In preparing to watch Jon M Chu’s new Crazy Rich Asians—presently enjoying enormous hype as the first big Hollywood production to come out in a long, long time that features an all-Asian cast, and is directed by an Asian-American to boot—I decided to go straight to the source material, namely, the bestselling book of the same name by Kevin Kwan, on which the screenplay is based. Kwan’s book, the first of a series that seeks to give readers a glimpse into the lives and loves of Singapore’s unimaginably, ridiculously wealthy one percent, certainly lives up to its title—a fluffy, catty, cheeky ode to opulence and unchecked consumerism. And while Chu, and screenwriters Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim have trimmed off some of the excesses of the book, the film is still pretty out there compared to your average rom-com, a smorgasbord of uber-lux lifestyle porn and escapist fantasy.
But though it’s hard to deny a sense of satisfaction, as an Asian, to see Asians occupying such a range of roles normally reserved for white actors, it’s unfortunate that the story itself is so very generic. I mean, we’ve been practically weaned on this sort of clash-of-the-classes, poor girl/boy meets rich girl/boy stuff to the point where there are few surprises in terms of the broad strokes—and Crazy Rich Asians doesn’t even try to deviate from well-trodden ground, happy to simply cling to tediously outdated rom-com conventions.
Economics professor at NYU, Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) is feeling a little bit conflicted. Her boyfriend of over a year, Nick Young (Henry Golding) has just asked her to take a trip with him to his hometown in Singapore, ostensibly to be his date to his best friend’s wedding, but actually intended to introduce Rachel to his family—including mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh)—for the first time. While Rachel is excited that the relationship is progressing, she is also apprehensive; Nick has always been very, very tight-lipped about his life back home and has given her little clue of what to expect.
Turns out, he could never have adequately prepared her for the truth. Nick’s family, you see, is rich—not just “comfortable” as he’s been putting it modestly when asked, but an astronomically wealthy, old-money dynasty with business interests spanning multiple continents. So, as heir apparent to such vast fortunes—and not bad to look at, either—Nick is pretty much the most eligible bachelor in this elite circle, with young women throwing themselves at him at every turn. Rachel, who never suspected anything like this about her boyfriend—the same guy who borrows her Netflix password rather than paying for his own subscription—is stymied by it all, not to mention hurt by the icy treatment she receives from Eleanor. As the festivities get more and more extravagant, and the competition for Nick’s affections heats up, Rachel must decide whether what they have is worth the trouble, or if they are simply too different to work. I’m sure you can guess which way this is going to go.
Coming over a decade after 2005’s Memoirs of a Geisha, one of the last Hollywood releases where Asians made up majority of the cast, the existence of Crazy Rich Asians does feel rather monumental in terms of a leaning towards more diversity onscreen. And there’s also some specific significance in its being a rom-com—watching Mr Golding strutting around in those impeccable suits, flashing that blinding smile, every bit the coveted leading man, feels very much like a purposeful jab against the pervasive Hollywood stereotype of Asian men as not-particularly-sexy or charming.
And while one also derives a perverse pleasure from the sheer novelty of seeing non-white folk indulge their every decadent desire on such a scale as they do here, as the larger-than-life set-pieces and self-conscious brand name-dropping piles on, the message, already flimsy, starts to get even more muddled. Crazy Rich Asians might kick off on a distinctly celebratory note—as something of a tribute to the Asians who have made it big—it slowly veers closer and closer to parody as it goes on, until you begin to question whether the representation so many have applauded the film for is actually even all that flattering to those it is supposed to represent.
There’s also the issue of who exactly the film’s titular ‘Asians’ refers to, because as far as this script is concerned, it’s a pretty homogenous group. Crazy Rich Asians has received criticism for this on several fronts, such as in a piece by Sangeetha Thanapal where she accuses the film of promoting the “systemic erasure” and disenfranchisement of racial and religious minorities in Singapore society. One can see her point—almost all the characters onscreen are of Chinese origin, while the few brown folks have been assigned blink-and-miss roles. Then again, you also have to wonder whether it’s really fair to place the burden of righting all these wrongs on Chu’s shoulders alone—this is just one film, after all, and such flimsy, frivolous fare at that, it never could’ve lived up to those kinds of expectations.
Speaking of not living up to expectations, Golding is clearly the weakest link in the chain here—he looks the part, but the performance is basic at best. Which is unfortunate given that Wu is pretty much perfect for a role like this—although I still much prefer her in her Fresh Off the Boat avatar—and really deserved better company. And while much has been made of the cameo by rapper/comedian Awkwafina, and she definitely gets a few cracks in, her part is such an exaggerated caricature that it’s a wonder she doesn’t have ‘comic relief’ tattooed on her forehead. At least there’s the ever-reliable Yeoh to pick up the slack—the actress plays Eleanor Young with practiced elegance and ease, a balm for sore, bling-fatigued eyes.
So there you have it: Crazy Rich Asians might be a long-overdue symbolic leap forward in onscreen representation for a group that has largely been relegated to stereotypical side gigs in Hollywood, but I do wish that move had come in service of a better film than this.
Crazy Rich Asians
Director: Jon M Chu
Actors: Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh
Genre: Romantic comedyPublished: 2018-09-01 08:02:10