Crazy Rich Asians (2018)
The Only Thing Crazier Than Love is Family
The first English-language Hollywood movie in over 25 years to feature an all-Asian cast (since the release of The Joy Luck Club back in 1993), there’s a lot riding on Warner Bros.’ Crazy Rich Asians, the latest culture-clash rom-com to hit multiplexes. You see, not only did the film’s creators turn down a massive paycheck from Netflix to ensure that Crazy Rich Asians was released theatrically, but, if the movie were to make a truckload of cash (at the worldwide box office), it could signal a change in risk-averse Hollywood, paving way for wider representation and opportunity within mainstream cinema.
Based on Kevin Kwan’s bestselling novel of the same name, which went on to spawn two sequels, and adapted for the screen by Peter Chiarelli, The Proposal (2009), and telly producer-writer Adele Lim, Crazy Rich Asians is a modern retelling of the classic Cinderella story, where, this time, a regular American-Chinese girl falls for a Singaporean ‘prince.’ Although this contemporary fairy tale doesn’t do anything new in terms of mixing up the established romantic-comedy formula, sticking to the same tropes and conflicts, it more than makes up for it with its vibrant script, colorful, exotic locations, and first-rate international cast, who instill the movie with a whole lot of energy and heart.
After an amusing prologue that takes place on a rainy London night in 1995, which introduces us to the Young clan — this opening bound to empower anyone who’s ever been discriminated against — we’re plopped into present-day New York, where we meet Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), a middle-class economics professor who’s dating a hunky NYU history teacher named Nick Young (Henry Golding). The story gets rolling when Nick asks Rachel to join him for his best friend’s wedding in his home city of Singapore, Nick using this as an opportunity to introduce Rachel, who’s never visited Asia, to his big, quirky family. While a simple Google search could’ve alleviated a lot of stress for our protagonist, Rachel starts to realize (after being ushered to first class on their airplane) that Nick comes from a very affluent family, her boyfriend eventually opening up about his loaded relatives.
Once touching down in the Lion City, Rachel meets Nick’s friends, groom-to-be Colin Khoo (Chris Pang) and his fashion icon fiancé Araminta Lee (Sonoya Mizuno), the foursome hanging out at a down-to-earth street market, where Rachel tries some traditional cuisine for the first time. The next day Rachel visits her old well-off college roommate Peik Lin Goh (a scene-stealing Awkwafina) at her elegant home; that’s where she discovers that Nick isn’t just rich, he’s Kardashian rich, and the scion of one of the biggest real estate developers in the world. If that wasn’t enough, Rachel also learns that Nick happens to be the most eligible bachelor in all of Asia, with every jealous socialite — who’s after a piece of the Young’s unimaginable wealth — determined to take Rachel (their competition) out.
Her biggest obstacle, however, winds up being Nick’s disapproving mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), who believes that Rachel isn’t good enough to marry her son — everyone knows that Rachel’s presence in Singapore means a proposal’s soon on the way. Turning to her eccentric pal, Peik Lin, to coach her in how to present herself/ handle the world of Singapore’s elite, Rachel sets out to prove that she has what it takes to join the ranks of the blinged-out Young dynasty, even if that means challenging her future mother-in-law.
Best known for helming films such as Step Up 2: The Streets (2008) and G.I. Joe: Retaliation (2013), director Jon M. Chu sets the playful tone right away via a clever social media montage that features a quick cameo from novelist Kwan and comments on the contemporary digital age, and how connected the world’s become. From there, viewers are taken on a voyeuristic, headfirst trip into the extravagant lives of the rich and fabulous, a wild world where dropping seven figures on a bit of jewelry is an everyday occurrence and bringing a bazooka to a bachelor party is considered normal! And, while some might argue that the grandiosity of wealth on display is borderline sickening, Chu finds the right balance between opulence and simplicity, chiefly in Wu’s grounded protagonist and audience surrogate Rachel, a self-assured yet vulnerable everywoman, who’s whisked into the exclusive billionaires club but never succumbs to the razzle-dazzle of her upper crust rivals.
Similarly, newcomer Henry Golding does a terrific job as Singapore’s favorite son, Nick Young, a character who could’ve easily slipped into the realm of pompous or conceited, Golding coming off as sweet, genuine and charming, even after cajoling Rachel into meeting his fam-bam unprepared. It also helps that the pair share palpable chemistry, the actors giving off a vibe that their characters are truly in love, regardless of their contrasting socioeconomic upbringings.
