Released 2018. Director: Jon M. Chu
MUCH HAS BEEN SAID ABOUT CRAZY RICH ASIANS being a milestone in Hollywood history. The first major studio production since The Joy Luck Club in 1993 to feature an all-Asian cast (except in a short flashback scene at the start). The significance is not limited to the choice of actors (and the decision of not inserting any white roles into the story) but the fact that Hollywood bankrolled a movie with a very defined range of cultural specificity that bucked the trend of conventional moviemaking wisdom is to be applauded. To the studio's relief, their risk turned into a crazy rich payday with its huge global box office returns.
Crazy Rich Asians wouldn’t have been such a sensation if not for – and there are many factors here – chiefly, Jon M. Chu’s rousing, energetic and restlessly entertaining direction. This man knows how to turn a novel about Chinese people into a blockbuster movie everybody can enjoy.
Right from the very beginning, the choice of a jazzed-up soundtrack of oldies (some from the 1930s) sets the tone and pace, and you know you're not far from a feet-tapping and finger-snapping raucous party. Befitting the title, of course the production design is dressed to the hilt, when money is no object. The homes range from posh to tacky, the suits and dresses are ripped from fashion magazines. The lifestyles reflect a social status few have experienced or glimpsed firsthand. And a high-society wedding ceremony that costs the GDP of a small country. Was Baz Lurhmann a consultant on this visual extravaganza? Some might question the display and flaunting of such amount of wealth as obscene, when a purchase of earrings worth $1.2 million is just a regular afternoon shopping. But what do you expect to see when the title says clearly how insanely loaded these people are?
Don’t get sidetracked by the visual feast though. Beneath the shiny sparkly surface is a story with enough meat on its bones to chew over as you’re dazzled by the expensive dining ware. Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), born and raised in New York, is flying with her boyfriend Nick to Singapore to attend a wedding. Nick hasn't told Rachel he’s the heir to a real-estate empire in Asia. He also never told her about the unreachably high standards set by his mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh).
The clash between the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law is at the heart of Crazy Rich Asians. Rachel is the naïve commoner meeting the queen who is not about to let her prince marry someone outside the royal circle.
The first time Nick introduces Rachel to his mother, an effusive Rachel rushes to hug Eleanor, a woman with deep-seated ideas of traditions and codes of behaviour. We see from Eleanor’s reaction this is only the beginning of a list of disagreement. The dragon lady sizes up the outsider with instant judgement.
In Eleanor’s eye, Rachel is not worthy to be part of this family, even though she’s an economics professor at NYU. Surely that alone raises anyone’s stock, but not for Eleanor. Rachel is “not Chinese enough” because she’s raised on Western values which places a higher premium on individual fulfilment. “Pursuing one’s passion – how very American, ” as Eleanor puts it. Rachel “will never be enough” because she doesn’t understand the need to sacrifice her personal pursuit for a family like this one. Which is what Eleanor did – giving up her career in law when she married Nick’s father to devote fulltime to the family. Marrying Nick is to join an aristocracy with a prescribed role, on a defined path. Familial duties and personal pursuits, are they mutually incompatible?
This being a comedy, obstacles in the couple’s way will be overcome and a resolution will present itself to ensure a happy ending. I mentioned cultural specificity earlier. Here's an example of how a game of mahjong is used to illustrate a critical point. As Rachel and Eleanor are strategising and choosing their words carefully, each holding her ground, Rachel politely informs Eleanor she’s turned down Nick’s proposal because she doesn’t wish for Nick to marry her and resent his mother. What is more important, and less obvious, is Eleanour learning that Rachel has deliberately lost the game, an indication she’s not vindictive to make Eleanor lose face. Instead, this small act of deference as a goodwill farewell gesture tells Eleanor that Rachel is “Chinese enough” because she understands the paramount importance Eleanor places on respecting the elders, especially, one hundred percent every time, the mother-in-law.
Having an all-Asian cast is not the only aspect of Crazy Rich Asians that stands out. It’s having an Asian cast of strong women characters. Rachel and Eleanor embody two cultural experiences meeting in the middle. There’s a subplot involving Nick’s cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan) who walks out of her cheating husband. The list includes, to a lesser degree, Rachel’s mother who escaped an abusive marriage to raise her daughter as a single mother, and Nick’s granny who can still make Eleanor feel small. To balance the scale, the comedy naturally has to feature a gaggle of scheming and shallow women jealous of Rachel snagging their prince.
As for the men, the hero Nick is a model boyfriend, caring and carefree, with looks and a fat wallet thrown in. Next to the women in his life, the most eligible bachelor is awfully bland. His best friend the groom is similarly dull. Their male cousins and friends remain one dimensional, with a couple of real jerks to make up the variety. Curiously, Nick’s father is completely missing from the story, being on business overseas, thus leaving the spotlight and authority to his wife.
Now that Crazy Rich Asians has become a runaway success, it remains to be seen how Kevin Kwan’s two follow up novels measure up in their movie adaptations. As the first instalment, this is a milestone in East meets West movie-making, a busy and vibrant comedy, and an outrageously entertaining two hours.
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