Rachel, a Chinese-American college professor, travels to Singapore with her boyfriend Nick, hoping to meet his family. However, she arrives to find out that he’s crazy rich, and his family’s world might just be a bit out of her reach.
On the surface, Jon M Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians (based on Kevin Kwan’s novel) is another romantic comedy, filled with glitz and glam and wacky characters in an idealistic, far-off setting. And it is that, but it’s also so much more. It’s got a depth and tells a truth that Hollywood cinema has long been missing, and a perspective that will broaden the horizons and the worldviews of its audience.
When Nick Young (Henry Golding) asks his girlfriend Rachel (Constance Wu, from Fresh off the Boat) to go to Singapore with him for his best friend’s wedding, she thinks she’ll meet the family and have a fun vacation. However, she quickly discovers–when they’re escorted to the private suite in first class on the airplane–that he’s worth slightly more than he’s let on. In fact, he’s crazy rich. And his family–to Rachel–is often just plain crazy.
While some of the film’s conflict orients around the fact that Rachel is poor while Nick is crazy rich, seeing her as “a gold-digging *****,” the real heart of her problems stem from her nationality. Rachel is Chinese-American. To Rachel, she’s Chinese, but most of Nick’s family just sees her as American, with a differently oriented way of looking at the world. Americans, say the Singaporeans, focus on the individual, while the Chinese see family and community as paramount. Rachel and Nick get stuck in the false dichotomy, that because Rachel works and has strived to achieve her dream of being a college professor, she’s selfish, that she’ll bring the family down with her ambition. But it’s not one or the other. There are problems with both views of the world, and Nick’s family is dealing with its own issues–they’re successful, but is the family healthy? Don’t get me wrong Crazy Rich Asians isn’t condemning the Asian worldview–it’s critiquing a myopic view of the world, and it does so very well. Moreover, it is the best representation of non-mainland Chinese family and the two often-warring sides of the eastern and western thought processes that I’ve ever seen. The film portrays varying character types without delving into offensive caricatures–I know many of these characters, as I’ve said. It is a movie that’s a long time coming, and hopefully, we’ll get more in this vein soon.
Wrapped around the wonderful heart of Crazy Rich Asians is a picturesque view of some of the best that Singapore has to offer. And this is what I loved most: Crazy Rich Asians captures the flavour of Singapore—as best as you can in a 2-hour film. I lived in Indonesia for four years and travelled regularly to Singapore (it’s my favourite city in the world), and believe me I am not crazy rich. Yet, I’ve been to every single place they showed (other than inside the mammoth, posh houses…), and I know most of those characters; the stereotypes, of course. They go to the ubiquitous hawker food centers brimming with culture and delicious food, which illustrates that, despite also frequenting the Marina Bay Sands and the Gardens by the Bay, a few of the characters are grounded, despite being crazy rich.
Constance Wu transcends her slightly corny Fresh off the Boat sitcom shackles, bringing a reality and relatability to the role—this actress (partnering with Eddie Huang and the FoB writers) is a major force in bringing the long-neglected Asian-American story into the mainstream view. It illustrates what I’ve seen from many of my students who were Chinese-Indonesias or displaced Koreans: they may be ethnically one thing, but there will always be purists who act as gatekeepers to what the “true” Chinese or “true” Korean way of doing things is. The irony is that, while the Chinese Singaporeans who look down on Rachel for her Chinese-American-ness, are just as displaced as she is–they’re a member of a fusion culture as well. They just claim on their heritage with more volume and money than she does.
Those of us who are serious Star Trek fans (along with fans of martial arts films and Bond movies) have long known that Michelle Yeoh is amazing. This film will hopefully propel her far enough in the public consciousness to cement her place alongside notorious cinematic mothers. She plays what we might call a Tiger mom today, but she never devolves into caricature, truly demonstrating the difficulty and the care that she has for her son and family.
I could go on and on about the supporting cast, which is entirely Asian, which many have criticized for not being a wider representation of Singapore’s incredibly diverse population. To a point, I agree. There are actors of mixed Asian descent playing Chinese, which is interesting due to the nature of the closed Chinese family portrayed here. This has always been a slight hangup for me (my biggest issue, other than the overtly racist examples like the Charlie Chan films, are the Kims from Gilmore Girls–Korean-Americans being played by Japanese-American actresses). Here, a Filipino-American (Nico Santos) and a couple of Korean-Americans (Ken Jeong and Awkwafina–who is hilarious) and a Malaysian-British actor (Henry Golding) all play Chinese Singaporeans. For me, while I understand and can see this discrepancy, they were all excellent actors in their roles. Could they have dug deeper into Singapore’s acting community and gotten Singaporeans? Yes. However, they were each excellent choices for their roles. I can forgive it.
Some other criticisms based on my experience living in Southeast Asia and traveling regularly to Singapore: it’s missing more Malay and Indian representation, which I’ll say does make sense due to the predominantly crazy rich Chinese-oriented characters, though it means Singapore itself isn’t fully represented. The main characters don’t use Singlish–a heavily accented version of English with its own slang. This is true, but it’s there in flavor, though I’d like more of it, and what it does have is a food court scene when Rachel and Nick get to Singapore, which features a wide variety of Singaporean food and its languages. Some critics are forgetting this film features crazy rich characters educated abroad in places like Cambridge, America, and Oxford. I know some of those people, and their accent often fades with time and distance. There is a valid place for criticism here, but this film is also a love letter to many parts of Singapore. What I want to see, and what would round out this representation, is a sequel (because there are more books, though I’ve not read them) where Rachel and Nick move to Singapore and she goes beyond the crazy rich exterior and delves into the culture more. I’d love to see that!
I loved Crazy Rich Asians, without qualification. It’s My Big Fat Greek Wedding for Asia, and so much of it resonated with me. Having lived in Asia for quite awhile, and having spent a good amount of time in Singapore (I got to return there again this summer, even, so this is all fresh for me!), this is a movie I’ve been waiting for, and a place and characters with whom I want to spend much more time.