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With a premise straight from classic literature and fairytales, Crazy Rich Asians is a transportive romcom about a poor girl who finds her Prince Charming – and is then thrown into the extravagant, glitzy, catty world of the Singapore elite.
The idea that an everyday woman could meet a dashing man and end up marrying into aristocratic society is a well-worn, and well-loved, story convention that has built the foundation for tales like Pride and Prejudice and Cinderella. And these stories have roots in real-life fascination – it’s estimated that 1.9 billion people tuned in to watch Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding. Crazy Rich Asians plays well into the trappings of this framework: the story floats between gaudy and flirtatious to emotional, dramatic and then eye-opening and heartwarming by its conclusion. It’s a film that’s entirely aware it’s an ornate fantasy, one meant to whisk you away to a land of unspeakably fine dresses, banquets and baubles. It’s also a film that just so happens to feature an Asian cast.
It’s hard to overestimate the importance of this. Last year, only four out of the 100 top-grossing films featured an Asian protagonist. While films like Dev Patel’s Lion and Kumail Nanjiani’s The Big Sick have been met with critical acclaim, it’s been 25 years since a major Hollywood studio has funded a present-day film that features an entirely Asian, Asian American and diaspora Asian cast, with the last instance being 1993’s The Joy Luck Club. While Crazy Rich Asians’ rags-to-riches story is, at its core, one with universal appeal, Hollywood is still using the film to gauge whether it should even greenlight more Asian-centric projects. The film boasts more than 70 speaking roles for Asian actors, and director Jon M Chu and author Kevin Kwan spent so long searching for talent that they now have what they believe is the largest database of English-speaking Asian actors. It would not be far off to say this is a watershed moment, for both Hollywood and everyone involved in the project.
The film itself is a faithful adaptation of Kwan’s international bestselling novel by the same name. It centers on Rachel (Constance Wu), a plucky NYU economics professor who teaches game theory and has a dreamy historian boyfriend named Nick Young (Malaysian-born Henry Golding, in his debut acting role). Rachel accompanies Nick to Singapore for his best friend’s wedding, and it’s there she learns that Nick is actually the son of the wealthiest family on the island, heir to the dynasty, and the wedding they’re attending is the hottest event of the year. Nick does little to prepare her for what awaits – a gilded lion’s den, where socialites will drop millions on jewelry without batting a lifted eyelash, and yet turn their noses up at Rachel’s job, her nationality and her status as the child of a single mother (played by Kheng Hua Tan).
This distinction between Asian and Asian American is a conversation we’ve rarely seen in mainstream films, and one of the interesting things about Crazy Rich Asians is how the fully Asian cast allows for these intercommunity conversations to get teased out. Despite her best efforts to impress, Rachel immediately finds herself at odds with Nick’s mother Eleanor Young (Michelle Yeoh), a matriarch steeped in tradition and duty who finds Rachel’s Americanness wholly distasteful. “You’re a foreigner … all Americans care about is their own happiness,” Eleanor says to her. That Rachel has no longstanding cultural roots in any country, worked her way up from nothing and speaks of keeping her job were she to marry Nick, all single her out as an outsider, someone who is Asian, yet not, in all the ways that matter.
Cinematographer Vanja Cernjul captures the most delightfully exquisite details of this secretive world – the wedding, in particular, had me in near tears – but visuals aside, the film is at its best when it explores the interior lives of women. Yeoh and Wu spark off each other, with Rachel’s more wide-eyed optimism running up against Eleanor’s steely grace that hides a deep love for her family. Malaysian-born TV writer Adele Lim was brought in to add specificity and emotional beats to Peter Chiarelli’s script, and you can see her hand in the way these women interact across cultural boundaries. There’s also Gemma Chan as Nick’s cousin Astrid, an ethereal, kind socialite who does her best to protect Rachel but is wrapped up in dealing with her own husband’s perceived inferiorities. Awkwafina’s Peik Lin is similarly a highlight, a shamelessly nouveau riche character whose friendship with Rachel is genuine and unquestioning. Nick and his friend Colin (Chris Pang), meanwhile, are largely there to be eye-candy.
When one looks at the film’s 102-minute runtime, it’s hard not to mourn its brevity. It’s impossible for such airy summer fare to delve much deeper than it does into the moral pitfalls of this society. It’s a gauzy fantasy, one that never purports to be anything more than a glimpse through the curtains at an intensely insular world, the 1% of the 1%. There could be conversations about whether this story glorifies capitalism, or extravagance, or peddles only one specific image of what “Asian” means. At the same time, it’s unfair that the systemic injustices in Hollywood have saddled a romcom, of all things, with the burden of needing to be everything for everyone.
Was Princess Diaries expected to explore colonialism, or Ocean’s 8 asked to expound on the dangers of glorifying organized crime? So infrequently do Asian women get to see themselves in spaces like Downton Abbey, as the Lizzie Bennets, Belles or Guineveres. Of 2017’s four films that featured an Asian protagonist, not one of them was a woman. Crazy Rich Asians is not a perfect film, but it has the potential to open doors for more Asian-led projects. And it’s a film that, for once, allows Asian women to just slide the glass slipper on, even for a moment.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Crazy Rich Asians review – glossy romcom is a vital crowd-pleaser | Film