It has been out in the US for nearly three weeks, but the latest film by Jon M. Chu has already made over $100 million at the global box office. Known for his work on Now You See Me 2, G.I Joe: Retaliation and…umm, Jem and the Holograms, Chu is taking on his most ambitious project – propelling Asians into the limelight of Western cinema. With so much at stake, does Crazy Rich Asians live up to the hype?
The plot follows New York economics professor Rachel Chu (Fresh Off the Boat actress Constance Wu), who travels to Singapore with his boyfriend Nick (Henry Golding) to meet his mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh) and attend his best friend’s wedding. However, Rachel learns that not only is he super-rich, but he is one of Singapore’s most eligible bachelors – quickly making her enemy no.1 to local socialites, as well as the closed-minded Eleanor.
It is fair to say that the road to Hollywood hasn’t been easy for Kwan’s novel. When an initial production proposal involved the casting of a Caucasian actress as Rachel, the author sold the rights for $1 so that his story can be adapted with the right vision and creative direction, rather than risk becoming another whitewashing casualty of Hollywood. However, Color Force founder and film producer Nina Jacobson, along with US-based Asian film production company Ivanhoe Pictures, shared the same sentiment and despite Netflix offering a huge distribution deal, Chu and Kwan took a gamble to bring Crazy Rich Asians onto the big screen.
Let’s face it, Asians in Hollywood is unfamiliar territory. Normally cast in action or animated films, or seen in world cinema, Western cinema has not had much experience of an Asian actor starring in a film, let alone feature an all-Asian cast. Instead, they are sidelined in favour of more profitable (and most likely Caucasian) actors. But with films such as Girl’s Trip, Black Panther and Hidden Figures being US box office successes in recent years, Crazy Rich Asians aims to address growing diversity to audiences that have long been underrepresented in not only Western cinema, but also the industry as a whole.
At the heart of the story is Rachel, who may come across as dithering and insecure among Nick’s family, but, as an Asian-American, she provides a perspective that enables Western audiences to relate to her. For instance, her choice in following a professional career in favour of having a family strikes a chord with Nick’s older family members, and her unfamiliarity with certain traditions such as rolling dumplings highlights cultural differences between East and West. These stark contrasts are exacerbated through Eleanor’s sharp-tongued statements about loyalty and family, culminating to an allegorical mahjong match between the two women.
Played by the enigmatic Wu, Rachel is a surprisingly strong leading character. Raised single-handedly by her mother (originally from a country where women were seen as inferior in Chinese households), she has a position at one of the world’s most prolific universities and is treated as an equal by Nick. However, when it comes to key choices in the narrative, she comes to her own conclusions and makes her own decisions – rather than allow people to make them for her and ultimately make her look inferior.
Wu shares a wonderful chemistry with Golding, who is dashing in his debut acting role. Yeoh is equally brilliant as Eleanor, who quickly asserts her authority in the film’s discriminative (though ultimately satisfying) introduction. A host of stars complement the supporting roles, with Awkwafina, Ken Jeong and Nico Santos providing comic relief but a special mention goes to Humans star Gemma Chan, who delivers a sense of fragility and understated elegance as Nick’s cousin Astrid.
Concentrating on the dynamic relationship between Rachel, Nick and Eleanor, screenwriters Adele Lim and Peter Chiarelli highlight intimacy and tension between the core characters through their direct, almost candid dialogue. Rather than over-sentimentalising the plot, they almost downplay the romance in favour of interactions that highlight relatable real-world themes. For audiences wanting the visuals, that is where Chu and cinematographer Vanja Cernjul come in as they wonderfully capture both the glitz and glamour of Singapore’s elite, as well as local low-key areas that nicely set the stage for the film’s key interactions. Complemented with a multilingual soundtrack featuring Chinese covers of renowned pop songs, it is an Asian production through and through – which only makes its message about diversity even clearer.
Crazy Rich Asians is delightful and features an array of great performances. Funny yet inoffensive, sweet but not overly sentimental, it is one of the best rom-coms in recent years.