Synopsis – This contemporary romantic comedy, based on a global bestseller, follows native New Yorker Rachel Chu to Singapore to meet her boyfriend’s family.
My Take – It’s been a while since I have seen a romantic comedy release with so much hype and fanfare, especially considering how cliché the film’s trailers make it out to be, but that’s not it as there is a monumental reason behind it all. Mainly as it’s the first contemporary English-language Hollywood film with an almost all-Asian cast, with 1993’s The Joy Luck Club, that’s right nearly 25 years ago, being the last release. Since then, Asian characters in pop culture have, for the most part, been sidelined in stereotypical roles including the science nerd or some martial arts expert. And in risk-averse Hollywood, that means the film’s reception has huge implications for Asian and Asian-American actors and filmmakers in all kinds of genres.
Thankfully, the film based on the best-selling book of the same name (which I have yet to read) from author Kevin Kwan, is nothing short of a delightful comedy-drama that’ll reach everyone, Asian heritage or not. Here, director Jon M. Chu (Step Up series, Now You See Me 2 and G.I. Joe Retaliation), who uses tried-and-true romantic comedy conventions, and I mean a lot and lots of clichés, to take us into a sparkling fairy tale, that is trivial and weighty, both at once, but also that is full of extravagant parties, a terrific cast, glamorous locations, witty jokes, and a story with a lot of heart. And on top of all that, it may actually succeed in proving to Hollywood that both Asian-centered stories and romantic comedies deserve much more attention.
The story follows Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), a Chinese-American NYU economics professor, who has been dating Nick Young (Henry Golding), a Chinese-Singapore based business man for about a year. With her spring break up, Nick decides that it’s finally time for him to introduce his family to Rachel at his best friend’s wedding in Singapore to which he has been invited to serve as the best man. The problem is that the middle-class Rachel who was raised by a single mother who emigrated from mainland China to New York City years ago, has no idea about Nick’s wealth, a thing she starts to realize when they’re ushered to their private suite on the airplane.
But it soon becomes clear that his family and the social circle in which they move are far, far wealthier than anything she could have imagined. Upon landing Rachel’s old college roommate Goh Peik Lin (Awkwafina) informs her that Nick’s family had migrated to Singapore from China centuries earlier, and basically own almost all the real estate on the island, hence their whole social circle, which consists of rich friends and relatives are very close-knit. Nick has a couple of cousins with whom he’s friendly, especially Astrid Leong-Teo (Gemma Chan), who married Michael (Pierre Png), a self-described commoner.
While Nick and Rachel never discussed marriage, but everyone’s pretty sure that Rachel’s presence in Singapore for the wedding means a proposal is on the way. And that, of course, doesn’t sit right with everyone, especially Nick’s protective mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), who has extremely high standards for who her son can end up with. Therefore, without any preparation, Rachel is launched into the world of excess that her boyfriend grew up in, which involves gently navigating his family and their own politics, dealing with Singapore’s elite and attending the wedding of the year.
At a glance, director Jon M. Chu’s adaptation is too conventional to incite any major cinematic revolutions, as writers Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim draw on some of the most beloved tropes of the romantic comedy. It’s got hints of Cinderella, which has provided a partial template for many a rom-com, and hints of the lineage of Jane Austen here too, especially stories like Pride & Prejudice and Emma, which explore class in the midst of a swoony, clever romance, along with familiar narrative of how a spunky, self-assured heroine finds her own way in the world, and finds love in the process. And yet it feels fresh too, because the story at its center is foreign territory for Hollywood both literally and figuratively. This film doesn’t otherwise break the mold, yet it’ll mean a lot to those who never see themselves represented onscreen.
The beauty of the film is that it’s not an exclusively Asian story, in fact, it’s universal. Rachel and Nick are faced with the same kinds of issues any young couple comes up against when they’re at odds with loved ones, and there are other emotional through lines relating to Nick’s extended family members that felt familiar and foreign to watch at the same. Like so many romantic comedies and/or melodramas about the highs and lows of people for whom money is no object, the film is explicitly in the business of lovingly rendered wealth porn, and your enjoyment of it will largely depend upon your tolerance for that sort of thing.
It’s a long-form tourism video for the richest ocean side parts of Singapore as much of a film, and a celebration of unchecked decadence and privilege. Tradition comes into regular conflict with dreamy modernity throughout the film, and it makes sense given that the film plays that conflict out through Rachel and Eleanor, through Eleanor and Nick, and through the broader statement the film represents in its entrance into the global mainstream market place. That’s not to say the film simply plants an Asian cast into a white based story line. It is specific to its characters’ heritage; it just so happens that oftentimes traditions and family dynamics cross all kinds of racial boundaries, and no doubt anyone from an immigrant background will find much to relate to here. It’s a riff on the long-standing tradition of the secret prince fairy tale, but it’s also an unusually thoughtful take on cross-cultural difference in that it pokes fun at the bizarre customs of other parts of the world without turning them into a punchline.
Along the way, the film gives us everything we could possibly want: beautiful clothing, outrageous parties, Asian food porn, gorgeous men and women, and acid-dipped one liners. In the end, though, it would all be for naught if the film didn’t have heart and it does. We care deeply about these characters and the film does, too. Rachel, is the perfect example of an Asian-American who has set out to pursue her dreams. She’s undeniably smart and doesn’t back down, making her a lovable character that audience members can’t help but cheer on. And the film is ultimately about Rachel finding her power, staying true to who she is, and standing up to Nick’s imperious mother and grandmother. It’s also about the balance between family sacrifice and self-fulfillment. One element that the film relies on often to create a funny scene is the idea that word spreads extremely quickly in many Asian communities, such as when Rachel’s relationship with Nick becomes completely public overseas through just one text message. Having said that, visually, this is a stunning film, it’s vibrant and slightly gaudy, so the excessive lifestyle Nick Young’s family has jumps off the screen.
At one point, a bride literally walks through an aisle of water in the most extravagant wedding in recent cinematic history. But of course it’s not perfect. Like rom-coms before it, it has a blatantly superficial side, so drowning in the accoutrements of high-society Singapore that it conflates materialism with matrimony and some could reasonably quibble that director Chu‘s film has blind spots of its own, omitting South and Southeastern Asians for a tale entirely focused on Chinese and Chinese-American characters. Most importantly for an Indian audience who has been gobbling up Bollywood romance for so long, much of the traditional setting minus the songs may seem familiar.
Yet despite that fact, the film is delightful watch thanks to its spectacular ensemble of performers. Led by Constance Wu, who is without a doubt one of the most charming actresses I have come across recently and Harry Golding, who brings a great deal of personality to his likable character, the two share a sparkling chemistry. The usually underutilized Michelle Yeoh finally gets a respectable role after 2000’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, to sink her teeth into and manages to cut down anyone in her path down without more than a single glance. Awkwafina continues her breakout summer as the kind of friend who’s great to have around even when she’s knowingly overstaying her welcome. Gemma Chan, as Nick’s big-hearted sister Astrid, is equally compelling as a woman whose total assurance about herself and her life causes the biggest problems at home. In other roles, Lisa Lu, Ken Jeong, Sonoya Mizuno, Chris Pang, Jimmy O. Yang, Ronny Chieng, Remy Hii, Nico Santos and Jing Lusi stand out. On the whole, ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ is a typical romantic comedy that not only manages to be funny and poignant, but also offers a fresh take with an all Asian cast.
Directed – Jon M. Chu
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 120 minutes