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Crazy Rich Asians is the big screen adaptation of the best-selling novel by Kevin Kwan and the first Asian-led studio movie since The Joy Luck Club in 1993. There’s a lot riding on it for the future of culturally-diverse mainstream cinema. Does it live up to the hype?
Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), a Chinese-American economics professor at NYU, is invited by her boyfriend of a year, Nick Young (Henry Golding), to attend his best friend’s wedding in Singapore, where she will meet his family for the first time. Raised in NY by a single parent, her immigrant mother (Kheng Hua Tan) warns her: ‘You’re different.’ Rachel is unphased: ‘I’m Chinese. I speak Chinese.’
But Nick’s been short on details about his background and Rachel’s blind-sided when she finds out he’s the heir to a Chinese real estate fortune, the most-sought after bachelor on the island (‘the Asian Prince William’) and an army of socialites are eagerly tapping their toes for his return. Rachel quickly discovers rubbing shoulders with the mega-rich is a perilous occupation but not nearly as murky as negotiating the bounds of family duty and honour in Nick’s matriarchal family.
The ever-excellent Michelle Yeoh plays Nick’s mother, Eleanor, with steely reserve – this is not the kind of woman who leaves things to chance, who saunters through a kitchen in head-to-toe couture, giving instructions to her staff to ensure a banquet is just-so. To her, Rachel is not truly Chinese and, therefore, not a suitable partner for her son. But Eleanor’s journey has not been straightforward. She too studied in the US and made sacrifices for family and tradition. Is Rachel willing to do the same?
Meanwhile, Nick’s sister Astrid (Gemma Chan) struggles with the dynamics within her own marriage. A glitzy IT-girl with a heart of gold, she can afford to drop $1.2m on a pair of earrings but hides purchases from her husband, a former soldier, to avoid flaunting the imbalance of power her money brings to their relationship.
And ruling over them all is Nick’s elderly grandmother, Ah Ma (Lisa Lu) – will her apparent approval of Rachel win the day?
Happily, Rachel has college pal Peik Lin (Awkwafina) to fall back on – a riot of colourful outfits, hilarity and local gossip, although she veers dangerously close to ‘sassy black girlfriend’ territory as times. Her family are Singapore new money, providing comedic counterpoint to the stately Youngs. At lunch, Peik Lin’s father (Ken Jeong, being Ken Jeong) fawns over his daughter’s friend: ‘So, one of you came back with a real job and the other came back the Chinese Ellen?’ And when Rachel bemoans her lack of rapport with Nick’s mother, Peik Lin quips it’s because she’s an unrefined banana: ‘Yellow on the outside, white on the inside.’
Ultimately, this is a story about the different roles and expectations placed on Asian women, from the old world and the new, and how they negotiate them. There are even shades of Austen in the class differences encountered on the path to love. In addition to the Young women, Rachel and Nick must also navigate a world of playboy cousins, ex-girlfriend frenemies, childhood-bully groomsmen, gossipy aunties and the secrets of Rachel’s own past.
Rachel is a thoroughly likeable heroine – smart, independent and self-made, with a supportive mother. She is not in need of rescuing – refreshing enough for a romantic comedy – and is more than capable of taking control of her destiny. The female performances are strong across the board, Nick is suitably handsome and adoring, the supporting characters quirky, smart and funny.
It comes with all the rom-com trimmings – shopping trips, wardrobe makeovers, a gay stylist fairy-godmother, with a few familiar Asian tropes thrown in for good measure – climactic game of mah-jong, anyone? There’s a fun scene in a restaurant early on, when Nick invites Rachel to the wedding and the power of social media to cross the world in minutes highlights how easily we can lose control of own stories.
Visually, it’s gorgeous – the food and street markets, salivating, the islands, idyllic, and with a strong opening in the US in August, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur look set for a serious tourist spike.
The bum notes, for me, are the excessive consumerism of the mega-rich played out to the point of obscenity and the never-really-discussed fact that Nick has been lying to his girlfriend for a year. Are we to understand that even a super-smart NYU professor of game theory isn’t supposed to mind being deceived, if the guy’s rich enough?
Despite this, it’s a whole lot of fun and even occasionally gives a tug at the old heartstrings. Besides ushering in a new era in cultural representation on-screen (there are already sequels in the pipeline), it’s being heralded as the return of the big Hollywood romantic comedy and if you’re looking for a ridiculously glamorous, fun romantic romp, this is it.