Director: Jon M. Chiu
Starring: Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Lisa Lu, Harry Shum Jr., Ken Jeong, Sonoya Mizuno, Chris Pang, Jimmy O. Yang, Ronny Cheng, Remy Hii, Nico Santos, Jing Lusi
John M. Chu’s romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians, adapted from the bestselling novel by Kevin Kwan, starts with a quote from Napoleon Bonaparte: “Let China sleep, for when she wakes she will shake the world.” If the incredible box office reception of the film is anything to go by it would appear that finally targeting the Asian diaspora – as the first Hollywood film to boast an all-Asian cast and director since Wayne Wang’s The Joy Luck Club in 1993 – has the potential to shake Hollywood.
Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), an economics professor at New York University, is invited by her boyfriend of one year Nick Young (Henry Golding) to accompany him to Singapore for his best friend’s wedding. It is only once they arrive at the airport and are whisked away to the first class lounge that she starts to get a sense of what she is in for. For this isn’t just any wedding she is going to, it is Singapore’s wedding of the century. And her date isn’t just any handsome young man. The Young family are Asia-wide real estate moguls, and as the heir apparent to the Young Corporation, Nick is arguably Asia’s most eligible bachelor. So upon arriving in Singapore, Rachel finds herself the centre of attention and the focus of suspicious speculation.
As far as romantic comedy complications go, ‘the handsome and charismatic man who loves me is incredibly rich’ wouldn’t appear to be a particularly troubling one. But it isn’t so much Nick’s money that is the problem, but the world of expectations that it represents. While our idealism demands that wealth disparity should be no barrier to Nick and Rachel being together, we are challenged by a parallel narrative thread in which Nick’s his cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan) experiences marital difficulties which are the direct result of her having married beneath her income bracket. Nick’s family functions almost like a monarchy. His wealth and standing brings with it expectations about who and how he should marry, and Rachel does not fit the mould. She is an outsider. She is, after all, an American.
That a woman as brilliant and accomplished as Rachel would be deemed not good enough for anyone seems crazy to us. Rachel is the embodiment of the American dream. Her poor, single mother moved to America to create opportunities for her, opportunities which she grabbed with both hands by becoming the youngest tenured professor at NYU. But this highlights one of the central tensions in the film: western ambition and pursuit of happiness versus Chinese devotion and obligation to family. To Nick’s mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), a woman who knows all too well what it takes to be the wife of a tycoon, as impressive and admirable as Rachel’s story might be, it suggests an incompatibility with their way of life and a challenge to their values. This negotiation of East vs West and Old World vs New is shown to be increasingly complicated by the fact that all of the younger generation characters we meet are returning to Asia after being educated in prestigious British or American universities (a cultural mix that is nicely illustrated by a soundtrack made up of Cantopop versions of recognisable Western pop songs).
Visually, Crazy Rich Asians is pure wish fulfilment. The clothes, the cars, the mansions, the resorts, the parties. The film makes a spectacle of opulence, taking us behind the curtain to show us how the other side live (or at least how we like to imagine they live). Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim’s screenplay draws a clear distinction between Nick’s family, who have ‘old money,’ and the gaudy nouveau riche around them – one woman brags that her particularly over-the-top home has been modelled on the hall of mirrors at Versai and Donald Trump’s bathroom.
Amongst such extravagance, and the many caricatures who inhabit it, it is the groundedness of key characters that makes the film work. Rachel, played with such charm by Fresh Off the Boat’s Constance Wu, responds to the extravagance with disbelief, but remains true to herself. She is neither judgemental and dismissive, nor giddy and excited about the possibility of throwing around someone else’s money with abandon. Newcomer Henry Golding is suave and magnetic as Nick, who is convincingly level headed enough to make it believable that Rachel might not have realised how wealthy he was. Michelle Yeoh brings great poise and grace to the role of Nick’s mother, one which could easily have slipped into villainous stereotype in less sure hands, while Awkwafina, fresh off a scene stealing performance in Ocean’s Eight, is back at it again here as Rachel’s oddball college friend and guide to the mysteries of the Singapore social set, Peik Lin Goh.
While greater diversity on screen is an ends in itself and one which doesn’t really require justification, what Crazy Rich Asians reinforces is that with greater diversity all audiences win. The film’s culturally specific lens breathes new life into the romantic comedy genre. Crazy Rich Asians is everything you want a romantic comedy to be: funny, charming and, at the right moments, sincere and touching.
Review by Duncan McLean
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