Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) is a New York economics professor in a relationship with the charming but secretive Nick (Henry Goldman). Nick invites Rachel to meet his family in Singapore, leading her to discover his family is the richest in Singapore and that Nick’s mother (Michelle Yeoh) is not going to allow their relationship to continue.
Crazy Rich Asians was a hugely successful novel by Kevin Kwan, and it is now a feature film directed by Jon M. Chu (of Step Up 2, Step Up 3D and, oddly, G.I. Joe: Retaliation fame). It arrives in cinemas on both a wave of hype and the weight of expectations. This is the first Hollywood production in 25 years – since 1993’s The Joy Luck Club – to have a fully Asian cast of characters. It is being described as “Black Panther for Asian-Americans”; a film for the Chinese community to embrace, love, and support. Will it support audience expectations? Even more importantly: is it any good?
The answer, frustratingly, is both yes and no. As a romantic comedy it definitely hits enough pleasant beats to be superficially charming and amusing. Constance Wu is a delight as Rachel, as is Awkwafina as her best friend Lin. Michelle Yeoh is, as always, effectively flawless. The film includes the expected emotional moments, ups and downs, and heartwarming resolutions. It is, in broad strokes, cinema as comfort food. It is easy to predict, but still well-performed when the predictable parts happen. In many scenes I couldn’t help being satisfied because I’m an absolute sucker for the Hollywood formula.
If that is the ‘yes’, then what is the ‘no’? There are a few major issues. The first relates to race: the film casts a lot of actors of non-Chinese ethnicity to play Chinese characters, and while it by no means acts as a deal-breaker it does raise questions over whether or not casting Japanese, Eurasian or Malay actors in Chinese roles is appropriate or not – particularly when the story includes family tensions over marrying outside of a Chinese family. Working from another angle, however, there is also the issue of the film effectively erasing non-Chinese Singaporeans from the city. While it makes sense to not see Malay or Indian characters in the various mansions and apartments of the Young family, plenty of scenes – all of them shot like a promotional video for the Singapore Tourism Board – don’t make anywhere near as much sense at all. It is not necessarily a dealbreaker, but it does make it clear that Hollywood’s next Asian-focused productions should try a little harder.
The second problem is the manner in which the film treats the Young family’s extreme wealth. There is an opportunity to contrast Rachel’s modest upbringing with the royal treatment of Nick’s childhood, and to some extent the film does explore that. It focuses more, however, on conflict among Nick’s relatives, turning it less into a story on the obscenity of extreme wealth and more into a story about good billionaires versus bad ones. It presents unbridled wish-fulfilment. It takes an aspirational route rather than a critical one. It is a brave movie that asks a mass audience to identify with the romantic woes of a character that, by their own admission, owns 14 Singapore apartment buildings. Altogether Hollywood has not fetishised the rich this badly since Sex and the City 2.
In the main Crazy Rich Asians works. It is a comedy, and it absolutely generated enough laughs to do its job. In specific areas surrounding Rachel and Nick’s romance, however, it becomes a lot thornier and troublesome. These are not problems that derail the film entirely, although if you think you won’t like it then I would trust your gut instinct. They are issues that will hopefully lead the next studio to do better next time, and I really do hope there are plenty more ‘next times’. Representation in film is too important to abandon this film over its faults, and in all honesty the excellent Constance Wu deserves to be in many more films in the future.