Directed by Jon M. Chu
Starring: Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Gemma Chan, Awkwafina
“Crazy Rich Asians” might be the first film I’ve ever been nervous about seeing.
It wasn’t that I didn’t trust that director Jon M. Chu would properly represent Asian Americans in a way most Hollywood films don’t but I found myself worried not about whether I would like the movie but whether others would. You see, in the theater full of mostly Asian people I saw it with there was a row of five middle-aged white people right in front of me and my mind immediately went to the gutter thinking “will these people laugh at anything that isn’t a stereotype in this movie?”
(White people be all like: “Why do Asians all look the same?”)
Obviously that’s an unfair assumption to make but Hollywood makes it for them all the time. Rarely producing films that give being Asian any nuance or depth beyond being smart, martial arts masters or more infuriatingly submissive enablers of a white protagonist over their own stories.
A part of me didn’t care about enjoying it so long as it made an impression on Hollywood and larger film-going audiences; I needed this film to succeed because it could mean so much more for representation and inclusion down the line.
Luckily, from what it looks like, the film is trending well and in the end managed to warm my cold dead heart with its whimsical rom-com charm, even if parts of it devolved into the predictable.
Based on the bestselling book by Kevin Kwan, “Crazy Rich Asians” follows the story of Rachel Chu as she and her boyfriend Nicholas Young travel to visit his family in Singapore for his brother’s wedding. Unbeknownst to her, Nick hasn’t been completely forthcoming about his family’s lifestyle and as it turns out he is part of the richest family in Southeast Asia. Now Rachel finds herself in a battle to establish herself in front of his matriarchal mother and prove to her that she’s worth it to Nick.
In writing this review over the last few days it’s been very hard to convey how I’ve felt about this film without going on an angry tangent about Asian representation as a whole in popular cinema. It’s pretty much impossible for me not to talk about it so I’m going to try to talk about this as briefly as possible before I get into the film itself and where it stands personally for me.
(Me trying to avoid writing 10,000 words of pent up rage over the first couple drafts..)
There have definitely been better movies to come out, even in recent years, about the Asian/Asian American experience in the west and more than a few starring all Asian casts, writers and directors. Last year’s, much smaller film, “Gook” for instance gets much more personal about race and the ugliness of society.Even as far as comedies go “Seoul Searching” (which is on Netflix) is a funnier more relatable take on the issues and themes raised in this movie.
(Also, if you didn’t know already, Justin Chon is a GREAT actor and needs to be in more movies. Or at least directing them.)
But as many in the media have pointed out already, this is historic in that it’s the first MAJOR film of this kind since “Joy Luck Club” and to finally have a film featuring this type of cast, director and story with big corporate backing is huge for representation whether you find the film underwhelming or not.
Over the last couple years, whitewashing has become a more recognized topical issue in Hollywood than ever before as Asian American audiences are speaking up more loudly about problematic casting and writing choices that Hollywood and apologists find all kinds of excuses for. Despite plenty of evidence to support otherwise that “bankable” stars don’t guarantee box office draws and that Asian Americans are the largest movie-going demographic per-capita in the country, Hollywood still will place relatively unknown white actors in lead roles on huge box office productions (look at the history of Hollywood trying to make Armie Hammer a thing) while simultaneously telling people like myself that people who look like me can’t be mainstream draws.
If for nothing else, cast more Asian Americans because it’s the right thing to do. The representation and inclusion is waaay overdue and if I have to hear “Just make your own movie” or “People from (insert Asian country here) don’t care” one more God damn time I will tear my fucking hair out! Kevin Kwan had to FIGHT to keep the role of Rachel Chu in this movie Asian and Asians from the mainland and Asians in America, or more broadly in the West, don’t have the same lived in experiences. Not even close!
(Me failing often to maintain my decorum in polite company when these topics are brought up…)
One of the weirdest and most shocking revelations I had coming out of this film is that it was one of the only films I could recall seeing an Asian couple engaging with each other romantically in a Hollywood film for more than five minutes at a time ever. That’s. Fucking. Nuts!
I hope that with the commercial and critical success of this movie what’s left of the skeptics will come around finally (especially the ones in Hollywood) and stop with the dismissiveness. They probably won’t but hey maybe it’ll shut them up for a while at least…
(It gets me through this shit…)
Anyways, now that I’m (mostly) done ranting, as far as the movie goes this is a solid date-night romantic comedy that I’m sure everyone regardless of background can enjoy.
“Crazy Rich Asians” is fairly predictable, albeit with some minor twists, but it still manages to tell a story we’re all pretty familiar with in a unique and often dazzling way.
