It’s been a long way back for Michelle Yeoh. The Malaysian Chinese action star who gained renown for her stunt work on a string of popular Hong Kong action films in the 1980s entered a new pantheon when she played the main love interest in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 1997. It was a movie where people glided through the landscapes of China and spun proverbs. It was as if David Lean directed The Matrix, but instead of a frumpy, aged man and heavy CGI, it was the work of an unknown director named Ang Lee and the female leads that carried the film. But it was Michelle Yeoh’s performance, filled with manic restlessness and fierce action work, that redefined what an Asian actress could accomplish on the silver screen.
Now, 21 years later, she’s reintroduced to a new generation of American audiences as the mother of the protagonist’s (Rachel, played by Constance Wu) love interest in Crazy Rich Asians. Once again, she steals the show.
Truthfully, Crazy Rich Asians is an overblown movie. It panders too much to the most trodden of movie clichés. There’s a last-minute proposal on an airplane. The plot points are telegraphed from the first twenty minutes from the movie. There’s a side plot that is dropped in halfway through only to be punted later. You could walk halfway out of the movie and still reasonably guess where the rest of the story crawls too. It’s predictable; it’s boring.
However, Yeoh is anything but. She plays the mother of the Young family, who swims in old money. As a lead, she’s imposing, and grips the movie from the get go with a darkly funny opening sequence (the best set piece in the entire movie, really) when she and her family arrive at a prestigious London hotel, dragging mud and rain through the lobby, only to be turned away by a trio of plainly prejudiced staff members. The act continues in its familiar arc, until news arrives that their hotel is now under the ownership of the family they just turned back. Horrified, they look to make amends.
Instead, Yeoh’s character is already halfway to the elevator. She flippantly gazes back at the hotel manager, and gives a triumphant smirk. It’s vengeful, but it’s vengeance well earned.
And if there’s anything the movie does well, it’s that it knows what it wants to say. It notes the cultural gap between Asian Americans and Asians, something every first generation Asian American can relate to. It twists the idea that Asian men are merely background characters, using Henry Golding as a charming, if a bit empty, leading man. And more than anything, it’s a film that embraces the contemporary and proclaims its superiority.
In this sense, Crazy Rich Asians is a movie of its time, with a smug Oriental twist. As a foreigner, Rachel is greeted with brooding hostility from the proud nationals. She’s scolded for pursuing her happiness, “An American concept,” snorts Yeoh’s character. She’s treated suspiciously by hawking people and receives subtle hints her kind isn’t welcome here. It’s a movie that comments on the current race relations in America, but covers it up in dazzling production designs and bawdy romcom humor.
And between Yeoh’s icy performance and the over the top flamboyant settings of the movie, it makes the phrase “Make America Great Again” seem more insecure than fiery. During a luncheon at a sickeningly ostentatious mansion, the wealthy hosts chidingly tell their kids to be economical. “Don’t waste your food, there are kids starving in America.” It’s a moment of recognition that the movies pounces on: Something special is happening in Asia, and not enough people are noticing.
So for Yeoh, she’s once again at the forefront of a rethinking that can redefine Hollywood. With Crouching Tiger, it was the belief that an Asian actress could lead a successful action film. With Crazy Rich Asians, it’s the belief that an all Asian cast can lead a #1 box office hit.
And while the movie isn’t as crazy as it wants to be, it certainly cozies up to its “rich” pronouncement — it’s expected to top the box office for the second straight weekend with a decline of only 6 percent in second weekend sales, an astonishing achievement for any film. Thanks to the success of the film, there are already talks of a planned sequel with Mama Young once again in the centerfold. Expect her to be back, airborne and above it all, ready to draw blood as Asia’s re-anointed leading lady.
William Wang is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.