After weeks of hype and multiple trailer viewings, I was finally able to see Crazy Rich Asians in theaters. Before going in I had some reservations and anxiety about the portrayal of my culture to western society. Many people don’t realize it, but this movie is a pretty big deal for Asians everywhere. Not only is this not a foreign film, but also it is the first Asian film made in Hollywood to shed light on the lives contemporary Asian Americans.
When it boils down to it, we haven’t had a full cast of Asian actors in a film that wasn’t produced overseas or as a specific Hong Kong action feature (thank you for your services Jackie Chan and Jet Li). This hadn’t been seen in 25 years, ever since The Joy Luck Club in 1993.
Really? It took TWENTY-FIVE YEARS to make this film? Yes people, it took a very very very long time for people to make a movie like this and that in itself is a topic of debate for another post. What remains true however, is that this is a momentous achievement/event and a welcome change from oversaturated superhero movies and the poorly rebooted garbage that usually floods the silver screen. Crazy Rich Asians is the chance to showcase and tell a story about Asians on our own terms, which hopefully proves to Hollywood that we can make good movies and that we can be A-list stars in our own right.
Before the movie began, different questions flooded my mind as we took our seats. Will this film do justice for Asians? Will there be any offensive stereotypes used or portrayed by the characters? Will this be able to stand on its own as a good film?
Having watched it, and allowing it to ruminate and sink in, I can gladly say yes. It was a good film in its own right. It has all the makings of a traditional romantic comedy and does a fine job with Asian representation without pandering to the audience. It is a must watch.
Now onto the review.
SPOILER TERRITORY AHEAD!
Plot Summary: Rachel Chu is happy to accompany her longtime boyfriend, Nick, to his best friend's wedding in Singapore. She's also surprised to learn that Nick's family is extremely wealthy and he's considered one of the country's most eligible bachelors. Thrust into the spotlight, Rachel must now contend with jealous socialites, quirky relatives and something far, far worse -- Nick's disapproving mother.
The casting choices were perfect and it’s evident that the director, Jon M. Chu took his time carefully sifting through the thousands of potential actors and actresses before he came to his final decision.
Constance Wu as Rachel Chu did an admirable job as the Asian female lead, and performed well as ‘fish out of water’ opposite Henry Golding’s Nick Young. Every scene they shared together left you wanting more as they had great rapport and believable chemistry on screen. It was very hard to believe this was Golding’s first acting role since he and his British accent had a natural charisma and gravitas. His portrayal borderlines as being a bit too perfect, but the reason for that comes in much later. Gemma Chan as Astrid Teo was also a good secondary character, and could have been fleshed out more had they had been given more time. Legendary actress Michelle Yeoh needs no introduction and was arguably the standout performance as the fearsome matriarch, Eleanor Young of the Young family. Thankfully, she was given a script that didn’t dive into full on “tiger mom” territory and maintained a sophistication and grace about herself worthy of an empress. Ken Jeong and Awkwafina played up their comedic bits and I found myself genuinely laughing at their antics. No complaints about the characters at all. But as a person who loves to be spoiled by strong, developed characters, my only wish is that I got to see more of them.
Which brings me to my next point:
Maybe it's just my thoughts as an Asian American, but I am used to seeing drama unfold and watching western media relish in the over-the-top antics of these fictional characters. For some reason Crazy Rich Asians seem to tease and lead up to a big explosion of testosterone/estrogen among characters who butt heads, but that powder keg ready to go ends up fizzling into nothingness, or at most, barely a pop.
Like I mentioned before, Astrid had a very interesting role in that she carries the burden and feelings of isolation due to her enormous wealth and how it intimidates others around her. This is shown in how her husband has an affair because of his own perceived inadequacy. Very powerful jutaxposition, but very little screen time to build for it to pay off effectively. Though she did provide with the most savagely cutting line in the film, it would have been better served had she been given more time.
This occurs a few more times including Rachel's showdown against Eleanor. They tease and set up an epic showdown between these two clashing visions about what it means to be a good wife/mother in Asian culture, ultimately to rein it back in before the cat claws hit their mark. When Nick Young stands up to his best friend's obnoxious groomsman ready to throw the knockout punch of a lifetime, it he reins it in before he leaves the pompous idiot's brain scattered all over the floor.
But thats the point...
This movie operates on a show, don't tell philosophy and I love it for that. Rachel and Eleanor don't end up having a screaming match, Nick doesn't punch that guy out, and the anger and frustration felt by the cast is toned down to almost apathetic levels. They are rich asians, but they are Asians first and foremost. It is jarring for westerners, but quite real in Asian culture.
To elaborate further, a western moviegoer is used to the high octane fueled action sequences and overly exaggerated battles that come with Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnsons, Jason Stathams, Vin Diesels, and other musclebound bad boys. We love seeing trashy women slapping and pulling each other's hair out over the men they love. Reality television exists for a reason. Teen drama shows are popular for a reason.
We would expect these crazy rich asians to have some semblance of zaniness, but they all carry themselves with refinement and class. Dignity in the face of opposition. True to form, Crazy Rich Asians does none of this because this isn't trying to give in to the typical western movie experience. This is an Asian American movie. It follows a different cultural standard, and with it, brings about a sense of subtlety and nuance.
