It’s been 25 years since The Joy Luck Club featured one of Hollywood’s rare films with an all-Asian cast. The last time an Asian actor was nominated for an Academy Award was Rinko Kikuchi in Babel, a dozen years ago, for her non-speaking role as Supporting Actress.
Michelle Yeoh could help change this long drought for Asian actors. In the most recent of her many legendary roles, she plays a demanding family matriarch in Crazy Rich Asians, the movie that shattered expectations and box office records by earning $238 million worldwide since its premiere earlier this summer.
From her entrance in the opening scene, Yeoh’s Eleanor Young sets the stage for her character’s determination. One rainy evening, she is turned away from checking into a top London hotel. It only takes one phone call for her to return triumphantly — her husband has just made a late night real estate purchase, and she would now like to be shown to her room in the hotel that her family now owns.
The next time we meet Eleanor, it’s back in Singapore, on her turf. Her son has arrived from America with his the woman he intends to marry. Nick Young (Henry Golding) has brought his Asian-American girlfriend, Rachel (Constance Wu) to meet the family while he’s home for his best friend’s wedding. As if meeting your prospective in-laws isn’t already intimidating, Rachel has only recently learned that Nick’s family is insanely wealthy and powerful. When Eleanor finally meets Rachel, her gracious warmth is chilled several degrees of toward the young woman who’s there to claim her son’s heart.
Yeoh deftly conveys the bonds of maternal tenderness but all the same remains amusingly aloof. She informs Nick she’s going to see about having some soup made. As she glides into her kitchen, you see how orderly she wants and needs her life to things. This is her home, her kingdom, and she’s suddenly faced with an interloper.
But Yeoh is never a cliche of a mother-in-law-to-be. She adds layers and depth and dimension to Eleanor that raises her far above the typical bitchy villain mother dragon that a less sensitive actress might have made of this situation. What you see instead is Yeoh exude a higher level of maternal instinct to seek a balance between being a protective mother to her son and mentor to the young woman who has much to learn about traditional Asian culture. At least that’s the ultimate goal. Getting there will inevitably involve some clashes and collisions along the way.
Yeoh, who built a career in Asia that equals any her male peers, has proven that she can kick ass as well as anyone. She shattered barriers in the action genre eons ago with films like Twin Warriors, Reign of Assassins, and of course Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.
What she does in Crazy Rich Asians is a different sort of sparring. Here she delivers a performance where her strength and fortitude come not from feats of physical prowess, but from the restrained and formidable tone with which she speaks. Without a single punch thrown, Eleanor asserts her power with grace and intellect as she sizes up Rachel to determine if her son’s new partner can live up to her own standards.
The simmering conflict boils over when Rachel gets lost in the sprawling Young house and meets Eleanor unexpectedly on the stairs. When Yeoh and I spoke, she joked, “If that were an action film, I would have pushed her down the stairs.” What we see instead is a simple but just as harsh, as she let Rachel know she “will never be enough.” Rachel is guided by passion, Eleanor doesn’t approve, and that’s that. As the embodiment of so many Asian mothers, the finality of her word to preserve her family, she struck a chord familiar to me. This was a women I knew. She was my mum, my aunts, and other determined women from my past. For Eleanor, family, culture, tradition, and parents making sacrifices for their children have always been the most important values in her life, and she has no intention to not accept disruption easily.
Soon after in Crazy Rich Asians, we’re presented with the film’s most searing scene and emotional moment that warrants consideration for Yeoh in the Best Supporting Actress category. The much talked-about mahjong scene.
It’s a showdown in which not a single hair is tussled. It’s a dramatic turning point essential to the film’s eventual resolution, and what a scene it is. Whether or not you understand how to play mahjong, you’ll have no trouble understanding what’s happening here.
Through the sound design and Myron Kerstein’s editing, director Jon M. Chu uses the movements of the tiles and closeups of the player’s hands to ratchet the tension in a game of strategy between two impressive women. But it’s Rachel who holds the ace, not Eleanor. She makes Eleanor realize the consequences of her actions and what effect that could have on her son. She has the winning tile, and as she places it down, she forfeits the game to Eleanor. Rachel gives up Nick and that “Crazy Rich” lifestyle in favor of keeping her own self-worth and staying true to who she is. She wins by walking away.
Cut to Yeoh’s Young, who realizes Rachel’s words are painfully true. She sees what’s being sacrificed. It’s the pivotal moment in the film that enables Rachel to earn Eleanor’s hard-won respect. It will ultimately be enough for Eleanor to pass on her emerald green ring to her future daughter-in-law. Cue the tears! After all that emotional terror, it’s a romantic comedy after all.
Let’s not forget the charming ensemble interplay delivered by Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Nico Santos, and Ken Jeong. Their chemistry provides the film’s essential backdrop for the battle between two lovely rivals for a family’s destiny.
Audiences will be talking about Crazy Rich Asians for years to come. So movie lovers, critics, and voters, please consider Michelle Yeoh’s performance in Crazy Rich Asians toward another sort of destiny.