“Family never says thank you”
While I haven’t read Kevin Kwan‘s novel Crazy Rich Asians, I can definitely see why producers would have approached him with the note: “Where’s your white character?” It has all the usual romantic comedy beats from stranger in a stranger land antics, memorable supporting characters readying the “commoner” for an extravagant gala, and an airplane-set admission of undying love. Kwan utilized the Hollywood template and they of course salivated over it knowing they could throw money at him and white-wash the lead role so as to hand the keys to an A-lister and perpetuate their own lie about what it takes for international success. What they didn’t know was that he wasn’t looking to squander leverage that could ensure proper representation would be seen on a worldwide scale.
You have to give him a ton of credit for choosing to option his work for a dollar (and I hope a percentage of the back-end) instead of what could have been millions to retain creative control on high level decisions and make certain Rachel Chu would be portrayed by an Asian American actor. It was a choice that surely allowed for the hiring of Chinese American director Jon M. Chu (he of Step Up sequels and G.I. Joe: Retaliation fame) as well as Malaysian screenwriter Adele Lim best known for a slew of popular television programs (sharing writing credit with Peter Chiarelli). They would ultimately steward this bestseller into a summer movie event with the draw to finally show that Asian A-listers are just a hire away.
It’s a perfectly cast romance across the board with all the comedy, drama, and emotion necessary to lean into those aforementioned rom/com tropes while also excelling beyond them. Whether Constance Wu getting the chance to shine on a huge stage as Rachel or former television host Henry Golding earning his first film role as her boyfriend Nick Young, everyone proves they don’t just belong: they’re irreplaceable. Because beneath the melodrama and schmaltz inherent to these types of movies is a very culturally specific tale about family, responsibility, and the fluidity necessary to keep traditions alive in a vastly different world than even two generations ago. This isn’t about just any outsider coming to Singapore at a glaring disadvantage. It’s about the hypocrisy of calling one of your own unfit.
It’s also about the fear and ignorance conjured by the power those hypocrites wield. Most versions of this journey would strip it down to comedic intent and have Nick pulling a Coming to America. They’d make his decision to not tell the woman he loves about his family’s wealth and stature as an intentional ploy to find someone pure of heart (not a gold-digger). But while Kwan may have crafted a mainstream piece of pop culture entertainment, he hasn’t dumbed things down to merely exist on a level of complete superficiality. So rather than hide from Rachel, Nick is hiding from himself. He’s escaping the pressures and assumptions thrust upon him as birthright to find an identity all his own. And in that process he forgets everything else.
What’s even more interesting is that his naiveté in this truth relegates him to a supporting character. Nick is the prize who unwittingly auctioned himself off to the higher of two bidders: girlfriend and mother (Michelle Yeoh‘s Eleanor). So you can push him aside knowing you’ll mainly get wishy-washy attempts at having the best of both worlds. You can take everything he says with a grain of salt because you know deep down that he’s still letting those around him pull the strings. Crazy Rich Asians is therefore less about love (he loves them both and they him) than understanding. And every little detail works towards exposing what that means on a small (vindictive game theory) and large (a pointed prologue setting up subsequent internal racism) scale.
The laughter enters as an authentic device to soften the impact of such an insidious strain of bad behavior sprawling out much further than economic divide. The loudest guffaws also come from marginalized characters (see Awkwafina and Nico Santos‘ pariahs Peik Lin and Oliver having the agency to not care since this insular world has consistently proven it doesn’t care about them whether on the outside or inside respectively). They’re the ones who are pulling for Rachel to buck an archaic trend and instill necessary change amongst catty, vapid, and entitled inhabitants who bring the worst out of this community’s best. And we need their reprieve as much as she does once unforgiveable jealousies enter to place a dark cloud atop what should be an auspicious event.
This is because the conflicts that arise cut deep. Here are all these Chinese-born yet British-educated people looking down upon Rachel because she’s American. They frown upon her ambition, modernity, and individualism in such a way that they become the gold-diggers okay with being bred as wives to live within the comfort of affluence they’ve never been without. And that’s why the true standout among them isn’t Awkwafina (although she’s an absolute delight and MVP), but Gemma Chan as Nick’s cousin Astrid. As Rachel and Eleanor fight from their disparate sides of the spectrum, Astrid exists in the middle torn apart. She’s the real casualty here—a figure struggling to evolve and expand a life marred by the constraints of tradition who ultimately delivers the film’s defining mic drop.
It’s weighty issues like hers that make Kwan’s work more than decadent soap opera to vicariously enjoy. This duplicity is why you cannot simply dismiss it as blockbuster fluff like many of its white Hollywood counterparts. Behind every sweetly cute moment of amorous bliss between Rachel and Nick is a moment of uncertainty and perseverance to not explode in fits of rage. Golding does well to remain ignorant to the devastating ramifications throwing his girlfriend to the wolves conjures while Wu excels at combatting the emotional roller coaster his blindsiding manifests onto her alone. We watch her fight for what she desires and deserves, holding our breath as the rampant conservatism surrounding her renders every sure-fire chance for a dream-like turnaround to be yet another mortifying reality check.
Despite the luxurious locale and Nick’s best friend’s impossibly extravagant wedding (the reason everyone’s in Singapore), the whole is steeped in a humanistic honesty transcending its façade. Chu uses Chinese covers of popular American songs to augment familiarity (and refuse to tone down what’s an unapologetically Asian production forcing “mainstream” audiences to find themselves in the faces of others like those others have had to do in theirs for too long) while also injecting the awkwardness and unpredictability of life itself to constantly battle an otherwise pristine perfection that’s exposed as hiding its inherent problems rather than being devoid of them. And even if we receive the happily-ever-after we expect, it won’t be without its complexity. Love doesn’t work without compromise and sacrifice. For once the movies agree.
Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 120 minutes | Release Date: August 15th, 2018 (USA)
Studio: Warner Bros.
Director(s): Jon M. Chu
Writer(s): Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim / Kevin Kwan (novel)