Technically speaking, Crazy Rich Asians is shinier than Trump’s infamous Las Vegas hotel, filmmakers showcasing the tourist-y side of Singapore. From sweeping shots of the Young’s stunning palatial estate — think Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby (2013) — to a magnificent fireworks display at Marina Bay Sands, one of the most expensive buildings in the world, Crazy Rich Asians should do wonders for Singapore’s tourism industry, the island city-state lavishly photographed by cinematographer Vanja Černjul, Violet & Daisy (2011).
Then there’s the bouncy soundtrack, brimming with Chinese-language covers of notable English-language hits — think ‘Material Girl’ performed here by Sally Yeh, and Coldplay’s 2000 song ‘Yellow’ by Katherine Ho — these recognizable tracks catering to those who might feel out of the loop when it comes to the flick’s many cultural references and in-jokes (I know a dozen probably went over my head); but don’t fret, this won’t hinder anyone’s enjoyment of the picture in the slightest. Take a third act confrontation between Rachel and Eleanor, for instance, that takes place over a contest of mahjong, which is written in a way so that viewers are able to follow what’s happening, even if they don’t understand the specifics of the game.
This brings me to the controversy surrounding Singaporean representation and the ethnicities of the cast. Yes, the film centers on the Chinese people living in Singapore rather than the Malays, Indians or other minorities, but I didn’t see this as a major concern, seeing as the movie celebrates luxury and focuses on a certain slice of Singapore (those who drive fancy schmancy cars and attend big elegant parties), and not the entire country. The issues surrounding actors are a little more complicated, with some being turned down for not being ‘ethnically Chinese,’ and others (Eurasians) hired even though they’ve only got one drop of Asian in their blood. Irrespective, performances are stellar across the board!
While I’ve already spoken about the leading couple, rising star Awkwafina, Ocean’s Eight (2018), nails it as Rachel’s smart, outspoken ex-roomie Peik Lin Goh, the rapper-writer-actress sporting a wacky blonde wig, and riding around in a hot pink Audi that’s got a cocktail dress in the trunk, ready to go (just in case). The Hangover’s Ken Jeong is also solid as her kooky father, Wye Mun Goh, who kinda dresses like an Asian Elvis, whereas Sonoya Mizuno, Ex Machina (2014), always looks a million bucks as bride-to-be Araminta. The great Michelle Yeoh, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), is intimidating as f*ck as Nick’s daunting mother Eleanor, a stern matriarch who’s all about customs and tradition, whilst Nico Santos, Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 (2015), is memorable as flamboyant fashion designer Oliver T’Sien, the self-proclaimed ‘rainbow sheep of the family.’ Elsewhere Jing Lusi, Clash of Empires (2011), leaves an impression as Amanda Ling, Nick’s former-girlfriend-with-an-agenda, who tries to get ‘all chummy’ with Rachel at a resort during Araminta’s bachelorette shindig.
Although Gemma Chan, Transformers: The Last Knight (2017), is really good as Nick’s favorite cousin, Astrid Young Teo, her weepy side plot, involving her straying husband Michael (Pierre Png), should’ve been left on the cutting room floor. Speaking of Nick’s cousins, stand-up comedian Ronny Chieng is wonderful as image-obsessed investment banker/ family man Eddie Cheng, while Australia’s Remy Hii has a couple of memorable bits as horndog film producer Alistair Cheng, who’s dating a gold-digging soap opera bimbo that goes by the trashy tag Kitty Pong (Fiona Xie). Lastly, I love the fact that playboy Bernard Tai (Jimmy O. Yang), a non-family member that nabs the honors of organizing Colin’s cargo ship bachelor party via his father’s business ties, is a spitting image of a shop owner that used to import anime PVC figures from Japan for me. Brilliant stuff!
Set around an impending multi-million dollar wedding that’s both outrageous and kind of marvelous — I never thought I’d see an indoor ceremony where the bride walks down the aisle barefoot, amid orchids and bromeliads, on a path of water that flows towards the alter — Crazy Rich Asians is loaded with enough oriental allure and family drama to satisfy casual moviegoers and fans of Kwan’s book alike, despite its various omissions. Either way, filmmaker Jon M. Chu has fashioned his first diamond to date! After watching the film, though, I’m still unsure whether its title is referring to crazy Asians that are rich, or Asians that are crazy rich. I’m putting my money on the latter!
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Mr. Movie