I'm not going to lie, there are some faults in the movie that can't go unnoticed. I know I said subtlety is good, but some characters had such little development it seemed almost strange and unnecessary to include them at all. The obnoxious Bernard (played by Jimmy O. Yang) for example, could have been eliminated from the movie and it would have made no difference. The catty girls putting a gutted fish in Rachel's hotel bed seemed a little mean spirited and a bit off for the tone of the movie. Some of shots and pacing of the movie seemed oddly placed such as that creepy scene of Awkwafina's brother aka Peik Lin's brother filming Rachel and her mom in bed. Super gross. Nick Young is also the pinnacle of man, who is both a loyal/loving boyfriend and the prodigal son wrapped in a handsome package. So he's kind of boring by that extent. This isn't a bad thing necessarily as I feel Asian men are very misrepresented in American media. In this regard I'm glad there's some gratuitous male eye candy, anything helps in a world where the narrative is asian men = not sexually undesirable. However, as more and more Asian Hollywood movies become dominant in western society, I hope there's a chance to flesh them out to their fullest potential. Moving on!
The central conflict in the movie stems from the cultural clash between Asians and Asian Americans and is used as the overarching theme of this film when the protagonist, Rachel and antagonist, Eleanor first meet which are the ideas of Individualism vs. Collectivism. This is arguably the crux of the film and perhaps the reason why Nick gets pushed to the sidelines in the second act. He remains largely a neutral party between the two and has no say in anything, acting like a dutiful son. Jon M. Chu wanted to show these two ladies duke it out between ideologies. But who is in the right?
Upon her discovery that Rachel is an Economics professor at NYU, Eleanor scoffs and disparages that as a luxury afforded only to selfish Americans. Very typical old Asian thought process. Family comes first and everything is in service to keeping the family together. This is further reflected and examined through her actions and speeches.
Many people won't understand and may be critical of Eleanor, but that is because they don't understand her. We're set up to hate her and her old fashioned ways.
Eleanor Young has spent most of her life sacrificing herself, debasing herself, everything in order to appease family and get to where she is today. She has been in Rachel's shoes and understands the thought process of old money and traditions. Rachel has the love and affection of her son, her pride and joy, and she resents her for it. Through candid talks with Rachel, Eleanor reveals that she was never her mother-in-law's favorite. In fact, she was never her second or third choice to marry her future husband. In fact, the mother-in-law would never even pass on the family ring as she never considered her to be part of the family. She knows what it is to be reviled and viewed as unworthy and she passes this same judgment to Rachel. It's a sad and terrible thing to do to someone, but it is reality. People pick up bad habits and continue the process in a cyclical fashion until someone is able to break the mold.
This happens symbolically when she engages Eleanor in a Mah Jong duel to prove a point about their ideologies. I was thoroughly pleased that the rules of the game were not explained and force fed to appease western viewers, instead it left all the hand holding at home and away from Singapore. Excellent.
This is the climax of the film and Rachel succeeds in breaking away from the craziness (see what I did there?). She breaks free from it all. To accomplish this, she ultimately has to reject Nick's marriage proposal and leave Singapore and his life forever. It is painful, but a necessary truth in order to get Eleanor to see what her actions will do to her son and for Rachel, this act serves to show how similar they actually are.
Rachel forfeits the game and the glamorous life with Nick because she realizes she herself would end up in a cycle of repressed hatred and be locked into a place where she would feel forever unworthy as a daughter-in-law. It's a terrible existence and she will not play a part and does so by masterfully and graciously losing. Her Mah Jong pieces reveals that she could have won their game, but takes that loss with stride as she leaves, knowing who she is and keeping her own self worth intact.
Obviously the movie does not end on a sour note (because rom com, duh) and we are greeted with the typical resolution where everyone is happy. We cheer and party and it ends with Astrid and a new potential mate in a post credits scene ala Marvel movie style. I don't think I need to dive into the variety of tropes and cliches that run rampant in this film because they don't detract from the experience. It is a fun, light movie that plays it safe when it needs to be and dives into more introspection upon further reflection.
Crazy Rich Asians does not reinvent the genre, nor does it attempt to be something it's not. That is part of the charm and why it is so effective to audiences everywhere. It's a relatable tale about to Asians and their relationship with the old school mentality of collectivism versus individualism. The system of disparity between americanization and traditional values.
Rachel is consistently tried and tested as a potential mate for Nick by moms, ex-girlfriends, friends, grandmas, and more, but comes out on top each and every time. Her charm stems from her simplicity, intelligence, and earnestness. However, the ability to stand up for what she is and her beliefs against the storm of judgment by rich asians is the most endearing part of this movie.
Overall the film delivers its promise well. It had heart, laughs, and a feel good ending. At the end she overcomes the crazy rich asians and Nick wins her on a plane aka the most cliche spot for proposal ever as well as Eleanor's respect. Surprisingly, he proposes with the ring she had custom made, indicating a newfound tradition that sees both of their viewpoints being honored. A great little detail.
This film is by no means completely blemish free, with the main problem I see most people would say as the lack of characterization in some characters and baffling edits. That being said, Crazy Rich Asians will undoubtedly become a classic movie for years to come. Hopefully it does well at the box office and we can see the whole trilogy fleshed out in the following years to come.
Go watch Crazy Rich Asians in theaters if you haven't already.