Film Review – Crazy Rich Asians
Crazy Rich Asians
In terms of representation, Crazy Rich Asians (2018) is an important step in showcasing more diverse perspectives in mainstream, Western cinemas. As a Filipino-American myself, I’m thankful that there is film out there starring people that aren’t your typical blonde-haired, blue-eyed Caucasians. We should all get a chance to share in the spotlight, right? Although the claim that this is the first Western produced picture with an all Asian cast since The Joy Luck Club (1993) is not entirely true – there are the Harold & Kumar films, and let’s not get into the scores of independent works – Crazy Rich Asians does feel like a promising shift within our cultural landscape.
With that said, as a romantic-comedy, it’s a little bland.
Written by Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim (adapting Kevin Kwan’s novel) and directed by Jon M. Chu, the story revolves around a NYU professor named Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) and her romance with the dashing Nick Young (Henry Golding). Brushing away the trope of the “Meet-Cute,” we’re introduced to Rachel and Nick already deeply in love with each other. However, what Rachel does not realize is that Nick is the favored son of the Young family, heir to an insanely rich empire out of Singapore. The family business is headed by his father (whom we never see) and his stern mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh). When Nick is chosen to be the best man at his childhood friend’s wedding, Rachel is whisked away into a world of glamour and excess, but has to navigate the cultural expectations and wicked gossip that comes with it.
What the production gets exactly right is the feeling of alienation for American-raised Asians. As one, you feel stuck between two different sides, not feeling as though you fit into one or the other. You grow up in America, develop an American accent, and are constantly exposed to imagery of successful and beautiful people who do not look like you. Yet, because you grow up taking in American culture, when you interact with Asian society, you don’t feel entirely a part of that world as well. You’re treated as an outsider, as though you are not truly “one of them.” Even though Rachel understands and speaks her native language, she’s initially regarded with skepticism and jealousy among the Chinese-raised women who think they are more deserving of Nick’s attention. She’s called a “Banana” – yellow on the outside, white on the inside.
Seeing Rachel deal with this constant balancing act makes for the plot’s central point of tension, and Wu does a good job of expressing this emotional rollercoaster. The scenes Rachel shares with Eleanor make for the most dramatic, with Michelle Yeoh delivering lines that cut deeply with its harsh passive aggressiveness. Yeoh is excellent here – notice the way she is always judging a room with her eyes, and how in the moment she meets Rachel she’s already sizing her up. She can give you a nice compliment to your face, but after she walks away we realize she was actually insulting you.
Rachel and Nick’s love story suffers from the fact that it’s the least interesting aspect of the narrative. Since they start off already together, there isn’t much further their relationship can go other than to see if they’ll remain a couple by the end. Wu and Golding do look good on screen together, and they share a tangible chemistry, but there isn’t much between them other than staring at each other’s eyes and proclaiming their undying love for one another. Even though the writing and directing sidesteps the cliché of showing us their courtship, it would’ve been nice to focus on what it was that drew these two people together even a little bit.
The “Rich” of the title is definitely showcased. Chu opts to stuff the screen with an abundance of wealth. Fancy homes, sleek cars, elaborate costumes, mouth-watering delicacies served on silver platters – almost every scene (especially in the first and third acts), is a bombardment of visual gluttony. The lavish parties these people throw would make Jay Gatsby jealous. But while the world depicted in The Great Gatsby was done for satirical purposes, the same cannot be said here. The narrative bathes in the glitz earnestly, which ends up making the scenes feel empty. It’s all too much of a muchness – did we really need to have a wedding where the church is designed to look like a scene out of Swan Lake, complete with a water-filled walkway for the bride to glide through?
Some of the best highlights don’t deal with Rachel and Nick at all. Just like many other romantic comedies, we have situation where the supporting characters far outshine the leads. Awkwafina (playing Rachel’s friend from college) and Nico Santos (as one of Nick’s relatives) steals every scene they’re in with their high-energy personas and quick-witted dialogue. The tone picks up exponentially whenever they’re on screen. The more involving love story actually takes place between Nick’s sister Astrid (Gemma Chan) and her husband Michael (Pierre Png). Even though they do not share the same amount of screen time, the writing combined with the performances of Chan and Png make for an honest depiction of how a romance can grow (or deteriorate) over time. Where everyone else is operating within the confines of a rom-com, Astrid and Michael were conceived out of something that feels more true to life.
Crazy Rich Asians does end up falling for the same gimmicks we’ve seen before, including a scene where a character races against time to catch a plane. As an entry into its given genre, it plays the familiar notes. But as a cultural statement, it’s a necessary move in the right direction. Its biggest contribution – hopefully – is opening doors for other filmmakers to come in and flex their creative muscles, and I look forward to seeing the results.