinting emerald ring that Nick’s father had given her in place of the family ring. It adds another layer to Eleanor’s harsh insult to Rachel. “You will never be enough,” Eleanor coldly says, cupping Rachel’s face, referring to her class, her behavior, and her selfish American ideals. But Eleanor may well be talking about herself.

The Devil Plays Mahjong

The game begins. After Rachel unloads her woes on her Singaporean college friend Peik Lin (a hilarious, scene-stealing Awkwafina), the two of them come to a conclusion that Eleanor’s put-down was not a defeat but a challenge. And just as smoothly as Crazy Rich Asians entered K-drama territory, it slides back into rom-com land, blessing us with a Devil Wears Prada-worthy makeover scene, complete with a Stanley Tucci-channeling Nico Santos. The graceful way that the film navigates genres is not only entertaining as hell but feels like another cross-cultural achievement where American rom-coms and East Asian dramas form the perfect marriage.

Of course, unlike the standard rom-com makeover scene, the sequence in Crazy Rich Asians isn’t meant to shape a shy, unfashionable Rachel into society’s ideal woman, but to empower her. With the help of Peik Lin’s gaudy, nouveau riche family (a delightful Chieng Mun Koh, a less delightful Ken Jeong) and Nick’s cousin Oliver (Santos), Rachel finds the strength and the perfect dress to face the wolves at Colin and Araminta’s wedding.

What follows is power move after power move — in between moving shows of love between Rachel and Nick and a wedding ceremony that lives up to the “crazy rich” title — with Rachel impressing the Aunties and Nick’s friends (“She’s a fighter,” Colin remarks admiringly to Nick), and getting under Eleanor’s skin. But the film pulls another dramatic reveal on you just as you begin to settle into the celebratory atmosphere. Crazy Rich Asians reverts back to its soapy trappings when Eleanor reveals that her private detective has found that Rachel’s dead father is very much alive, and that she was born out of an affair. The film very nearly suffers from the soapy twists, all of which come straight out of Kwan’s novel. But Chu doesn’t seem as interested in playing up the drama as he is in what comes of it: a touching reconciliation between Rachel and her mother Kerry (Tan Kheng Hua), and a glimpse of Kerry’s immigrant struggles. For all of the film’s dedication to wealth porn, at its heart, the immigrant experience remains essential.

It’s Rachel’s status as the daughter of an immigrant that she proudly claims in the climactic stand-off with Eleanor at, fittingly, a mahjong table. Easily the best, most riveting scene in the film, the mahjong game is another film-only addition by Chu that perfectly hones in on the story’s core exploration of Asian-American identity. The entire scene is loaded with meaning and tension, as the mahjong tiles clatter and exchange hands like a ballet, or better yet, like a battle. The game isn’t simply over Nick or even over Rachel earning Eleanor’s approval, but over Rachel’s reconciling the two sides of her cultural identity. Rachel reveals that she made the painful decision to turn down Nick’s proposal and gives up the tile that Eleanor needs to win, leaving her with the victory and with devastating kicker that when Nick ultimately marries a woman worthy of him, “it will be because of me. A poor, raised-by-a-single-mother, low class, immigrant nobody.” With that, Rachel leaves and shows her tiles: she had the winning hand all along.

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