Finally I have seen the film everyone’s talking about: Crazy Rich Asians.
I went to the cinema not expecting anything amazing, and as a film itself, it’s not amazing. That’s not a word I throw around. Nevertheless Crazy Rich Asians is fun, pure escapist fun, entertaining, dazzling, with many charming moments.
The story revolves around Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), a Chinese American economics professor who was brought up in America by a single mother. 1 day her boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding) invites her to his best friend’s wedding in Singapore, also to introduce her to his family. It is only when they are in Singapore that Rachel Chu realises that Nick Young is rich, not just rich but crazy rich, and his family’s possibly the richest and most powerful in Singapore. If you accept the premise that Rachel didn’t know her boyfriend was rich, i.e. someone born into money, lots of money, like Nick Young, may hide it for a year, the film is great fun—a fairy tale about having a boyfriend who is not only good-looking, kind, and fun, but also turns out to be extremely wealthy. The obstacles to their relationship are other people’s jealousy and Nick’s mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh); her disapproval is two-fold—Rachel is not rich and doesn’t come from the right family, and she is Chinese American. Rachel’s task therefore is to prove herself, not to get Eleanor to like her, but to earn her respect.
It’s a conventional story, but it still captivates the audience thanks to Rachel’s charm and strength, the chemistry between the 2 lead roles, and Michelle Yeoh’s performance, stern but vulnerable and sympathetic. The outcome is predictable, but it still makes the audience want to know how Rachel wins Eleanor Young over. Some conventional tales are never old—we have seen it many times before, we know what the ending will be, but still want to see love triumph and our hero(ine) overcome obstacles and win.
My favourite part of Crazy Rich Asians is not the main plot, and not any of the dazzling stuff. Instead, it is the subplot of Astrid, Nick’s cousin (Gemma Chan), and her husband Michael (Pierre Png). Their conflict comes from their imbalance—we understand that Astrid hides her shopping so as not to flaunt her money and hurt her husband’s feelings, and at the same time, understand Michael’s pain and sense of failure because he doesn’t have as much money as his wife and knows other people’s thoughts and also knows about Astrid’s attempts not to hurt his pride. Amidst the different stereotypes in Crazy Rich Asians about the rich, like the old money, elegant, traditional, and judgmental; the vulgar new money; the spoilt, boorish rich kid…, Astrid is none of that—she is a complex, fully fleshed character. Take the scene in the car, when Astrid and Michael speak of his affair. She is deeply pained, whilst Michael on his side is also hurt because Astrid doesn’t want to make a scene at the wedding, as though his wife only cares about public opinion and even his affair doesn’t matter. It is a moving scene, we can see both perspectives, and feel both of their pain.
Then take the scene of Astrid leaving Michael. She is right. We understand Michael’s feelings, but he fails her—her family’s wealth is not the problem, the problem is him. It’s a quiet moment, yet we can sense Michael’s speechless humiliation as she says it’s not her job to make him feel like a man.
This sensitive and moving subplot is what raises Crazy Rich Asians above the conventionality of the main plot.
As a film, for itself, it is good escapist fun. As a big-budget Hollywood film with an all-Asian cast, it is rare and therefore remarkable and exciting. I’ve seen lots of reviews and comments where people say they cried to see Asian representation in a Hollywood film. I didn’t cry—I’m not rich, I’m not Chinese, and I wasn’t born outside Asia to struggle with my identity. I was also slightly annoyed that the Singaporean characters didn’t speak Singaporean accent. But socially speaking, Crazy Rich Asians is big and something to celebrate. Finally there is a big-budget Hollywood film with an Asian director and an all-Asian cast, 25 years since Joy Luck Club*. Finally producers must realise that Asians have stories to tell and there’s an audience for them.
And hopefully, in the West there will be other films, serious films, about Asians.
*: Therefore not including Memoirs of a Geisha, which is a shitty film anyway.