It’s been 25 years since Hollywood has produced a film that wasn’t a period piece that featured an entirely Asian cast. 25 years. That’s longer than most of the people who will be reading this article have been alive, but the wait is now over. “Crazy Rich Asians,” based on the best selling novel by Kevin Kwan, is hitting theaters soon and bringing with it a refreshing take on a tried-and-true romantic comedy formula.
The film revolves around Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), an economics professor at New York University, and her posh British-accented, Singaporean boyfriend, Nicholas Young (Henry Golding). They take a break from their bustling lives to visit Nick’s family in Singapore for two weeks to attend Nick’s childhood best friend Colin Khoo’s (Chris Prang) wedding. What Rachel doesn’t realize is that Nick is actually the heir apparent to one of the most wealthy families in all of Singapore.
When Nick’s mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), finds out about Nick’s intentions to bring Rachel home, she sets out to make sure that marriage is the last thing on either of their minds, using every resource at her disposal to drive the two of them apart. At the same time, Nick’s cousins, Astrid Leong (Gemma Chan) and Eddie Cheng (Ronny Chieng), is dealing with their own family drama as the Rachel and Nick story unfold around them. Rachel also spends some time visiting her college friend Goh Peik Lin (Awkwafina) and her family, who mostly serve to push the narrative along and provide some hysterical comedic relief.
As a big fan of the book, I was really excited to see how the movie would tackle a lot of the complex mix of themes and tones, as well as the cultural representation that was rife throughout the novel. Most pages of the book are punctuated with comical, often tongue-in-cheek footnotes that explain the cultural specifics and Chinese sayings used throughout the dialogue. The book was a pretty expansive story that utilized the “Song of Ice and Fire” strategy of having different chapters focus on different characters and then occasionally having different plots intersect and overlap. This allowed for Kwan to fit a few deeper narratives into one overall story pretty coherently.
The movie feels like it is sorely missing this, choosing to instead focus on the central plot of Rachel and Nick and Rachel’s interactions with Eleanor. Though I missed the depth of some of the side characters like Astrid, I understand that it’s an almost 500-page book and you can’t squeeze all of that into two hours. Still, Astrid’s plot feels very undeveloped throughout the movie and though Chan gives an excellent performance with some truly heartfelt moments, the narrative is often less compelling. These differences between the movie and book are pretty noticeable, but the movie manages to sprout some legs and stand on its own. (I would definitely recommend the book if you liked the movie, though.)
Part of the focus of this movie is on the extravagance of the uber-rich families at the center of the story. Brands like Valentino are commonplace and many of the brands most people have to save up to even think about buying, these characters see as beneath them. The price tags on some of the jewelry featured in this movie have more zeros than could probably even fit on a check. While this is a fun whimsical look into that life, there’s also a level of satirical rebuke of that kind of greed and wealth. This satirical aspect is much more prevalent with characters like Astrid’s husband Michael, played by Pierre Png in the film, pointing out the hypocrisy and greed he sees the Young family participate in. I wish this were more present, but it seems like it was sacrificed in favor of making the movie more of a casual, fun affair, which I can understand.
But enough about the book; this isn’t a book, it’s a movie. So how well did it do at being a movie? Pretty great, actually. The performances are all super strong, and though the dialogue gets cheesy occasionally, it moves quickly and never gets caught up in being overdramatic or self-indulgent.
Constance Wu as Rachel and Gemma Chan as Astrid give especially compelling performances, conveying a wide range of emotion and circumstance with apparent ease. There wasn’t a moment I didn’t believe either of them in their roles and the chemistry between Wu and Golding is palpable on screen. They work superbly well together and you could get the feeling they were close both on and off screen. Awkwafina and Ken Jeong, who played Peik Lin’s father, Goh Wye Min, were both hilarious and added a much-needed reprieve from the drama of the rest of the plot.
The pacing is pretty consistent and the movie rarely drags. Any dull moment can usually be overlooked because how beautifully shot the movie is. Normally romantic comedies can end up looking fairly boring and flat, but it’s obvious that cinematographer, Vanja Cernjul, set out to try to capture the natural and man-made beauty of Singapore. Many scenes were also punctuated with colorful graphic scene transitions that added some flair and personality to the film that is much appreciated. The soundtrack is also an interesting blend of some more classic Chinese music, as well as Chinese-language covers of some popular songs.
That being said, “Crazy Rich Asians” isn’t some masterpiece in film-making, and it’s not trying to be. It’s trying to be a fun, culturally infused romantic comedy, and it succeeds. Don’t go in expecting the world. Part of why this movie is so interesting is what sets it apart and what that means. The Asian casting is purposeful and meaningful in that this movie didn’t have to be some Oscar-bait story about how hard it is to be an Asian immigrant. As we grow more and more as a culture and venture into more representation, we need to learn that a big part of that is being able to have a fun rom-com with an interesting premise and setting that authentically and respectfully depicts new characters who don’t fall into Hollywood Asian tropes. This movie is a big step in the right direction and earns its place in the upper echelons of rom-coms.