Category Archives: Movies and food

Only In Asia

Crazy Rich Asians


Director: Jon Chu

Constance Wu
Henry Golding
Gemma Chan
Lisa Lu
Nico Santos
Ken Jeong
Michelle Yeoh

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 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.

Little Forest

Director: Yim Soonrye

In a nutshell: a lyrical ode to the charms of the Korean countryside and a mother-daughter relationship. 


It begins with young Hye-won (Kim Taeri) entering an old Korean country home (Hanok) in the middle of winter. She is hungry and trying to scrape together some food from the scraps left in the kitchen. It’s a beautiful wooden house with an open courtyard and a traditional tiled roof. As the seasons change we see the food being harvested from a nearby farm. This is the Little Forest of the title, an incredible rural landscape where Hyewon learns how to live in the country, becoming self-sufficient.

As she learns to fend for herself with only a Jindo dog for company she starts to remember the occasions when her mother cooked for her. Her mother is played by Moon So-ri, one of the veterans of modern Korean cinema. Her early roles include some of the most celebrated Korean films – “Peppermint Candy” and “Oasis.” By now she is in her forties, a time when many Korean actresses often quit the business. But in this film she is positively radiant as a loving, earth mother type who can make the most incredible Korean food from anything she can find growing on her small farm. Her previous role was in The Handmaiden, a very different and much darker film that also happened to feature Kim Taeri.

Many Korean movies take place in the busy urban centres of Seoul and Busan. This is one of the few recent films I have watched to be set almost entirely in the countryside. The young Hye-won is soon joined on the small farm by two city friends Jae-ha and Eun-sook. It’s soon clear that life in the city is no picnic and we see them happily leave their unfulfilling jobs to work with their friend.  As so many young Koreans are having difficulty finding any of the main necessities of life (family, work, a house), they are moving to the countryside, where – although life is much slower – it is much easier to live a simple yet content life.

It’s where they can find the peace they need. The landscapes are beautiful and the night stars are crystal clear. The changing seasons are demarcated by the different food the characters eat: melons in summer, apples in autumn and dried persimmons in winter. Seen in close-up, it looks absolutely mouthwatering. There is a large red-bean rice cake that Hye-won lovingly makes at the beginning of the year. An earlier meal of hand torn soup noodles (sujebi) looks incredible too. There’s a crème brulee that she makes for her friend that shatters crisply, and leads to another mother and daughter scene where she remembers when her mother made the same dish for her.

This is not food porn (how I hate that term!). It’s done because Hyewon wants to recreate the dishes her mother lovingly made for her. The reason the food is given so many close-ups is, I think, due to the importance it has for the characters themselves.  It’s also because she watched her mother that she is able to cook with such skill and finesse.

I was waiting for someone to eat Korean barbecue but there’s no meat here, which is nothing short of incredible for a country that seems to  ind a way to eat any living creature they can find. The only animals we see are a white dog (a Jindo puppy) and a chicken, which lays an egg which is used to make an Okonomiyaki pancake.

The film leads to no particular grand climax, and the relaxed pace might lead some viewers to start to lose interest. But when the film reaches the final winter scene, the result is  heartwarming.


Jeon Do-yeon – a profile of Korea’s number 1 actress

For five years, Do-yeon toiled away in Korean dramas, the likes of which have been long forgotten.

Yet her first film, Contact (1997), was an instant success. Starring alongside Han Sukkyu, Doyeon’s direct and warm personality endeared herself to audiences. It was perfect casting for her. The film was a response to the internet and the potential it offered for romance. Showing how much more advanced Korea was when it came to technology, it was made two years earlier than You’ve Got Mail. The film remains more than a period piece due to its story of people who meet online first and then in person.


In 1999, she gave two very different performances. The first was as a love-struck student and her adoration for her teacher; the second was as the adulterous wife of a laid-off businessman. Now these performances could hardly be more opposed. it was Harmonium that saw play a 17 year old girl, when she was already 27 at the time of filming. Yet if you look a bit closer you can find some similarities.

harm     fdds

For one thing, they both look female sexuality in a very interesting way. Both characters are actively pursuing men, rather than playing more traditional and passive roles. In Harmonium, it is the school girl who goes after her teacher and shows him how strong her feelings are. The contented ending is of course not found in the film Happy End, with its bitterly ironic, tragic ending. The actress’s round, angelic face is fully exploited in the first film, but she is much more of a woman in Happy End.

In the film Untold Scandal, Do-yeon was unforgettable as a virtuous woman who finds herself unable to resist the predatory advances of Cho-Won. Now she was dressed in silks and decorous long dresses of the Joseon Dynasty but the actress revealed a deep sense of eroticism later on in the film. The actress had shown that she could film sex scenes in Happy End,  but playing a virginal woman convincingly was surely harder. The lady, who had been played by Michelle Pheiffer in Dangerous Liaisons, was a fascinating study by Doyeon into feminine chastity and virtue.


And then along came Secret Sunshine. As a woman who lost everything, the film was as tragic as it’s possible to get. The film was her most challenging role so far and it gave her a Cannes award for her trouble.

It became a common thing for Jeon Do-Jeon to die in her films, and this trend continued with the melodramatic Housemaid (하녀).


Here, her character was unknowing and naïve in the extreme. It was an extremely over th film in many ways with many distasteful scenes, but Dohyun kept it tethered to the ground, and made a touching mother figure to the family’s precocious daughter.

Another film, The Way Home (2013), showed her as a mother in a drugs smuggling operation going horribly wrong. The film would have been unbearable to watch if it wasn’t for the humanity that she brought to the role.

The Shameless (2015), showed a quite different side to her as a hard-drinking, cursing woman married to a crime boss. Even though the film wasn’t very interesting, she most definitely was, as someone who has usually played housewives this was the first time she had lowered herself so far. Her well-known eroticism was really to the foreground here.


Already in her forties, a time when many actresses disappear from the screen, she has shown few signs of slowing down.

Her most recent film was A Man and a Woman (2016), which showed her again in the role of unfaithful wife. She is now acting in the Korean TV drama The Good Wife (굿 와이프), but more films should be on the way, she is simply too good an actress to stay in television.




Speaking about her career, Dohyun has said one of the most gracious things about acting I have heard from a movie actress:

 I enjoy acting so much that I have no need or desire to be called a great actor. This is partly my personality, but also the fact that I get so absorbed in acting, to where I can’t see or think of anything else. I can’t tell you what great acting is, but for me, it is to give everything you have with honesty, sincerity and persistence.

 As she grows older, she becomes more interesting. Her face shows no sign of surgery, and she still gets top billing even in a culture which values youth above everything else. The result is that she is, and will always be, the most interesting of Korean actress.