I was terrified I wasn’t going to like this film. As someone who works in the Arts and thinks constantly about Asian representation, its central premise was an unappealing one; a nasty Singaporean mother-in-law (Michelle Yeoh) tries to prevent her son pursuing a life with his New York girlfriend (Constance Wu). A tired cliché in Korean soap operas, I didn’t want the first film with an Asian cast in 25 years made by a Hollywood studio to be one that reinforced a stereotype. Thankfully, Crazy Rich Asians is a joyous, campy extravaganza, filled with splashy locations, hunky Asian men, and a flurry of glamourous costumes.
Crazy Rich Asians directed by Jon M. Chu follows the story of Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) who navigates the crazy rich world of her boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding) when they visit his home of Singapore for his best friend’s wedding. Rachel meets Nick’s family, including his icy mother Eleanor Young (Michelle Yeoh) and faces her harsh judgement at every turn.
Generically, Crazy Rich Asians is incredibly accessible. The film is a rom-com, structured around a wedding, following a fish-out-of-water. The film weaves between these threads, traipsing between gorgeous locations in and outside of Singapore, creating a frenzy of wealth and chaos. It balances between this conventional enjoyment and culturally-inflected attitudes, customs and characters, toeing a careful line of Asian specificity while remaining endlessly appealing to the average movie-goer. Amongst glamorous bachelor parties at exotic beach locales are scenes of making dumplings with the Young family, between stories of the possibility of engagement is engagement with the vicious tradition-laden hierarchy of Asian family units.
Furthermore, the film uses the context of Asian people existing alongside American-culture to reappropriate them into new contexts that are accessible to the viewer. Beyond using the glittering world of the Singaporean elite, it also lingers on topless Asian torsos to reappropriate the way that Asian bodies are seen on-screen and American music has been re-recorded in Chinese subverting them into a new context. Chu notes about the use of Coldplay’s Yellow “[The word ‘yellow’] has always had a negative connotation in my life … until I heard your song.”
The film ultimately brings the relationship between Eleanor and Rachel to the fore. In a deft performance, Michelle Yeoh lends gravitas and sympathy to the frosty Eleanor without leaning into a stereotype. Eleanor and Rachel are a careful balancing act of juxtaposition; the film is about both belonging and not, being rich or poor, being Chinese or American. It’s about never being enough, a common problem placed on the children within Asian households. The relationship between Eleanor and Rachel become the most interesting and is crucial to navigating the viewer through understanding both their worlds.
The film isn’t without its flaws though. It often doesn’t know where it wants to stand on the Young family’s extreme wealth, the directorial eye chooses to linger between using it to appeal to an endlessly desirable lifestyle of the wealthy, and something that sustains greed and hedonism. A particularly confusing storyline with Nick’s sister Astrid (Gemma Chan), feels out-of-step with the film both narratively and thematically and newcomer Henry Golding who plays Nick feels like just a hunky face, who’s character is flat within the richness of Eleanor and Rachel’s storyline.
Despite this, Crazy Rich Asians has such a burden of representation for being the first of its kind that its achievement in its weaving of both universally understood and culturally specific elements feels like a success. In the box-office it certainly is; in the US it made 50 million on its 9th day of release and is continuing to retain high returns. Crazy Rich Asians has been criticised for not representing the diversity of Asians in Singapore beyond the stratosphere of the 1%, but this burden of responsibility will always exist if this is the only Asian-led film that gets produced. Crazy Rich Asians is a step in the right direction in seeing more and more Asian stories being seen on the silver screen in the future.