Emma Davis reviews the first major Hollywood production over the past 20 years with an all-Asian cast.
This is the pop culture event that the Asian diaspora has been waiting for. An Asian triple threat with the director, writer, and cast being completely Asian — this has not been seen in Hollywood since The Joy Luck Club (1993). Crazy Rich Asians is a modern update of beloved Jane Austen elements such as a witty protagonist, romance with a wealthy noble, and navigating structured social norms. However, instead of Georgian Britain, the social structure is Chinese family values.
Our protagonist Rachel (Constance Wu) is invited by her boyfriend Nick (Henry Golding) to visit his family and hometown, Singapore. She then discovers that her boyfriend is the heir to a family fortune and there is a whole dynasty of wild personalities, including her boyfriend’s mother Eleanor (the legendary Michelle Yeoh), who disapproves of her. Drama ensues.
The movie leads up to a jaw-dropping wedding between Nick’s friends, Colin and Araminta. Even with scene after scene of opulence, the movie still manages to find a way to show how rich these characters are and bring a real life fairytale to an already romantic movie. This is the work of Jon M. Chu, a director whose filmography includes Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, some Step Up films and Now You See Me 2; who successfully makes this movie a visual delight. It’s a dazzling cinematic view of Singapore and that almost seem like a two hour commercial for the country’s tourist board. One of my favourite scenes takes place in a Singaporean food market, or locally known as a hawker centre – it was so immersive in the sights and sounds of Asian food culture, and the love of one’s home food, which made me immediately think of Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman.
Unfortunately, it still feels as if Singapore was more of a backdrop than a setting, as the plot is driven by the ideological clash of Western individualism and Confucian values. Little draws itself to Singapore’s culture, which could be defined by Singaporean English/’Singlish’ (present in the novel but missing in the film), the incredible community feeling of its successful public housing (replaced by illogical mansions in the world’s densest city), and diversity in the ethnic groups that live together.
On the topic of ethnic diversity, the colourism in this film is insidious. South East Asians are native to the film’s setting, but darker skinned extras are relegated to subservient roles like maids and masseuses. A particular scene ruins the fun: Rachel and her friend from college Peik-Lin drive up to the Young family’s ancestral home, secluded in the hills away from the city. They are stopped by the estate’s guards, and the Chinese women are terrified of them. These guards are Sikh and do not speak (literal “subaltern” much?). Frightening music plays as they show a close-up on this darker-skinned character’s face – I was appalled at this. Perhaps this scene was to show how exclusive and “crazy rich” Nick’s family is to have guards, but this would be a poor excuse for a film that aimed to show Asians in a positive light while feeding into rampant colourism that haunts Asian cultures. Racism in Singapore does not need to be validated like this.
The movie takes a biting satirical novel about economic standing into a cultural statement on diaspora, with its plot driven by the cultural conflict of western individualism versus the filial piety. While the novel explores many characters’ perspectives, the movie dilutes the conflict to one main clash: Rachel is very Asian in the States, but too American for her boyfriend’s Asian family. Thus, this is what makes it an Asian-American film rather than a purely Asian affair. Rachel’s mother reminds her that she is Chinese, but she uses the term 華人 (huá rén, ‘ethnically Chinese’) as opposed to 中國人 (zhōngguó rén, ‘someone from China’). Chinese identity is closely tied to a motherland, but even so, Rachel is as Chinese as she wants without a geographic home.
Demonstrated through the visually stunning character of Jon M. Chu’s direction and its incredible box office success, Crazy Rich Asians is a shining example that Asian stories are worth telling.
Crazy Rich Asians is now released on UK screens everywhere. Check out its trailer below: