Thirty seconds. That’s how long it took to shed my first tears at an advance screening of Crazy Rich Asians last week. Ensconced in my VIP seat with a pint of beer – others ordered celebratory champagne, and even a prix fixe dinner for two – I held my breath as the room darkened. In the first 15 seconds, the litany of opening credits rolled by. Then, a song. It starts with jazzy woodwinds that rise to a crescendo of horns. A final few staccato blasts of trumpets introduce the sultry singer. She’s singing in Mandarin. Crazy Rich Asians had barely begun and my waterworks had arrived.
Since the publicity machine for the film kicked into high gear earlier this summer, I’ve been wondering, not if, but when I’d cry while watching CRA. For a certain segment of Southeast Asian-hyphenates such as myself, it was almost beside the point whether CRA would be good or bad. (At its heart, the movie is a slickly produced rom-com, so your mileage may vary.) What mattered more was: How will it look? Will I see myself in it? How will it make me feel? I can report that it looks so Chinese, I do see myself in the on-screen parade of Asian hotties and I have all the feelings.
“When they do screenings, a lot of Asian-American people have this overwhelming urge to cry. And they don’t know exactly why,” Awkwafina told The Hollywood Reporter recently. The Ocean’s 8 and CRA star herself wasn’t immune to the film’s symbolic resonance, also telling THR she cried when shown some of her dailies on set. “I’ve never seen myself as a character in a movie.”
Of course, it’s not uncommon for films to have all-Asian casts – there’s a robust market for made-in-China-and-Hong-Kong productions in those locales. What CRA represents is the first Hollywood-backed, English-language, all-Asian cast since the immigrant tales of The Joy Luck Club in 1993. The joy in CRA is that the bigger picture is in wide focus: Anyone in the English-speaking world can follow along, albeit sometimes with the help of subtitles when characters occasionally delve into Chinese dialects. This was a movie intended for everyone about love, friendship and family in broad strokes, but also a movie, finally, for me.
The Mandarin opener by Jasmine Chen set the tone for me, a salvo that made clear the producers had thought through the emotional weight of the film right down to the details. Stacking the score with foreign-language originals and covers was the most obvious aesthetic choice. Others were more subtle. When the movie first shifts to Singapore, there’s an extended food court scene full of the hiss and sizzle of good food and good company. It was filmed more like a homecoming homage to the city’s great eating tradition, without a whiff of the usual exoticism. Elsewhere, mother figures at various points question the health of their offspring. The solution to these ills is Chinese herbal soup, obviously; they were innocuous gestures of familial love that cued laughs of recognition from a friend at the screening. Not all the fine touches involved food: In one of many scenes in which strapping lead Henry Golding goes shirtless, you can see a scar on his upper arm, a BCG vaccination scar common among Singaporeans and Malaysians. Leaving it visible in postproduction may have been unintentional, but it still meant something to someone whose family hails from the region.
From beginning to end, CRA played me like a Chinese kid learning piano. Those waterworks of mine climaxed in lockstep with the story. A pivotal scene evokes one of the most ubiquitous ballads of the millennium from a little band called Coldplay. The familiar strums of Yellow start up (pun much intended, according to a Quartz interview with director Jon M. Chu) but Chris Martin’s warble is replaced by the delicate Mandarin of Katherine Ho. As a pretty inadequate Cantonese speaker, I have no idea what she’s singing; that, again, is beside the point. The cover encapsulated that in-between feeling so frequently invoked by chroniclers of the hyphenated-Asian experience, of having feet in two different worlds, but firmly planted in neither. Here was the soundtrack to my youth remixed and grafted onto the first cinematic experience to capture an essential part of who I am. It was by no means perfect, but neither am I.
Cliff Lee is The Globe and Mail’s Books Editor