2018 Film Essays

‘Crazy Rich Asians’: A Charming Rom-Com About Asian Affirmation

With scintillating social media storms, gazes on male abs, sick burns of quips and a fashion montage, Crazy Rich Asians has the consumables of a normal Hollywood film. Except the cast of Asians isn’t normal. Since the 1993 film Joy Luck Club, there has not been such a magnitude of Asian performers in a Hollywood production. Even if I were to find the film poor or mediocre, there are such high stakes for representation that to even be a high-budgeted failure would be groundbreaking (hey, Asian creators should have the right to mess up and still receive creative opportunities in Hollywood). In this era of representational reckoning, the pressure to set a precedent paid off into an amiable, witty and layered tale about the family ties that bind.

Based on Kevin Kwan’s bestselling novel, the story revolves around Rachel (Constance Wu), a Chinese-American economics professor who ventures from New York City to Singapore to meet the family of her boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding). It turns out that Nick is the progeny of a “richer than God” old money family. The revelation comes as a surprise to Rachel, who is pegged as a commoner to the wealthy Singaporean elite and becomes an object of disdain for Nick’s mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh). Rachel learns the hard way that though she may bear an Asian profile, Singaporean society deems her a foreigner outcast.

Wu, a dynamic star in the ABC series Fresh Off the Boat, stands well on her own with puppy-dog vulnerability and restrained feistiness as Rachel navigates reverse culture shock and a sometimes uncompromising society. I found little remarkable material for Golding to work with as a standard love interest, but he does his dutiful job wearing a pretty boy smile as an accommodating lover who is quietly processing his own identity crisis in his homeland. And really, Crazy Rich Asians most potent assets lie in not the central couple’s chemistry, but Rachel’s interplay with Eleanor and the ensemble cast.

Yeoh is the true star as the austere and meddling Young matriarch. Even in Eleanor’s iciest put-downs, Yeoh channels a deep insecurity, particularly when the prim mother delivers a revealing speech on the labor of Chinese maternal sacrifice to the point where Rachel can sympathize with Eleanor’s traditionalist self-preservation. Eleanor’s chilling line “You will never be enough” to Rachel bodes as equal parts a put-down and a tough-love warning to what Rachel could face if she were to marry into the Young family.

There are many people in the ensemble to commend. As Nick’s heiress cousin, Gemma Chan has a delicate sweetness, and you can’t help but root for her to find happiness away from her resentful husband. Awkwafina plays Rachel’s benevolent bestie Peik Lin with scene-stealing sprightliness, and Ken Jeong as Peik Lin’s flamboyantly-clad father occasionally hogs the spotlight. Nico Santos has a ball as Nick’s snarky second cousin and one of Rachel’s allies. Remy Hii, Ronny Chien and Jimmy O. Yang embody the less pleasant upper-crust with immature pursuits and expressive toxic masculinity.

Directed with sensitivity by Jon M. Chu, Crazy Rich Asians pokes fun at frivolity and the pretenses of the rich while letting loose with some lavish fun across vast picturesque landscapes. The majority of its splendor is shot with a matter-of-fact humility, awing to the eyes of ordinary people but, well, ordinary to wealthy people.

It is fair to warn that if one views the film with sharp social-consciousness, Crazy Rich Asians can alienate some viewers with its rose-tinted lens on one-percenter privilege, the same way a classic Jane Austen novel can have constraints in interrogating the grimier implications of class. The otherwise flawed satirical source material did fall into the trap of obsessing over opulence rather than lampooning it. Where satire dilutes into sanitation, the film has the convenient license to avoid denoting the wealthy’s links to colonialism, which was glossed over but acknowledged in Kwan’s text.

Whether or not lifted from the source material, the turns can feel calculated into familiar beats, such as a third act breakup. A twist regarding Rachel’s heritage is calculated for melodrama, although the ensuing backlash allows the plot to unfurl its layers toward an emotional endgame. In perhaps the most productive deviation from Kwan’s book, Rachel’s more active presence in the plot proceedings allows her to enact a declaration to Nick’s mother over mahjong.

Crazy Rich Asians covers a fraction of the Asian experience. While I, a Vietnamese-American, feel anxious about pigeonholing myself with this primal desire to offer my two cents on the Asian experience like many other Asian reviewers, I do wholeheartedly see a bit of myself in the family dynamics of Crazy Rich Asians — though I’m not rich. I know what it is to have a mother and grandmother mold their labor into the cultural food they cooked. I know what it is to feel smothered by traditionalist exceptions. I caught Crazy Rich Asians three times: the first time in a press screening room, the second time in a room filled with members of the Asian American Journalist Association, and the third time with my mother. The scene that got better every time was when Rachel affirms herself as the daughter of a Chinese immigrant and proves that she understands the sacred ties between a child and mother. Crazy Rich Asians is a crowd-pleaser with a spark of resonance.

Caroline Cao (@Maximinalist) is a queer Vietnamese-Houstonian Earthling surviving under the fickle weather of New York. When not angsting over her first poetry manuscript or her MFA memoir project, she is cooking her own Chinese food instead of buying take-out and dreaming of winning Hamilton lotto tickets. Carol has lent her wit and pop culture love to Birth Movies Death, The Mary Sue, Bitch, Film School Rejects and Indiewire. She also runs a New York living blog and writing services.