Ok so first, a confession. Even though my bestie had lent me her book of Kevin Kwan‘s Crazy Rich Asians over a month ago, telling me to read it before the movie opened, I didn’t get a chance to do so. I finally started reading it right after I got home from the advanced screening… and suffice to say I’ve become a bit obsessed with anything CRA. In the weeks following to its release, the buzz has been strong, and it keeps building up steadily. Naturally, being that I’m likely the only Southeast Asian film blogger here in town (as well as one of the few SE Asian filmmakers), I can’t help feeling giddy about this movie.
A bunch of reports surrounding this movie has pointed out that it’s been 25 years since Joy Luck Club was released that we have a big studio-backed Hollywood film based on a book by an Asian author, featuring a mostly East-Asian cast, and directed by an Asian director. It’s impossible to dispute the historical importance of this movie in terms of representation, which comes at the perfect time as there’s growing pressure in Hollywood to feature greater diversity on screen. For me personally, it feels incredible to see so many characters who look like me reflected on the big screen!
But setting all of that aside, every film still has to be judged on its merit. Yes, it’s an important film, but is it any good?
Well I’m happy to report that (borrowing from Ken Jeong‘s line in the movie) HELLS YEAH! It’s perhaps the best rom-coms I’ve seen in a good long while. It has the exact mix of romance AND comedy, wrapped in a lavish, colorful and vibrant concoction. It’s extravagant surely, over the top even, but the ‘go big or go home’ sensibility seems appropriate here. Can love actually conquers all? When the economic and social class is SO wide, would true love suffice?
The film’s protagonist is Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), a NYU economics professor whose life is about to be turned upside down when her dreamy boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding) takes her to Singapore to attend his bestie’s wedding. Somehow Nick’s been able to conceal the fact that his family is not just rich or filthy rich, but crazy rich. But thanks to an astute family acquaintance who eavesdropped when he was at a Manhattan, everyone in his social circle learn that Nick is coming home with his girlfriend in tow. I love the way director Jon M. Chu showcases the way the news goes viral on screen, which serves as a way to display local flavor in its expression, i.e. alamak which is an expression akin to OMG used by Malay and Singaporean people.
As someone who wasn’t born in the US but came here for college, I feel like I’m always in two worlds, never quite belonging anywhere. So Rachel’s fish-out-of-water story strikes a chord with me, and Wu deftly displays a sense of alienation in her performance. Soon she realizes who she’s dealing with. ‘I didn’t know you’re like the Prince William of Asia,’ she tells Nick, to which he quickly replies, ‘Oh don’t be ridiculous, I’m more of a Harry.’ The timing couldn’t be more perfect for this fairy tale, given we just saw Prince Harry married ‘commoner’ Meghan Markle just this past Spring. In many ways, CRA follows the familiar tropes of a rom-com, yet Chu and writers Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim manages to transcend the genre with astute social class commentary. It’s Cinderella meets Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, but yet maintain its own uniqueness in terms of voice and style.
Wu and Golding has a sweet, charming chemistry together that makes you root for them to be together. It’s a crucial ingredient in any rom-com which this movie gets right. As the breakout star of Fresh Off The Boat, Wu seems like the natural choice, but casting Golding, an unknown talent who’s never acted before in a film, is a brave move that pays off amazingly. The British-Malaysian former travel presenter is easy on the eyes with a killer smile, even killer voice, and has that Classic Hollywood look about him. I call him the Asian Gregory Peck. I’m curious to see him in other roles in the future, certainly a fresh new leading man we could use more of in Hollywood.
The movie also benefits from a plethora of memorable supporting characters. Michelle Yeoh is perfectly icy as Nick’s strictly-principled and dutiful mother. Her resentment towards Rachel is more than just cattiness, and even when she’s at her most severe, I can’t help but sympathize with her. I have to say I can’t get enough of Awkwafina as Rachel’s hysterical bestie Peik Lin. I feel like she barely had any screen time as the token Asian character in Ocean’s 8, so I’m glad to see her show her comedic chops to perfection here. She and the notoriously farcical Ken Jeong as Peik Lin’s dad provide some of the funniest bits in the movie. The makeover scene with Nick’s ‘rainbow sheep of the family’ cousin Oliver (Nico Santos) is a hoot! All the ladies playing Nick’s relatives also provide a ton of comic relief. I do have to mention Lisa Lu as Ah Ma, Nick’s powerful grandma, who often reminds me of my own.
I absolutely adore the luminous Gemma Chan as Nick’s fave cousin/confidante Astrid. In houte couture, the jet-setting heiress is the epitome of elegance, grace and sophistication. Her crumbling marriage to her handsome-but-not-so-rich husband (Pierre Png) sends a not-so-subtle message that nobody’s life is perfect and even the ultra rich have problems like the rest of us. Chan’s performance is tinged with the right amount of poignancy and melancholy.
This movie lives up to its title in more ways than one. Obviously the set pieces, costumes, cars, palatial houses, etc. potently gives us a glimpse of how the crazy rich live. Then there’s the obnoxiously-crazy behaviors of Nick’s relatives, especially the imbecile frat-boys led by Bernard (Jimmy O. Yang). Nick practically has to escape the outrageous, hedonistic bachelor party with his groom-to-be BFF Colin (Chris Pang) which leads to a rare quiet moment in the movie.
The sheer absurdity of the crazy rich lifestyle is not lost on the filmmakers, as they unabashedly poke fun at them with zippy one-liners. There’s even a hilarious line poking fun of Donald Trump’s bathroom. The movie does an amazing job in showing the class structures within the rich society, something that Rachel isn’t at all familiar with. It’s as if we, the general audience, is living vicariously through her as she’s trying to navigate her way in this ultra-exclusive club.
What I admire most about this movie is that, amidst the world of high fashion and dizzying parties, the richly-drawn characters remain front and center. Despite the razzle-dazzle glamor, it never feels like the movie is style-over-substance because we’re always reminded of what’s at stake. The filmmakers did a good job to make me feel invested in Rachel & Nick’s story, as well as in their respective families’. The mahjong scene towards the end is an emotional one that packs so much cultural & personal significance, down to that one quick glance between the two mothers. I appreciate that Kwan’s book and the movie portray various multi-dimensional, complex women with formidable inner strength. It’s one of the rare rom-coms that is not about the girl chasing the boy, but a girl finding her self worth.
But you can’t review this movie without mentioning the amazing visuals. It’s really a treat for the senses. The cinematography by Vanja Cernjul is breathtakingly beautiful. I haven’t been in Singapore in years and it looks like a fantasy land in this movie. The music by Brian Tyler is fun, energetic but also romantic. In fact, I was enjoying the soundtrack on youtube as I was writing my review. I love Kina Grannis‘s gorgeous cover of Can’t Help Falling in Love during the wedding scene.
I don’t usually say much about box office numbers in my review. But I am SO rooting for this film to do well. Obviously, all the studio execs see is green, so there’s a lot at stake in terms of its box office performance whether they’d think it’s viable business to have make Hollywood movies with predominantly Asian cast like this one. I honestly believe the success of this movie would have a big impact in diversity and inclusion in storytelling, not just for Asians but for every content creator, talents and moviegoers of color.
On top of its historical significance, Crazy Rich Asians is a great movie, period. I laughed, I cried, sometimes both at the same time. Thanks Jon M. Chu and the phenomenal cast, it’s such a joyful experience that’s both funny AND romantic. I sure hope there’ll be a trilogy just like the books!