Director: Jon M. Chu
Screenplay: Peter Chiarelli, Adele Lim
Starring: Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Gemma Chan, Awkwafina, Nico Santos, Lisa Lu, Ken Jeong, Michelle Yeoh
Runtime: 121 Minutes
As has been pushed by the extensively lavish marketing campaign, Crazy Rich Asians is based on the 2013 bestselling novel by Kevin Kawn, and the first major Hollywood studio production to feature a majority Asian American cast in a modern setting since The Joy Luck Club in 1993. That’s a long time to pass between productions that shouldn’t really still be referred to in the west as “event” movies in an increasingly globalised cinematic landscape, but it is something to be celebrated given its setting and the context on its narrative.
The story follows Chinese-American professor Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), who travels to Singapore with her boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding) to attend the wedding of Nicks best friend. Unbeknownst to Rachel, however, Nick is the estranged heir to Singapore’s most obscenely wealthy dynasty of industrialists and capitalists, and is soon faced with the brunt of Nick’s mother Eleanor Sung-Young (Michelle Yeoh) taking an instant disliking to a woman from another background.
Although playing safely within the tropes of the romantic-comedy genre and its long-established foundations marinated in situational confusion and deception, as well as all the Nora Ephron inspired focusing on those living “comfortably”, it’s mostly down to the nature of its cultural context that adds a fresher flavour to the in-between spaces.
It isn’t just that Rachel comes from a less well-off background that Nick’s more elite family members and social circles have a disdain for, but the fact that she is distinctly an Asian-American born and raised after her mother came to America. That there is somehow perceived to be a detachment from her cultural roots because she was not raised in a way more accustomed to the family honour-oriented culture of Chinese family life.
It would be fair enough to say that this is absolutely boiling down a far more complicated issue for the sake of suiting itself to a familiar western framework narrative for global audiences, and that clichés are checked off surrounding the culture as much as they are the generic conventions of the set-up. There’s also its fetishist focus on the wealth and popular culture of a country in a way that still feels distinctly western in some form instead of maybe exploring it’s deeper roots for a wider audience that feels like a missed opportunity with a platform this large to work on.
That being said, as far as rom-com’s go (circa 90s/early-00s) it pretty much works as a very light piece of entertaining fiction. The main characters are well drawn with terrific performances, especially from Michelle Yeoh who gets a lot of mileage out of such a minimally vocal role, and even if the supporting cast is mostly a collection of stock types, it’s wonderful to see well-known actors such as Gemma Chan, Awkwafina, Nico Santos, Lisa Lu and Ken Jeong tearing up the screen in positions where they might normally be positioned as “the Asian one”.
Director Jon M. Chu also does a fantastic job visualising the whole thing, this is by far and away the best film he’s ever made. It’s decently paced if running a little too long in the second act, but his attention to the extravagant sequences and set pieces of parties and the central wedding are pretty glorious, particularly when we get a glimpse into the new money world of Nick’s more obnoxious cousins on a stag weekend – and Brian Tyler’s score is admittedly fantastic and swooning when it needs to be.
If there feels like a major misstep beyond its mostly unoriginal storyline and sequence of events, and the juggling of a few too many supporting characters who don’t all get real resolutions, it’s a plotline involving Nick’s cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan) and her husband Michael (Pierre Png). Their relationship is strained by Michael’s desire to build something for himself and Astrid’s extravagant spending habits she tries to hide in order to make him feel less bad about himself.
Without going too far into the twist in their tale, the resolution it lands on feels more than a little miscalculated for something that eventually boils down to “stop making me feel guilty for being so wealthy”. Mistaking the virtues of imperialist capitalism for a feminist rallying cry in the same way that Sex & the City 2 vastly misjudged the same assumption for believing them to be one and the same.
Quibbles, predictability and admitted acts of appropriation aside, Crazy Rich Asians works solidly as a romantic-comedy for fulfilling exactly those two requirements – with a game cast, strong direction and a refreshing focus from Hollywood onto a culture that isn’t its own, and one that doesn’t feel like it is catering solely for the sake of box-office wealthy.