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They have very large amounts of money but remain entirely rational. The title means crazily or extremely rich. Jon M Chu’s highly entertaining and outrageously over-the-top Cinderella soap opera, adapted by Adele Lim and Peter Chiarelli from the Kevin Kwan bestseller, is about a Chinese-American economics professor in New York called Rachel, fluent in both Putonghua and English, whose younger Singaporean boyfriend, Nick, invites her back to his country for a big family wedding. Only once Rachel finds herself in the plane’s first-class section does it start dawning on her that Nick is heir to the most staggeringly gigantic fortune in Asia. (Wait. Did it never occur to this smart analytical thinker to type his name into Google? And why is Nick doing something so low-rent as flying commercial? Well, no matter.) When they arrive in Singapore, her astonishment and disorientation escalate at the sight of the unfeasibly lavish airport. “JFK just smells of salmonella and despair,” she mumbles. Soon the dizzying skyline of Singapore presents itself, with the colossal Marina Bay Sands hotel looming up like a postmodern Stonehenge, and evidently much more to the point than the boring old Raffles.
Rachel is played by the elegant and luminous Constance Wu, and the Malaysian star Henry Golding is self-effacing zillionaire Nick; amusingly, the original novel suggested that Nick should resemble the Japanese-Taiwanese actor Takeshi Kaneshiro, star of many Wong Kar-wai films, but now presumably too old for the part. And Michelle Yeoh gives a showstopping performance as Nick’s scary mother Eleanor, who is enigmatically displeased at the sight of this American outsider’s claws in her son.
Could it be that the displays of mind-bendingly conspicuous wealth on display at the weekend’s lavish parties are being deployed by Eleanor and other disapproving family members to intimidate Rachel, to scare her away? Finally, Rachel will face off with Eleanor over the mahjong table, a contest with the icy seriousness of the chess match in The Seventh Seal.
Crazy Rich Asians isn’t big on subtlety and wants to overturn just one cliche: that rich people are bad. But, with a mostly all-Asian cast, it’s a corrective to the Hollywood racism that decrees Asian characters can only be shown fleetingly, if at all, and then mostly in subservient roles. Marvel’s Black Panther did something similar with black characters, in a similarly unpretentious way. And the Crazy Rich Asians here do have a superpower, the same superpower as Bruce Wayne: they are crazy rich! There’s a cheerful honesty in the title. Maybe Nancy Meyers comedies should all be renamed Crazy Rich White People. Moreover, white America can relax: the only racists on display here are Brits. A haughty London hotel manager presumes to insult Eleanor. As Julia Roberts says in Pretty Woman: big mistake, big, huge.
Gemma Chan has the rather thankless role of Nick’s serene fashion-plate cousin Astrid, but the scene is stolen by the funny supporting roles. Awkwafina is a highly enjoyable turn as Peik Lin Goh, Rachel’s sarky college contemporary who now also lives with her comedy extended family in Singapore: there are some big laughs from Ken Jeong as the paterfamilias, Wye Mun Goh, who mocks Rachel’s provincial fashion sense and her red dress. (“I thought red was lucky!” “Yeah, if you’re an envelope!”) Ronny Chieng is Nick’s pompous cousin Eddie, and Nico Santos is the witty fashion connoisseur Oliver, who describes himself as the “rainbow sheep” of the family. The 91-year-old Lisa Lu has style and presence as Nick’s revered grandmother, who takes a shine to Rachel. “The shape of your nose is auspicious,” she tells her, gnomically. All this intrigue ends inconclusively, even abruptly, with every sign of a sequel in prospect.
Perhaps inevitably, the progressive claim for Crazy Rich Asians has been countered against it, with complaints that it ignores Indian and Malay Singaporeans, that it naively reimagines Singapore as a luxury resort, and that it is another orientalist fantasy. This last accusation reminded me of Edward Said, the great anatomiser of orientalism, once describing Singapore as “the Israel of Asia” – and he did not intend that comparison politely. All these things are fair comment, but fail to account for the qualifying or extenuating factor of it being a fiction – and a funny and extravagant one.
I would add that the issue of erasing Asians from the movie screen has been a problem if you rigidly stick to Hollywood and have no interest at all in Asian movies. Perhaps this good-natured and spectacular comedy will be a jumping-off point.
Source: The Guardian
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