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“All Americans think about is their own happiness,” asserts affluent Chinese mother Eleanor Sung-Young (Michelle Yeoh) in a belittling tone when scrutinized about the overpowering influence family has over her son’s future. Her severe declaration encapsulates the critical ideological duel in director Jon M. Chu’s lavish film “Crazy Rich Asians” (based on Kevin Kwan’s best-selling novel), where the pursuit of individual gratification is confronted with the notion of sacrificing one’s desires for the survival of tradition.
Those rousing cross-cultural observations, however, are displayed not in a hardboiled drama but in an utterly sumptuous romantic comedy that aesthetically lives up to its Hollywood pedigree.
Gallant Nick Young (British-Malaysian TV host Henry Golding) and NYU Economics Professor, Rachel Chu (“Fresh Off the Boat’s” Constance Wu), are two lovebirds setting out to meet his family in the thriving city-state of Singapore on the occasion of his best friend Colin’s (Australia’s Chris Pang) wedding.
Unaccustomed to excessive luxury, Rachel learns that Nick comes from a “comfortable” lineage once onboard a first-class aircraft with plenty of amenities. By now, everyone in the elite circles of Singaporean society, include Nick’s mother Eleanor, is fully aware of Rachel’s shortcomings: she has no money, no connections, and she is American. Jaw-dropping, postcard-like vistas of the multicultural and finance-driven Asian nation — captured in eye-popping fashion by Croatian cinematographer Vanja Cernjul — welcome her to an ordeal she is not prepared for.
At the extravagant soirées leading up to the main ceremony, Rachel is bombarded with blunt inquiries in regards to her bloodline. Nick and his family resemble royalty here, so she is now part of every conversation among aunties, suitresses and relatives that poured in from Taiwan, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. Employing Singapore as converging ground serves the narrative well since English is widely spoken and an array of specific ethnic groups inhabits the island, which mirrors the cast’s eclectic origins and offers them a common language.
Conflict arises for Rachel in full form during her initial encounter with stern Eleanor, who carries herself with politeness but doesn’t mince words expressing her disdain for the Western ideals the young woman represents. Elegant as ever, Yeoh is convincingly subdued in the role of a woman bound to the status quo, and overprotective of her shinning heir. Early on in the film, she is also radiant in a scene set in 1995 battling racism with grace.
Emerging as a major star soon to be walking red carpets on a global scale, the enchanting Constance Wu imbues Rachel with strength derived from the character’s upbringing as the child of a poor Chinese immigrant and the American promise of success through hard work. There is no arrogance or judgment in her assessment of the more conservative and family-oriented worldview she is discovering, even when this reveals itself to also be unabashedly materialistic and fueled by appearances.
Through Rachel, “Crazy Rich Asians” aims to bridge the gap between Asians living on the continent and the Diaspora, between those born into fortunes and the ones who struggled for success, and between ancient conventions and capitalist philosophies. Nick and Rachel’s union is a symbolic vehicle to reflect on the essential attributes of each realm. Opulence can be deceiving that much is clear, and beneath its shimmering surface the bigger questions hide.
Brimming with memorable supporting players, there is humor galore to lighten the plot’s romantic and intellectual discourses. Scene-stealer Awkwafina offers sound, yet uproarious life and fashion advice as Rachel’s local friend Goh Peik Lin. Her screen time is limited but sharply utilized. “Supertore’s” Filipino-American actor Nico Santos embodies Nick’s cheeky cousin Oliver — the Young’s self-proclaimed rainbow sheep — who constantly appeases the elders’ preoccupations while siding with Rachel. Shinning as the unwavering matriarch, the legendary Lisa Lu delivers her precisely written lines with authority that commands instant respect.
One unrealized subplot involves Astrid (Gemma Chan) and her husband, an outsider like Rachel, having marital difficulties related to his insecurities. We understand this storyline is there to exemplify how a marriage between people from distinct circles could be destructive, even if it’s not sufficiently compelling.
The inclusion of an all-Asian cast of such caliber is reason enough to watch, but not the only one. “Crazy Rich Asians” upholds tried tropes in a genre that studios have almost entirely reserved for white protagonist throughout history. Today, as the demands for representation are no longer just rhetoric but visibly affecting profitability, a project like this is a vigorous statement in the right direction. Not only does it fulfill its need to be engaging and cinematically enticing for general audiences, but retains enough cultural specificity to honor its storytellers. Jon M. Chu’s trajectory as a filmmaker with several commercial undertakings -some more triumphant than others – positioned him as an exemplary candidate to helm this landmark production and he nailed it.
Ultimately, “Crazy Rich Asians” doesn’t need to subvert all its predictable elements, because even if we know where it’s going, we’ve never seen that story told this way.