Crazy Rich Asians
US (2018) Dir. Jon M. Chu
Yes, I know I am late to the party on this one. I I’m only watching it now because I rented it for my mum and got curious. As one of the biggest surprise hits of last year, Crazy Rich Asians comes with a lot of hype, mostly for the novelty of being a Hollywood film with an all-Asian cast.
Based on the 2013 novel of the same name by Singapore born writer Kevin Kwan, the story concerns Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), a Chinese economics professor born and bred in New York, and her boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding). Nick is to be best man at his best friend’s wedding in Singapore so he invites Rachel to go with him and meet his family.
However, Nick hasn’t been honest with Rachel about his family’s enormous wealth and globally spanning empire, making the Youngs the equivalent of royalty in Asia. Naturally, down to earth Rachel has a hard time fitting in with the opulent and superficial world Nick comes from and winning over his difficult, stuck-up mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh).
After all the fuss of the film’s success, the plot is disappointingly ordinary and really, is every vapid Hollywood rom-com except with an Asian cast. Sorry to be so reductive but this is honestly its main hook, especially in the US, yet the one territory where it didn’t set the box office alight was, of course, Asia, since they see Asian faces all the time on the big screen!
This applies to yours truly as well as an avid watcher of Asian cinema. In all fairness to Hollywood, the fact they made this film is progress – the last time this happened was 1993’s The Joy Luck Club. The other thing it achieves is showing another side to Asian culture besides the paddy fields and pagodas or whatever stereotype propagated for western consumption, enlightening us to obscene wealth and inherent class snobbery not being limited to the west or Arab countries.
By the same token, this also means we get a story than doesn’t break any new ground since this superficially apes similar Hollywood films on the same theme. And while it tries to dispense with some stereotypes, it ham fistedly plays up to others, and not just with the odd Asian character speaking in broken “Engrish” for laughs either.
In the opening set in 1995, Eleanor and her family are refused entry at the posh London Calthorpe Hotel by the snobbish staff for being Asian. Naturally, the staff gets a shock when the owner reveals he has sold the hotel to the Young family. The irony is not so much the comeuppance for the staff but Eleanor becoming an unbearable snob herself 20-odd years later.
Fast forward to 2018, and Eleanor won’t accept Rachel is good enough for Nick as a US raised daughter of an immigrant who only has ambitions for herself and not putting the family first like Eleanor did. Eleanor shows no empathy for Rachel, having once been in the same position herself, instead vilifying Rachel for being American and betraying her Chinese roots.
Meanwhile Nick never told Rachel about his family’s wealth which he is uncomfortable but has no qualms taking advantage of, making him the Marilyn Munster of this tale. It is only when they arrive in Singapore and learning from an old friend Piek Lin (Awkwafina) just how “crazy rich” the Young dynasty is, that Rachel realises she is in over her head.
Cue snide looks and comments as she rocks up in her Sunday best which are gardening rags to everyone else whilst jealous admirers of Nick label her a gold digger and try to drive her away. An extravagant hen party on the family island of bride Araminta (Sonoya Mizuno) is the first of many “fish out of water” moments for Rachel, not helped by being betrayed by Amanda (Jing Lusi), a seemingly sympathetic ear revealed to be Nick’s ex.
Running concurrently to the main story is a parallel themed subplot with Nick’s British educated cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan) whose husband Michael (Pierre Png) is not from a rich family and is uncomfortable with his wife’s wealth so she hides her expensive purchases from him. But this causes a rift, as he feels worthless next to her money and has an affair which destroys Astrid.
The message of this subplot is a little oblique since it only features sporadically and the characters are woefully undeveloped, thus it fails to resonate on a substantial plane. Michael is the antagonist for being intimidated by Astrid’s wealth, but one could argue Astrid could simply curb her spending a bit and put more effort into the marriage – not that this was an excuse for Michael’s infidelity.
Either way money causes problems, whether it corrupts and inflates people’s idea of self-worth in relation to their financial worth, or simply breeds contempt on both sides of the financial fence. But you know how it will end since this is an endless stream of clichés and genre conventions, right down to the happy ending celebrated with an expensive and ostentatious rooftop party (or tops – the platform spans across THREE skyscrapers) to negate the very gist of the main plot!
Being a fan of Michelle Yeoh, it is odd seeing her playing a bitter person like Eleanor but she has the requisite poise to pull it off. Constance Wu is relatable as Rachel but the observation of her character being “too American” is sadly accurate in making her truly likable. Britain’s Gemma Chan outshines everyone in the glamour stakes, even when dressed down whilst kooky Awkwafina steals every scene as Piek Lin.
Whilst I applaud Hollywood for its belated recognition of Asian actors, I found Crazy Rich Asians to be as soulless and shallow as most of the characters, with a sadly predictable plot far too flimsy for a two-hour runtime. Conclusion – One step forwards, two steps back, unfortunately.