It’s a banner year for representation in film. After Black Panther crushed industry expectations to become the biggest cinematic event from the black community the world has ever seen, another minority takes the spotlight in Crazy Rich Asians: a romantic comedy that is directed by and stars a cast that is entirely of Asian descent, the first film of its kind in 25 years since The Joy Luck Club in 1993. Like Black Panther, Crazy Rich Asians is prone to the clichés of its genre, but they are overlookable in spite of outstanding execution and critical cultural importance.
It’s no secret that romantic comedies take a lot of flak. Often accused of bypassing quality standards to pander to the female fantasy (and men have plenty of their own guilty pleasures when it comes to action films), the category is not incapable of great success. One of 2017’s best and most overlooked films, The Big Sick, for example, was a rom-com. However, the annual pool of romances tends to be heavily polluted with hackneyed plots, forced sentiment, and poor acting. But once in a while, a stellar one comes along to remind us of the genre’s potential.
This year that film is Crazy Rich Asians: even ignoring its significance within the Asian-American community, the movie is a vivacious delight from start to finish, an indisputable triumph of casting and production design. Erupting with visual flourish, gorgeous locations, and emotional heft, the film is guilty of rarely deviating from the rom-com formula, but makes use of it so pleasurably it’s impossible not to forgive. And with informative comparisons between Eastern and Western cultural values, Crazy Rich Asians offers pertinent social commentary to boot.
Based on the character introduced in the best-selling novels by Kevin Kwan, Constance Wu stars as Rachel Chu, a first-generation Asian-American woman whose single mother immigrated to the United States before she was born. Rachel is a professor of economics at NYU, where she meets and falls in love with Nick Young (Henry Golding), a history professor. After they’ve been dating for a while, Nick invites Rachel to accompany him to his best friend’s wedding in Singapore, his country of origin, where he can introduce her to his family for the first time.
Unbeknownst to Rachel, Nick has been hiding from her that he is the son of an extravagantly wealthy family of real estate developers, and is a known celebrity in the region. When a collection of onlookers overhears their conversation, this spurs a chain of smartphone gossip that travels so quickly his mother in Singapore catches wind within a few minutes. The sequence is portrayed through a colorful and festive display of texts, tweets, and status updates, and represents the first of many treats to follow in what is a visually dynamic film presentation.
As the couple arrives in Singapore and Rachel begins to meet Nick’s friends and relatives, she gradually becomes more aware of the Young family’s towering status in the Eastern world. Rachel spends the early portions of the film mouth agape, humble and overwhelmed as she takes in all of the staggering benefits that come with realizing your boyfriend is the unofficial prince of Southeast Asia. She is soon to find out, however, with her status as a middle-class American, the rewards of marrying Nick Young would be eclipsed by daunting burdens and responsibility.
Rachel finds this out primarily by meeting Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), Nick’s mother and the powerful matriarch of the Youngs. Like Rachel, Eleanor married Nick’s father as a lowly outsider, and had to endure harsh treatment in a subservient role over the years. This is life experience she cherishes as necessary and traditional, and she abhors American self-serving idealism. It is through Eleanor and Rachel’s conflict that the film examines the tension between Eastern and Western cultural values, framed in a context that is vitally educational for those of us watching.
Before Rachel realizes her situation, however, her introduction to the Singapore elite is a glittering torrent of bewitching delights. After a hotly-contested casting process in which Hollywood’s minority community fought to the bone to snag roles, Crazy Rich Asians boasts the widest and most lively ensemble Asian cast ever offered in an American-produced film. The talent, by the way, rises to the occasion: in addition to a lenghty list of superb lesser-known stars, Awkwafina of Ocean’s Eight is a riot, while Ken Jeong appears in the best casting of his career.
Where the film rises and falls, however, is in the chemistry of its lead pairing, and Constance Wu and Henry Golding are a match written in Heaven. Wu is an adorable fish-out-of-water as she clumsily navigates this lavish new world, and though Henry Golding could stand to have some more experience (he’s mostly only worked in reality TV before now), he is convincing here as a down-to-earth Asian-born transplant who is hesitant to take on his family legacy. Michelle Yeoh is fabulous as Nick’s mother: a threatening and ruthless ice queen for Rachel to contend with.
But while Crazy Rich Asians is rich with cultural significance and social commentary, where it faces obstacles in being considered pivotal or awards-worthy is in its stylings as a by-the-numbers romantic comedy, a commercialized approach you can likely blame on the picture’s financiers, as well as director Jon M. Chu (Step Up 2, G.I. Joe: Retaliation). It might be a framework that undermines an otherwise master-class film, but with gorgeous set design, timely thematic material, and a savvy ensemble minority cast, Crazy Rich Asians is still demanded viewing.
CRAZY RICH ASIANS
Warner Bros. Pictures, SK Global Entertainment, Starlight Culture Entertainment, Color Force, Ivanhoe Pictures, Electric Somewhere.
Directed by Jon M. Chu
Written by Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim, based on Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan.
Starring Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Gemma Chan, Awkwafina, Nico Santos, Lisa Lu, Ken Jeong, and Michelle Yeoh.
Released August 15, 2018.