Crazy Rich Asians
“Crazy Rich Asians has been burdened with a great deal of responsibility.”
Title: Crazy Rich Asians (2018)
Director: Jon M. Chu 👨🏻🇺🇸
Writers: Original novel by Kevin Kwan 👨🏻🇸🇬🇺🇸 and screenplay by Peter Chiarelli 👨🏼🇺🇸 and Adele Lim 👩🏻🇲🇾🇺🇸
Reviewed by Mimi 👩🏻🇺🇸
Even before Crazy Rich Asians officially premiered, Jimmy O. Yang, who plays the spoiled son of a corrupt billionaire in the movie, boasted on Twitter about its Rotten Tomato rating of 100%. Someone (who is presumably Asian American) joked that the score seemed appropriate “because if there is one thing we love more than anything else, it's an A+.” Following opening day, the film’s critical rating dropped, just slightly, to 94%, while Metacritic gives it a 74.
By all counts, the film, adapted from Kevin Kwan’s commercially successful novel of the same name, is a solid romantic comedy through and through. From the trailer alone, one can anticipate the story’s trajectory: Chinese American Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) and her Chinese Singaporean boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding) are in love, but their relationship is threatened by the revelation that Nick comes from a well-known, wealthy family. Specifically, it’s threatened by Nick’s disapproving mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh). We know that Rachel and Nick must end up together, of course, but the fun part is watching how it happens.
According to co-writer Adele Lim, there was already an existing script by Peter Chiarelli when director Jon M. Chu, who is Taiwanese American, brought her on to contribute a woman’s point of view, as well as that of someone from the Chinese diaspora. It makes sense, then, that Crazy Rich Asians possesses all the trappings of a conventional rom-com—from the everywoman appeal of the female protagonist to the hunky love interest with requisite six-pack to the obsession over marriage—with a few cultural twists. That the movie is set in Asia—Singapore, to be exact—and features a majority Asian cast are not insignificant details. The soundtrack deploys Chinese covers of Western pop songs, and there are enough shots of tasty-looking, Southeast Asian street bites to satisfy any foodie.
For the most part, however, Chu does not seem interested in breaking the mold when it comes to cinematic storytelling. Perhaps because he or the producers recognized what a challenge it would be putting Asian faces in front of the camera (let alone 20+ of them), they shied away from taking other risks. In the end, Crazy Rich Asians plays it safe, narratively speaking, but that doesn’t mean it’s not thoroughly entertaining.
The film’s strongest assets are by far the women. Wu and Yeoh bring an incredible amount of charm and elegance to their roles, their adversarial relationship easily stealing the show. In many respects, their characters appear far more developed than that of the male lead’s. The most moving scene by far—or at least the one where the most sniffling could be heard throughout the packed theater on opening night—centers around Rachel and her mother (Tan Kheng Hua). The themes of family, filial piety, and Chinese children’s relationships to their mothers (and mothers-in-law) echo strongly throughout the film.
At the same time, nearly all the dialogue between the female characters revolves around men, relationships, or the subject of marriage. In the scene where Rachel goes dress shopping with her mom, they talk about red being a color for luck—and fertility. But of course, the whole impetus for buying the dress goes back to Rachel’s relationship with Nick and her need to impress his family. The topics of conversation between Rachel and her college friend Peik Lin (Awkwafina) also lean toward Nick. And though Rachel and Eleanor’s showdown over a deliciously tense game of mahjong includes lines about strategy, it all serves as a metaphor for how Rachel chooses to handle her decision regarding whether or not to accept Nick’s marriage proposal. So Crazy Rich Asians manages to pass the Bechdel Test, but more through technicalities than in spirit.
When it comes to the men, it’s interesting that a film about Asian culture and identity should be so committed to presenting Western ideals of masculinity. It desperately wants audiences to know that abs on Asian men do exist. I have no complaints about turning the female gaze on Golding and Chris Pang, who plays Nick’s best friend. I mostly find it interesting, especially since I grew up seeing Asian men primarily through the lens of East Asian pop culture, which prizes svelte “pretty boys” over beefcakes. Again, it’s less of a complaint and more of an observation. After all, Crazy Rich Asians is an American production intended for American audiences, so it follows that the movie would adhere to our (Westernized) standards of beauty.
GradeMyMovie.com Assessment: 46% of key cast and crew members were POC.
It’s been repeated over and over again how significant Crazy Rich Asians is given that the last mainstream Hollywood film to feature an all-Asian cast happened 25 years ago with The Joy Luck Club (1993). Notably, it’s a romance without a white person in sight. Asian American audiences can finally watch a film created and marketed explicitly for them.
The freshest point the film makes about identity is that even within the same ethnic diaspora, there lies a diversity of experiences and values. One reason that Eleanor objects to Rachel as suitable wife material for her son is not just because she come from nameless, working-class, immigrant stock, but that she’s too American. Peik Lin says Eleanor probably thinks of Rachel as a “banana”—yellow on the outside, white on the inside. Many Asian Americans watching the movie will be familiar with the term, as it exposes our own insecurities about cultural assimilation.
But for all the hype about representation, it’s equally important to acknowledge who isn’t being represented. Although the title refers to “Asians” in name, the story really only focuses on characters of Chinese descent. For this reason, the movie has been accused of erasing Singapore’s Malay and Indian ethnic groups, who make up nearly a quarter of the population. Meanwhile, a large portion of its foreign labor force comes from the Philippines and Indonesia. This lack of Southeast Asian and South Asian faces only feeds into the problems of racialized oppression in Singapore, just as the casting of predominantly light-skinned actors contributes to the ongoing problem of colorism. Likewise, the celebration of the “crazy rich” glosses over the socioeconomic inequality plaguing not only Singaporeans but also the growing intraracial wealth gap among Asians in America—an issue that’s often rendered invisible because of the tendency to lump together all Asian Americans.
Awkwafina’s performance has also drawn some criticism for her perceived use of AAVE (African American Vernacular English), which was not written into the original character’s dialogue in the books. And though a few have defended the rapper-turned-actress by noting that she grew up in Queens and around black people, other black women writers and performers have refuted this justification here, here, and here.
Bonus for LGBTQ: +0.00
The Youngs’ “poorer” relation, Oliver T’sien (Nico Santos), represents the lone gay character amid the otherwise overwhelmingly straight film. As a Filipino-American, Santos is also one of the only Southeast Asian actors with speaking lines, although his character is technically Chinese Singaporean like the rest of Nick’s family. Oliver gets to deliver many of the film’s zingers, though the script relegates his role to a bit of a cliché: his primary function is to do Eleanor’s bidding and to help give Rachel a Cinderella-style makeover.
Mediaversity Grade: B+ 4.33/5
The frustrating lack of diversity in Hollywood, and the film’s PR and surrounding media playing up this narrative, has burdened Crazy Rich Asians with a great deal of responsibility. Given that pressure, it simply cannot live up to expectation. The movie does not fully represent the true richness of the Asian American experience beyond material wealth, nor does it accurately portray Asians living in Asia. Even so, the film is on track to gross over $20 million opening weekend, signaling that it is giving American audiences something they’re hungry for. In that respect, it’s a big movie with big ambition. Within the industry itself, the hope is that Crazy Rich Asians will help launch careers, prove the bankability of Asian stars, and open doors for other Asian American stories—ideally, even more inclusive ones—to be told.