The adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s best-selling novel is a bright, flashy tale of Asian heritage wrapped up in beautiful excess
The romantic comedy has been a staple of Hollywood filmmaking since the first kiss was captured on screen. But over the last decade, the genre has taken a serious backslide, due to audiences’ sophisticated ability to deduce the rom-com formula and for their awareness of how “white” the whole genre is.
This is just one layer of what makes Crazy Rich Asians so special. Not only is it the first Western-produced film with an all-Asian cast in 25 years, it also revitalizes the staid romantic comedy (a genre that, as of right now, has seen its resurgence limited to Netflix). Directed by Jon M. Chu with a bouncy spontaneity, Crazy Rich Asians takes specific experiences regarding Asian-American heritage, while infusing it with the relatable themes of love and family.
Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) is an economics professor who teaches game theory at NYU. She’s passionate and driven, and also in love with Nick Young (Henry Golding). He invites Rachel to Singapore for his best friend’s wedding and hopes to introduce her to his family. But upon arriving, Rachel discovers Nick is the heir to a massive business conglomerate in Singapore, and the family matriarch (Michelle Yeoh) isn’t comfortable with her son’s choice of mate.
Like this year’s Ocean’s 8, Crazy Rich Asians is a story of female friendships, antagonism, and family by celebrating femininity. Everything, from the bright color palette and elegant cinematography by Vanja Cernju, to Myron Kerstein’s jazzy editing, to all the beautiful costumes by Mary Vogt creates a world that’s graceful and feminine. There are moments that seem directly ripped from Hollywood films of the ’40s, particularly embodied in Gemma Chan’s performance as Astrid. It’s easy to see why Chu is helming Lin Manuel-Miranda’s In the Heights, because he understands how to attract audiences with a mix of new flash and old glamour.
The technical artistry on display leads to a colorful feature that understands the word “pop culture,” separating it to show what makes culture pop. The movie isn’t all flash though, there’s a perfect pace to Crazy Rich Asians that, at times, feels relaxed. There’s a key piece of silence toward the end that’s utterly amazing. Audiences will hold their breath because of it and that’s a rare feat, indeed. The use of popular songs sung in Chinese is also a fantastic bit of business, particularly during the climax when Coldplay’s “Yellow” is transformed.
The film’s layers are multi-varied, focusing on both common relationship struggles as well as deeply embedded problems inherent in the world of American-Chinese relations. Rachel is a Chinese American, yet even her mother points out to Rachel that overseas families “are different from us.” Rachel believes her single mother is a tough woman who did the best she could and imbued that into her daughter. Yet upon meeting Yeoh’s Eleanor, that same passion is derided as selfishness.
The feature doesn’t become a treatise on the American Dream, colonialism, and the history of China in America, but it does show the subtle distinctions of where race and ethnicity begin and end, or if they even should. How much of Rachel is truly “Chinese” enough for the Youngs? And who is the villain in setting those standards in the first place?
Screenwriters Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim deftly navigate all these issues, yet never lose the fun and whimsy of Kevin Kwan’s original tale. If anything, they fold in these different views of within the situations themselves, aided by Chu and Cernju. When Rachel and Henry arrive in Singapore, the clash of cultures is evident. Singapore becomes a true blending of Western capitalism and local influence.
The large buildings and hotels wouldn’t look out of place in London or New York, yet are breathlessly edited together with street vendors and Singapore delicacies. It’s evident to see how U.S./Chinese relationships have influenced places like Singapore, right down to the dogs of Rachel’s college friend Peik Lin (Awkwafina) being named Vanderbilt and Rockefeller. U.S. status has translated to the country, but in a way that runs the gamut from over-the-top to sophisticated.
Constance Wu’s Rachel is a brilliant mix of intelligence and strength. It’s easy to see why Golding’s Young would fall for her because she’s determined. She doesn’t need him. In fact, all of the women presented here are able to stand on their own two feet, whether it be Astrid and her issues with her own “commoner” husband, or Eleanor, whose husband is so busy he’s only mentioned once as being away and that’s just fine for all involved. This isn’t to say the men aren’t present, but they’re written in the garish, hysterical way women more commonly are in rom-coms; particularly the garish, Bernard (Jimmy O. Yang), whose idea of a bachelor party is a cargo ship, a rocket launcher, and a bevy of buxom women.
Rachel and Nick’s relationship is one of mutual trust and admiration. Gone is the stereotype of the heroine having to hide the mistreatment she’s getting. When Rachel’s room is sabotaged, she doesn’t hide it from Nick; the two have an honest discussion. And while certain women do have ulterior motives in getting Rachel to leave, she’s able to find friends associated with Nick, particularly his sister Astrid.
If it’s not evident, Gemma Chan is flawless as the elegant younger sister. Her side-story is also compelling, showing a relationship where economic disparity can be discussed in an adult way with a woman not having to apologize for what she has. The same goes for Eleanor. Michelle Yeoh, equally spellbinding, illustrates the history of female dominance in the culture, as well as the double-edged sword of having to sublimate your dreams for duty, a plot point that’s both relatable to a wide audience yet specific to the particular culture.
The entire cast act in perfect unison, enhanced by the small-town atmosphere that’s started with a Bye Bye Birdie-esque game of texting that introduces Rachel to the entire population of Singapore. Whether it’s Eleanor playing “a game of chicken” with Rachel or the various loves and losses of Nick’s extended family, there’s a sense of history that extends beyond the folds of the movie frame.
You believe these people are living, breathing people, not just film characters. All of this rests on the shoulders of Wu, an actress with an inner light that sparkles when the character is comfortable. When Rachel decides to talk to Princess Intan (Kris Aquino), a member of the monarchy who won’t dare to let anyone sit by her, the audience sees what makes Rachel so luminous. She understands people because she doesn’t believe she’s special, yet she is.
Crazy Rich Asians takes old tropes and recontextualizes them into something new. Case in point: the long-dormant airplane climax which is fabulously brought back and turned into something utterly amazing.
The movie is a wonderful foray into the romantic comedy genre with characters who feel familiar, while telling a story that will emotionally resonate with Asian and Asian-American audiences. It’s a heartwarming film for the end of summer.