Crazy Rich Asians
Director: Jon Chu
Not long after it was announced that the book by Kevin Kwan was going to be made into a movie the internet started talking. Were they going to do justice to the book? Were they going to go the way of Ghost in the Shell and whitewash the main character? Fears were laid to rest last October when the magazine Entertainment Weekly revealed that all the characters were to be played by Asian actors. From there, the buzz just grew and what looked like a fairly small romantic comedy has now become on of the year’s biggest hits (in October, the film had grossed over $236 worldwide). By now several of the film’s actors have gone from relatively unknown to huge stars, and Constance Wu has become the poster child for the Asian American acting community,
How did we get here? Remember when the film The Joy Luck CLub did something similar? Or Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon? Or even Memoirs of Geisha? But Crazy Rich Asians feels different. Whilst those earlier films felt tied to a sense of the exotic Asian culture that probably only exists for westerners, this is very much an Asian film made by Asians on their terms and not pandering to western ideas about what Chinese culture is about.
From the beginning, we’re in familiar romantic territory, with the central couple Nick and Rachel cooing over a shared dessert plate. As in the book, Rachel is an economics professor, and there is a very neat scene where she uses a poker game to demonstrate the rules of game theory. There is a touch of wonder about the film, with fantastic scenes of characters jetting off around the world in private jets, helicopters and top-end sports cars. The director is no stranger to magic, having made both editions of Now You See Me.
Rachel and Nick are in love, both work at NYU, and seem to share everything including dessert. It’s is going great but she has never met anyone from Nick’s side of the family, so Nick suggests she comes with him to his best friend’s wedding in Singapore.
The term rich can mean anything from well-off to loaded and it’s with the typical modesty of the truly loaded that Nick refers to his family as ‘comfortable’. In fact, Nick comes from one of the most successful families in Asia, the Young family. In a brilliant scene, Rachels best friend Peik Lin (Awkwafina) explains how they came from China and bought the first buildings of the city state, becoming the old money kings of Asia.
In another scene, we see the family having just taken ownership of the stuffy Calthorpe Hotel in London. Having established just how rich the Young family are, the film wastes no time in showing us how much fun they have with it, and the stupendous luxury they live in. Maybe we’re not supposed to be impressed by such conspicuous consumption, yet I felt both exhilarated by the wealth on display and so happy to see the characters enjoying it.
I doubt that Singapore will look so good or has ever looked like this on film before. From the airport, Nick takes Rachel, along with his best friend Colin and Araminta to one of the Hawker markets in Singapore. All of the chefs have spent their lives making the same food and some have even been awarded michelin stars. Yes, a bit of travelogue maybe but the scenes cement the film’s Asian location firmly in our minds (in fact the film spends a mere 5 minutes of screen times in New York before zipping to Taiwan, Singapore and the mysterious sounding Samsara Island.
Rachel’s college roommate has her own mansion, but it’s nothing when we see the family home of the Youngs. Inspired by the Hall of Mirrors and Donald Trump’s toilet, Peik Lin lives in a garish new build, perfect for her father who looks like an Elvis impersonator, but Nick’s family live in a house so grand that it has no GPS signal and is guarded by turbaned soldiers carrying bayonets.
The central drama is how Nick must convince his family and friends that Rachel (American born Chinese) is somehow good enough to be his wife and to be part of the Young family. Ever since Nick was raised by his Amah, he had been brought up to become the new CEO of the family company (this part was more detailed in the book, and the film perhaps wisely ignores the business side of things). Rachel’s reception is hardly warm, and it only gets worse as she fails to appreciate the sacrifice made by Nick’s mother, and the sense of duty of being married. But if anything, Araminta’s friends are even worse. Not only has Rachel committed the crime of being American, she’s also not even ‘that’ pretty, and hasn’t had the surgical enhancement of many of the women in their social circle. While the women Rachel meets are pretty ghastly, Nick’s cousin Astrid becomes Rachel’s guide to surviving the horrors of the bachelor party. Indeed, Astrid serves to remind us that life in high society is not so perfect; Astrid’s husband is having an affair.
Finding American-Asian actors who could play the parts must have taken some doing. The producers revealed that they could have chosen hundreds of actors for the part of Rachel Chu alone. Constance Wu made the Asian stereotype of the tiger mother in Fresh off the Boat a completely likeable character. Whilst Rachel is in some ways a little too passive, there’s no denying that Wu has done an admirable job in creating an emotionally engaging character, and there’s some pretty snappy remarks made by Rachel, even if they get slightly drowned out by the background noise, the soundtrack is fast like the best comedies that Hollywood used to make. Henry Golding (Nick) was a slightly controversial choice – some felt that it was wrong to use a half British actor – but his English accent is made plausible when you consider that half the scions of Chinese CEOS are educated in English boarding schools. British actress Gemma Chan plays Nick’s cousin as a slightly tragic figure: a woman married to a less successful man who feels she must hide her designer purchases so that he won’t feel intimidated. In a lovely scene near the end, she leaves him behind in their house, but not until she has picked up a secreted pair of earrings which she had bought earlier on in the film but never felt she could wear them.
Peik Lin (hilarious) is like the fairy godmother character, helping Rachel to choose not one but two perfect dresses to wear, first at the party to mark Colin’s wedding and again at the wedding itself. Frankly, I’d be surprised if the film doesn’t win at least a best costume award at the academy’s next year. I’ve not seen so many beautiful dresses since the Devil Wears Prada and the film is as stylish and beautiful as any film from the fifties. The scene where Peik Lin and Edison select designer dresses is going to be one of the scenes endlessly re-watched, and it should be: it’s hilariously over the top and camp, whilst allowing Sally Yeh’s extremely jaunty mandarin cover of Material Girl to be played.
If much of the attention is given to dresses, there’s a fair bit of partying going on too. Bachelor parties are usually hookers and drugs, declares Bernard Tai, but that’s boring. How about a party on a yacht, with hundreds of dancers and a flare gun that shoots off into the ocean? It’s gloriously excessive and fun in a tasteless way, and the actor who plays Tai knocks every scene he is in out of the park. He’s played by American comedian Jimmy O Yang, and I can’t see wait to see what he does next. The fact that he alone of the male characters has a stomach that overhangs his belt is even funnier.
Alongside all the dresses, the film whips along at a cracking pace, and then the wedding hits us by surprise, being unexpectedly moving, touching and beautiful. The film achieves another brilliantly emotional and real scene when Rachel’s mother arrives in Singapore after Rachel has left Nick. In the world of Mrs Young – and the numerous aunties that spend their time in bible meetings and making dumplings with their children – it’s family that comes first. The message for Rachel is clear – you can’t understand, because Americans always think about their own interests rather than making sacrifices for their family.
It is a very shallow film in lots of ways but ends up telling more about Asia than the well-meaning but turgid Joy Luck Club. Sometimes the frivolous and trivial can be very serious. By now, I should make it clear that I loved everything about the film and I am booking my next holiday in Singapore.
Closing comments: a wonderful film that does justice to a classic novel. Some wonderful moments and feelgood ending make it the perfect film to watch with family or as a romantic evening with a loved one.