Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) is a self-made woman born to a poor single-parent family. Through hard work, she became an economics professor at NYU and one of the youngest faculty of the university. One day, after the end of a lecture, her boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding) asks if she will come with him to attend an old friend’s wedding in Singapore, Nick’s hometown. The primary goal of this trip for Nick, however, is introducing Rachel to his family, who he constantly avoids in conversations. While they were on their way to Singapore, Rachel learns the reason why Nick seldom brings up his family: they are crazy rich! Soon after Rachel sets foot in this financially and culturally alien world, she is the subject of jealousy and disapproval, and her relationship is in jeopardy. Rachel has only her wits and her old college roommate to rely on to navigate the family intrigue.
Adapted from a romantic comedy/satire novel of the same title, Crazy Rich Asians fully delivers on the titular promise of excess wealth. The movie does its best presenting the opulent and glamorous bubble of the ultra-rich. Every frame was filled to the brim with gourmet food, precious stones, designer clothing, and expensive cars. What’s most spectacular are the locales. Crazy Rich Asians treated its setpieces like an action film would; they vary greatly (from lavish mansions to freight ship re-outfitted as a pleasure barge), and the luxuriousness ramps up or eases down in accordance to the rhythm of the story. Rachel’s ordinary birth provides a few gags for the movie; she occasionally embarrasses herself with her ignorance of the sophisticated lifestyles of the wealthy. However, the movie exercises restraint, and never once overplayed this type of joke. Crazy Rich Asians does not turn Rachel into a full time laughing stock. Rachel’s authenticity is the only anchor to reality in this extravagant and insular social circle, and through her, the movie exposes the ugly side of the ultra-rich.
The display of great fortune isn’t the most eye-catching aspect of Crazy Rich Asians; the cast is. Crazy Rich Asians is the first Hollywood movie to feature an all-Asian cast in decades. While the movie has less space to introduce and establish such a large cast than its literary source, the movie never loses track of its characters. Besides the star-crossed lovers, there are quite a few highlights among supporting roles. Rachel’s friend Peik Lin Goh (Awkwafina) was one of the show-stealers. Her unfiltered antics provided many laughs. The actors each exhibit great charisma and screen presence, and the characters they portray are easy to either love or hate. The performances are proof that Asian actors are more than capable of carrying themselves in a Hollywood film, and they helped add a lot of heart to the story.
Of course, Nick didn’t bring Rachel back to Singapore just to show her off to his family; in fact, he plans to marry her, and like all RomComs, this is not going to be smooth sailing for the protagonists. Many in Young’s extended family and entourage disapprove of this union, and the strongest opposition by far comes from Nick’s mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh). Sound familiar? Crazy Rich Asians hit most of the major story beats of a typical RomCom; however, its unique settings set it apart from others. The Asian-ness runs far deeper than the appearance of an all-Asian cast; the movie contains many references and jokes rooted in Asian experiences. For instance, at the beginning of the movie, a group of gossip bloggers try to uncover the identity of our golden bachelor’s girlfriend through web-searching “Rachel Chu” and had difficulties finding her. The punchline is that Chinese surnames can be very common, and the name Chu could come from different romanization systems adopted by different countries/communities, on top of the possibility of the name being romanized from a dialect. But what really makes Crazy Rich Asians special is its critique of traditional Han Chinese culture from the perspective of an Asian American.
The box office success of Crazy Rich Asians signals a great victory for Asian representation in Hollywood, but there were some Asians who were not satisfied with its casting. While it is true that Asian Americans are made up of many distinct ethnic groups, and that this movie only covered a few of them, I think the expectations some saddled the film with are unfair. Firstly, the crew of this film never claimed to be the standard bearer for pan-Asian representation. Secondly, the story was inspired by author Kevin Kwan’s personal life and it is impossible to satisfy every ethnic group within this framework. But that doesn’t mean this movie would be strange to people of other cultures because the story revolves around a group of immigrants confronting their cultural identities.
Filial piety (孝) is a core tenant of the Confucian philosophy and has been an important virtue in Chinese society for millennia. It can be generally described as the obligation to return one’s parents’ nurturing, to respect them, and fulfill their demands. Unfortunately, the authority and the sense of entitlement on top of traditional Chinese gender roles can easily warp familial relationships. In one scene, Nick’s cousin, Astrid (Gemma Chan) quipped about parents guilting children into doing things. Sending the elders to retirement homes is simply unthinkable. As a result, parents traditionally live with the eldest son and form the family which women marry into. The mothers end up being such harsh gatekeepers that they became a common dramatic archetype. The oppression of daughters-in-law by their mothers-in-law was a kind of generational violence. This is one of the central issues Rachel and Nick’s mother, Eleanor, have to learn to resolve. There are many such instances of people facing old customs. For example, Astrid’s commoner husband struggles with the fact that he is not the family’s breadwinner. The theme of tradition versus modernity will resonate not only with Asian-Americans, but with young native Asians as well.
Although Crazy Rich Asians ‘s love story between the heir-to-the-throne and a commoner is a time-worn tale, the culture clash woven around the plot breathes a new life into the formula. The movie’s colorful Asian cast is a celebration of Asian identity; it’s a major step for Asian representation in American cinema, and I hope more films will follow its example.