Friday Film Focus: Crazy Rich Asians

Bright, buoyant and hilarious, this romantic comedy — directed by Jon M. Chu and based on the popular novel by Kevin Kwan — is also a cultural milestone. Crazy Rich Asians is the first major studio film since The Joy Luck Club opened almost a quarter-century ago in which an Asian filmmaker has told an Asian-American story with Asians in all of the leading roles. The result is hugely enjoyable, and hooray for Hollywood for making it happen. Singapore-born author Kwan has said that he wrote the 2013 bestseller on which the film is based to introduce a contemporary Asia to a North American audience.

The story plays out mainly in Singapore, though it begins in New York, where the Chinese-American heroine — Rachel Chu ( Constance Wu ) — teaches economics at NYU. The script, by Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim, sets up its premise briskly. Rachel’s boyfriend, a handsome Chinese-Singaporean named Nick Young ( Henry Golding ), is going back home for the wedding of his best friend, Colin Khoo (Chris Pang) to fashion icon Araminta Lee (Sonoya Mizuno). Since she’s never been to Asia, he invites her to go with him. Raised by a single mother (Tan Kheng Hua), the humble Rachel has no idea that her beau comes from old money and is colloquially known as the “Prince William of Asia.”

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. When they arrive in Singapore, her astonishment and disorientation escalate at the sight of the unfeasibly lavish airport. While much of Jon M. Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians glitters in the film’s opulent settings, gilded homes and flashy outfits and jewels, it’s still just a simple love story made complicated by family. Through painfully honest and emotional moments, the movie becomes irresistibly relatable — even if most of us are not married to or dating secret millionaires. And though the film may feel overstuffed, it all works in service of its story. 

Unlike so many recent romantic comedy heroines, Rachel doesn’t long for something better or have her life in shambles. In fact, she’s a rather well put-together career woman, happily in love and excited (if nervous) to meet Nick’s family. Wu plays her as a quick-witted person with a light and optimistic outlook that love will conquer all. Rachel soon finds herself suddenly immersed in the lifestyles of the region’s rich and famous. That’s only the beginning of her astonishment. Introduced to Nick’s fiercely possessive mother, Eleanor ( Michelle Yeoh ), and to his extended family, Rachel discovers a sprawling precinct of super-privilege where the notion of excess has been annulled. Eleanor’s disapproval is written in every muscle of Yeoh’s performance, as if she’s physically rejecting the outsider her son has dragged into their mansion.

Rachel lacks the monied pedigree Eleanor desires for her son, and each of the women’s exchanges doubles as a painful reminder of their class differences. It’s lucky for Rachel that the beauteous Astrid Leong-Teo (Gemma Chan), Nick’s cousin, takes her side … though she has her own problems dealing with a proud husband who doesn’t want any part of her wealth. And thank god for Rachel’s college friend (and the movie’s secret weapon) Goh Peik Lin, played by rapper-turned-actress and a comic tornado that is Awkwafina (Ocean’s 8). Peik Lin won’t allow her best friend to be blocked by Nick’s family; it all leads to a showdown between Rachel and momma bear that brings out the alpha female in Rachel. In addition to the money differences between characters, very few films have ever captured the pains of being first-generation American quite like Crazy Rich Asians.

Rachel is Chinese-American, which Peik Lin jokes is why her potential in-laws look down on her. It can feel like a curse to feel like an outsider in both the country you were born in or the one your parents come from. For Rachel, those feelings ultimately become a strength instead of a perceived weakness. Her choice to be proud about her immigrant roots in the face of Eleanor’s shaming becomes an emotional affirmation for others like her. It’s a tribute to Yeoh’s layered performance that the film refuses to demonize Eleanor. Instead, we see that she suffered a similar indignity at the hands of her husband’s mother, Shang Su Yi (Lisa Lu), letting the matriarch practically raise Nick so that he might one day inherit her enormous fortune. It’s the war between the bonds of family versus the pull of wealth.

Expect tears to flow as easily as laughs. And for giggles, you can’t beat Ken Jeong as Peik Lin’s new-money dad and Jimmy O. Yang (Silicon Valley) as Bernard, Nick’s raunchy college buddy who throws Colin a bachelor party. I left Crazy Rich Asians beaming, not because of the film’s wild parties or the over-the-top characters, but because of how much love is in the film between a mother and a daughter, couples and among friends and family. I was elated to identify with the struggle of juggling parents’ approval with feelings for a partner. I may not share the financial or cultural background of the characters, but I felt invited to celebrate in the emotions on-screen and those around me.

Image Source: VOX