There is a lot at stake with “Crazy Rich Asians.”
Not only is it the second Hollywood studio film ever to feature an all-Asian cast, but the last time Hollywood brought an Asian-led story to the big screen, Bill Clinton had just been inaugurated as president of the United States. It’s been 25 years since “The Joy Luck Club” premiered in 1993, giving “Crazy Rich Asians” the burden of proving that a well-represented story told completely through Asian actors can again achieve box office success. It’s a tall order, but director Jon M. Chu proves he is up to the task, creating a film that ensures its all-Asian cast is a refreshing attraction but is secondary to the uproarious, heartwarming story and compelling characters.
Based on the best-selling novel by Kevin Kwan, the film is a classic fish-out-of-water story with a cultural twist. When Chinese-American New Yorker Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) flies with her Chinese-Singaporean boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding) to Singapore for his best friend’s wedding, she discovers that his family is part of Asia’s wealthy elite. There, she learns to navigate Singapore’s exclusive and lavish social scene, which includes catty socialites, a vindictive ex-girlfriend and Nick’s authoritative mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), who disapproves of Rachel’s outsider status.
In terms of romantic comedies, the tropes of impressing the potential in-laws and of a Cinderella rags-to-riches transformation are nothing new. But here, these superficial plot structures are imbued with depth. By exploring classic romantic comedy tropes through the lens of Singapore’s upper-class culture, the film brings a breath of fresh air to its genre while subverting Asian stereotypes.
Throughout the film, it is clear that the characters are not here to fit the mold of Asian roles commonly found in media. With long, panned shots of his often-unclothed body, Nick’s role of the dashing romantic interest defies the emasculated Asian male image commonly found in American media. While Eleanor’s cornerstone is her fierce protection of the family legacy, she is not a one-dimensional tiger mom pushing her son for success’s sake. And when Rachel isn’t willing to drop her own life to be accepted into the Youngs’ world, it’s more than just a generational clash between her and Eleanor: It’s rooted in Asian familial expectations and touches on cultural differences between Asians and Asian-Americans.
The story is not exclusive to the cultures of Singapore and China, nor is it a blanket representation of all Asians’ experiences. Instead, it so deeply ingrains the characters’ Asian backgrounds into the diegesis that it ensures that their ethnicities are not just decorative details meant to gild over a mundane plot. The film is not a “Monster-in-Law” that takes place in Singapore — it’s an ode to Asian family dynamics.
While the 400-plus-page book is told from multiple characters’ perspectives and involves numerous storylines, Chu expertly balances it all, condensing side stories to focus on Nick and Rachel’s relationship. Many of the secondary characters have little screen time, but each share memorable moments that highlight the comedic talents of the film’s all-star cast, which ranges from rapper Awkwafina to “The Daily Show” correspondent Ronny Chieng.
While excelling in its humorous moments, the film falls short in its emotional beats by excessively exhibiting the lives of the crazy rich. The overly grandiose plot already involves a bachelor party in international waters and a $40-million wedding, yet the exorbitance is further emphasized through ostentatious cinematography reminiscent of Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby.”
It’s captivating wealth porn that is engrossing to watch, but this results in more scenes dedicated to showing off the opulence of the crazy rich than scenes exploring the strained relationship between Rachel and Eleanor. Because of this, the emotional tension between the two lacks real stakes, detracting from the pathos of the film.
But even without a complex relationship between the two leading ladies in Nick’s life, at the very least, the film should be taken as a hilarious, crowd-pleasing divulgence into the lives of Asia’s elite. The lighthearted story is not Oscar bait, nor will it be the next “Avengers,” but it is a step in the right direction for better Asian representation in U.S. media.