One problem with the publicity Crazy Rich Asians has been receiving was apparent to me before I had seen the film. Almost every review or recommendation began by pointing out that it is the first Hollywood film in a great many years with an all-Asian cast, and many of them focused almost exclusively on that fact. Some reviewers belaboured the point, identifying the last film in that category (Joy Luck Club, 1993) and discussing the possible significance of an all-Asian romantic comedy to the rom-com genre, Hollywood, film in general, and Asian-American actors. Unfortunately, this approach leaves potential viewers with little useful information on either the plot or the quality of the movie, or indeed about anything apart from the racial category of the cast.
As the title itself makes clear, the film is about a particular group of Asians, played, reasonably enough, by Asian actors, and much of it is set in Singapore. The story is a classic romantic comedy about a personable young couple who encounter disapproval, resistance, and attempted sabotage from family members who hope to break up the relationship. This has been the theme of countless Hollywood films over many decades and should be familiar to even the most casual movie-goer. While the concept is over-used, the actual scripts can range widely from dull and predictable, to funny and fresh. Crazy Rich Asians, although sometimes conventional and often too familiar in its basic storyline, is about three-fourths of the way toward the Fresh side of the spectrum. What saves it is not the Rich or the Asian aspect, but the scattering of Crazy that gives a common romantic tale a few twists and some real laughs.
The screenplay is based on the popular novel of the same name, part of a trilogy by Kevin Kwan; and directed by John M Chu, a man with an impossibly broad range of experience in film and television, having served as everything from a cinematographer to a film editor, an actor to a producer, and directed a series of popular Hollywood sequels before taking on Crazy Rich Asians. Apparently, Chu’s background was reassuring to backers: he was offered an extremely generous budget by Netflix before opting to make a feature film, one which clearly had the money to spend on a dazzling array of stars, and even more dazzling costume and set design.
The story begins with an established relationship between two pretty and likeable people: Asian-American economics professor Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) and globetrotting non-specific businessman Nick Young (Henry Golding), whose romance seems to have grown into genuine commitment. Nick invites Rachel to accompany him back home to Singapore to attend the wedding of a friend and to meet his family. The film provides a brief but appealing overview of Singapore, a glimpse of its food, culture, and street life, as Rachel is introduced to the bride and groom and shown around by Nick. Then, when Rachel goes to visit a friend from school, Peik Lin (Awkwafina, who also contributed to the soundtrack with her version of Money) Rachel comes to discover that her boyfriend had hidden the fact that he is actually a member of the most distinguished family in the region, a family wealthy beyond imagination.
Conflict develops when Rachel meets Nick’s mother, Eleanor Young (Michelle Yeoh of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), a refined, aloof woman who is politely horrified by Nick’s companion and sets about to discreetly sabotage the relationship. At the same time, other women in Eleanor’s circle, some of whom hoped to marry Nick themselves, try to intimidate or demoralise her. Rachel stands her ground even as the attacks intensify, finding herself befriended by only a few Young family members, and she begins to doubt her own ability to blend into this unusual family. Her relationship with Nick seems doomed – as so often happens in romantic comedies.
The storyline itself is classic rom-com. What makes Crazy Rich Asians stand out, and provides the real entertainment, is the film’s sense of humour. The two central characters are fairly standard, serving as the nice young couple we hope the best for; the supporting cast surrounding them are less ordinary. Awkwafina is weirdly likeable and funny as Peik Lin, the quirky, wisecracking, dementedly Americanised sidekick to Rachel’s adventure, providing a running commentary that keeps the story from sinking into romantic banality; and Peik Lin’s family provide the Singapore trip’s first hint of absurdity, with a cheerfully vulgar mother in a painfully overdecorated house, an aggressively honest father, and a creepy younger brother who keeps sneaking photos of Rachel. The less hostile members of Nick’s family are a variety of amusing eccentrics and neurotics; especially funny is American comedian Ronny Chieng as Nick’s cousin, Eddie, a perpetually angry man intensely and continually aware of his own public image, barking out constant reminders to his wife to present a half profile to the ever-present paparazzi.
Even more important than the array of eccentric characters is the presentation of the Young family’s wealth, which is almost a character in itself. From the first meeting with Nick’s mother at a ridiculously posh and elaborate house party, through the bridegroom’s bachelor party, various other pre-wedding events, and the madly extravagant wedding itself, each scene tries to top the last in sheer, gaudy display. As the romance of Nick and Rachel undergo challenges and the cast of characters deal with their various personal problems, the film enjoys scanning the details of each group event, noting the obsessive behind-the-scenes management of every overpriced detail, the various examples of conspicuous consumption and blatant, almost aggressive levels of ostentatious display. Such a constant, often competitive show of material riches ought to be offensive, but in the context of the film is both a way to understand the strange, dysfunctional Young clan, and a source of bizarre humour. Each time it appears that the last event can’t be overdone for the deliberate flaunting of wealth, the next manages to top it with something even more grandiose and pretentious until the sheer volume of it all becomes hilarious.
In spite of wealth being such a significant part of the story, and such a real influence on the lives of all concerned, the plot manages to keep the main characters real and distinct. The Asian-ness of the cast and setting becomes important in one way: the ties to family custom and local tradition are very real, clung to even when they become a burden. Rachel is rejected not, primarily, because she lacks either money or rank, but because she is American born and raised. It is assumed she would be unwilling to make the sacrifices and compromises deemed necessary for the sake of the family name, family unity, and family tradition; she would find such efforts pointless, and choose happiness and personal fulfillment over duty, an attitude the Youngs, and especially matriarch Eleanor Young, cannot tolerate. This fairly common theme of the clash of worldviews between differently reared generations is handled well – particularly the final confrontation between Rachel and Eleanor Young, which is melodramatic but also clever and touching, and which reveals the two women’s characters beautifully.
This is a romantic comedy with a bit more genuine comedy than is usual for the genre, a satirical but affectionate view of Asian culture from the inside, a genuinely serious look at the place of cultural values in marriage, and most certainly far, far more fabulous set designs than any recent film. Entertaining and fun.