The first thing that pops out immediately about this film is its visuals as the movie displays a wide array of hues and colors that make the cinematography and the literal richness of the plot truly pop. Its visual eye-candy in the best way, even if it comes across as shallow at times, and if nothing else will keep your eyes glued to the screen as the films moves through its lush scenery.
The soundtrack also helps highlight this between the pop songs and Cantonese renditions of them and director Jon Chu does a great job of splicing it all in together with this group of characters and making their performances even brighter through it.
The cast is the true strength of the film, of course, featuring multiple well-known Asian actors and actresses as well as a few newcomers, who I hope breakout in Hollywood through this film. Constance Wu is delightful, sassy and strong-willed as Rachel Chu and helps shed the stereotype of the meek and submissive Asian women in this story by standing up for herself and not hinging her existence on a man, even one she loves. On the other side of things Henry Golding looks every bit like a star in the making and is charming as Nick Young (even if he is a bit of a Gary Stu character) while also smashing stereotypes about asexuality and unattractiveness in Asian men himself. The two of them have great chemistry onscreen and make a very believable romantic couple and it’s hard, even for an eternal cynic like me, to not be like “Awwwww true wuuuuuv” while watching their romance play out.
(sniff It’s so extra yet it’s so beautiful ;_;… *sobs at the extra-ness of the romance*)
There’s a hilarious cast of characters who support Wu and Golding alongside them as well. The always enjoyable Awkwafina plays up her role as the funny best friend very well, the Daily Show’s Ronny Chiang gets in some nice quips and Ken Jeong plays the perverted weirdo perfectly.
The indomitable Michele Yeoh does a great job as the menacing matriarch Eleanor Young but manages to keep it from getting too cliché as the writing adds some nice shades of grey to the character. Her love, even if misguided, is well acted alongside Golding and the two make for an interesting mother/son dynamic that I’m sure plenty will be able to relate to.
The real surprise star, and honestly the most interesting part of the story, actually comes from English actress Gemma Chan who plays Nick’s cousin Astrid. The sub plot involving Astrid and her husband sets up a unique and powerful message about the give and take in relationships and its reflection upon femininity and masculinity. Chan puts in a short but nonetheless thoughtful and sincere performance here and I look forward to seeing more of her in the sequel and hopefully other major film productions.
(That look you give when someone tells you a film starring a dozen or so Asian actors and actresses can’t be a huge box office success)
The film doesn’t have many profound things to say otherwise, it’s again a fairly by the numbers rom-com with a heavy dosage of opulence porn and not to mention some problematic elements, but the one message I hope white audiences take from this film, other than everything I mentioned earlier gets back on soapbox, comes from Rachel’s mother at the very beginning of the film.
In the lead up to Nick and Rachel’s big Singapore trip Rachel’s mother warns her about what people of the mainland will think of her when they see her. She states that she may look Chinese and speak Cantonese but, pointing to her heart, they see her as American.
This speaks to a lot of what growing up in this country feels like sometimes for us Asian Americans. That despite many of us being three or four generations deep now in this country we’re seen as foreigners and people from “our country” see us the same way. It’s a deep struggle for our identities and the perpetual foreigner syndrome is a real issue for many of us. Yes, as adults it’s easier for us to shake these insults and micro aggressions but that doesn’t mean it’s still not fucking annoying. Hopefully when white film-goers see this scene they begin to understand that we are as much Americans as anyone else and that seemingly harmless but nonetheless insulting comments like “no, where are you really from” need to be done away with.
(”Where are you from?”—->”Oh I’m from LA.”—-> “No, I mean where are you from?”—> “Uhhh California?”—-> “No where are you really from?”—-> “The United States?…”—-> “No where are you REALLY from?”—>me^)
I won’t stand here and tell you that Asian Americans have had it worse in this country than other minorities but stereotypes and poor cultural representation, or lack thereof, does contribute to a wide array of issues for us and hopefully this film helps hammer away those regressive viewpoints.
TL;DR “Crazy Rich Asians” is a good date movie and, if nothing else, support this movie so I can go on less rants about Hollywood shitting on Asian Americans.
It may be, at least on the surface, a pretty straight forward romantic comedy but its little nuances and unique commentary on this demographic of people (Even if it talks about a small section of it) makes it a film worth supporting.
Hopefully in the future this film will feel pretty ordinary as representation and inclusion become more accessible things for not just Asian Americans but for people of all backgrounds but until then this is a nice, waaaay past-due, coming out party for Asians across this country and abroad.
4 out of 5
Me awaiting the inevitable “Well actually…” comments that’ll come from this review