Warning: This article contains spoilers for Crazy Rich Asians.
Crazy Rich Asians is the movie that people can’t stop buzzing about this summer, but there was one climactic scene in particular which really stood out.
In the build-up to the dramatic moment in question, Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) breaks up with her boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding) after a heated confrontation involving his mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh) and grandmother Shang Su Yi (Lisa Lu). Nick tries to change Rachel’s mind, and proposes to her.
The outcome of that proposal isn’t revealed until Eleanor meets with Rachel at a mahjong parlour.
During this show-stopping scene, the pair play an intense game of mahjong while Rachel tells Eleanor that she turned down the proposal, and that Eleanor should remember that if Nick ends up marrying somebody who Eleanor approves of, it was because of Rachel’s sacrifice.
The game of mahjong ends, and Rachel walks away.
One of the brilliant parts about how the scene is written is the film never explicitly explains the rules of mahjong. It doesn’t treat mahjong (a Chinese game) as foreign or exotic, and lets the game play out in the same way as the poker demonstration (an American game) at the start of the movie.
The audience can infer the result of the mahjong match based on the conversation about Nick between Rachel and Eleanor, which serves as a parallel to the action.
If you’re still unsure, here’s what happened in a nutshell.
Mahjong is a tile-based game which requires players to make a complete 14-tile set and take turns in discarding and picking up tiles in an attempt to achieve that.
Eleanor completes her set and wins the match, showing her hand.
But afterwards, Rachel shows her hand – and reveals that she actually let Eleanor win, discarding a winning hand and giving up the tile that she knew Eleanor needed to claim victory. It parallels Rachel’s point about sacrificing her own happiness with Nick.
“It says something about what the normative status of Hollywood is and how the media we see sometimes sets the standards, so it’s good that we see other pieces of content that sets a different normative standard,” Constance Wu said to Digital Spy.
“In a scene with a poker game – like we do have at the beginning – nobody explains which hand is higher than the other one because it’s assumed.
“We didn’t explain what’s going on in the mahjong scene, but I also think it’s in a way translated because it’s supposed to be a parallel and metaphorical to what was going on in the scene and in the movie.“
Director Jon M Chu added: “We wanted to play to Rachel’s strength. We knew that she was going to be teaching game theory.
“There are many different games across the world. Many have similar theories, similar ideas, but have a different physicality. So the parallel between poker and mahjong was there, of course.”
The metaphors and the significance of the scene run deeper. The scene is the culmination of everything Rachel has gone through during her time in Singapore.
“Crazy Rich Asians is not actually Rachel and Nick’s story,” Chu explained. “It’s Rachel’s journey of finding her own self-worth, and we always described it as the dragon that gives birth within. This steel spine grows out of the destruction of all the attacks that are happening to her there.
“We knew that Rachel had to walk away from that scene okay to not have the boy. We knew that this was not about getting the guy. This was about her own self-worth to walk away. The movie should be able to end at that point. And that’s what we bet on.”
In one of several subtle touches, Rachel sits at the West seat while Eleanor sits East – referencing that Rachel is Asian American and Eleanor is Asian and how, as they face off against each other, cultural differences have played a significant part in their clash over the course of the movie.
“This is what is happening in my head my whole life growing up,” Chu shared.
“Which side am I? Am I the American side of, make yourself happy and follow your passions? Or am I the Chinese side of, sacrifice your own happiness for your family?
“This is the thing that we all have been dealing with. To physicalise it in these two amazing actors – and not have them move around but just stare at each other and play this silent game to the rhythm of picking up and discarding tiles, it’s all done through their eyes – to me, this was the mental mahjong game that I’ve been playing in my head since I was a kid.”
Wu added of the scene: “It was very raw and hard for me to do. It doesn’t feel good when somebody thinks that you shouldn’t feel good about who you are – even if you do already feel good about it.
“It’s painful, and so to stand up for it when you’re in pain is really brave. It’s brave because you’re scared, and I think that sort of touched on all those nerves for me when I was shooting it.”
Crazy Rich Asians is out now in the UK and the US. Book tickets here.
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