In Crazy Rich Asians, Gemma Chan commands her scenes in a captivating Grace Kelly-esque way. Her character Astrid possesses the It girl persona often seen in old Hollywood films—unobtainable in all their ethereal glory and admired solely from afar. In real life, the line between Gemma and Astrid is at first not easily distinguishable—serving as a testament to the filmmakers’ casting efforts. While she may emit that classic sepia-tone glamour cultivated in western films, Chan is also here to pave the way for Asian women in contemporary cinema. In her supporting role as Astrid Leong, Gemma Chan disrupts the narratives imposed on Asian women in popular culture.
Based on Kevin Kwan’s best-selling novel, Crazy Rich Asians follows New Yorker Rachel (Constance Wu) as she accompanies her boyfriend Nick (Henry Golding) to his best friend’s wedding in Singapore. There, Rachel learns that Nick’s family is among wealthiest in the country—and that he just so happens to be the most sought-after bachelor in Asia. Throughout the film, Rachel must contend with jealous socialites and Nick’s disapproving mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh). Set in the opulent world of the Singaporean ultra-rich, the film is the first mainstream American production in 25 years to star an all-Asian, and largely Asian American, leading cast.
In the film, Chan stars as Nick’s cousin and closest family confidant, Astrid. Dealing with the disintegration of her marriage to husband Michael (Pierre Png), Astrid finds herself at a crossroads in her seemingly picture-perfect life. But in the film, she grapples with the disillusionment of her marriage in a way that diverges from the novel.
Fair warning: spoilers ahead.
In the novel, Astrid struggles deeply with the unraveling of her marriage due to her husband’s own insecurities. The film takes a somewhat different approach. At the film’s press junket in Beverly Hills, Chan told me about the significance of the change in her character’s storyline.
“I spoke a lot with [director] Jon Chu about the Astrid storyline because I had read and loved the books, but that’s a book that’s several hundred pages long, and this is a movie that’s an hour and 45,” she added. “So things had to be streamlined, and I was happy with what they decided in the end.”
We’ve got Rachel, the proud-of-her-roots economics professor; Eleanor, the regal matriarch of the Young clan; and Astrid, the strong-willed socialite who chooses her own destiny. “You’ve got three really strong, independent-minded women at the backbone of this film. I think it’s great that all of these women—none of them are waiting to be saved by anyone else,” Chan said. “They come to save themselves in a way. It’s refreshing, and I think it’s overdue.”
Crazy Rich Asians disassembles a multitude of stereotypes, but perhaps most commanding is its depiction of Asian women. In pop culture, Asian women have long been relegated to sexualized and submissive tropes due to western exotification.
So what does she hope the film’s impact will be for Asian representation? “I hope that this is just the beginning. I hope that it opens the door for more diverse stories to be told,” Chan said. “I’d love to see and hear more stories in other genres as well, not just romantic comedy. I would love to see stories that aren’t even just from Asians, either.”
In the end, Chan hopes the film broadens the scope of narratives told involving Asians and other people of color.
“All minorities should be able to have their stories heard, and to feel that they have a right to make stories about their lives. I hope that it affects the treatment of Asians and minorities, so that it has a direct effect on representation in popular culture, and the way minorities are treated in life—whether they’re otherized or normalized, it has a direct impact on that.”
Crazy Rich Asians hits theaters on August 15th.