Director: Jon M. Chu
Cast: Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Gemma Chan, Awkwafina, Ken Jeong, Chris Pang
Attempting to understand other cultures is something that Hollywood/Western filmmakers have attempted to inject into films for many, many years. Occasionally they hit the mark, but more often than not they miss it by a country mile, opting instead for stereotypes and ignorant casting. Sometimes their effort is appreciated, sometimes they’re criticised for not doing the job correctly. As we move slowly and cautiously into a more open era of cinema in the West, opening it up to people of other ethnicities than Caucasian, one might hope to see films that are more balanced; not creating more ethnically diverse movies for the sake of it, but to do that proper job of bringing other cultures into the mainstream and, hopefully, producing a film that has an intriguing yet entertaining story, and, dare we dream it, a sensible and inclusive plot. Whilst Crazy Rich Asians boasts an almost entirely Asian cast with a story based around Asian (specifically Singaporean) culture, beliefs and traditions, is it a film that does its cultural efforts justice, or is it just Hollywood trying to prove it can move with the times but without any real depth?
Rachel Chu (Wu) is an economics professor at New York University, the youngest faculty member that they have. She’s been dating Nick Young (Golding) for a year. One evening, Nick invites Rachel to his best friend Colin’s (Pang) wedding in Nick’s homeland of Singapore, where he will be acting as Colin’s best man. Rachel agrees to accompany Nick, unaware of his family’s immense wealth and reputation in the East, along with Nick’s own reputation as one of Singapore’s most eligible bachelors. Upon arrival, Nick’s very traditional mother, Eleanor (Yeoh), does not take to Rachel, believing her not to be worthy of her son, who is the heir to his family’s company and vast fortune, due to her own family’s background and circumstance. Despite Nick’s devotion to Rachel, she feels unwelcome in his world of upper class Asian society and struggles to fit in with the very judgemental and materialistic women. With the help of her college friend and Singapore native, Peik Lin (Awkwafina), Rachel fights to be accepted for the sake of her relationship, but the world of Asian high society does not make it easy for her, and this leaves Rachel at a crossroads.
If producing a film that will satisfy audiences yearning for a more diverse cast and feature a story that reaches beyond the shores of the Western world is what Jon M. Chu was going for, then he and production company Color Force have, for the most part, succeeded. With an array of well-known Asian performers (Michelle Yeoh, Ken Jeong, Gemma Chan) and lesser known Asian actors, its casting has been handled with care. While there has been some uproar surrounding actors such as Henry Golding, who is British-Malaysian, and the lack of casting entirely ethnic Chinese/Asian actors, it must be remembered that this film was made to appeal to a wide range of audiences, i.e. Westerners to still be included. The casting of biracial actors was almost a necessity for the film to succeed in the West, which it has certainly done so, having major success in the US alone. Whether or not that is a point to be criticised is up to the individual. The same can’t be said in the East, where native Asians have criticised Crazy Rich Asians for its lack of actors of direct Chinese descent and the way Singapore is depicted overall, but for Western cinema, it is a step in the right direction, even if it’s a small one.
Where this film severely trips up is in its story and plot. It’s uneven, unoriginal and dull. The overt opulence of the rich and powerful is portrayed to such a degree as to become almost unbelievable. We’re used to seeing Western high society represented on screen, but nothing in the West compares to that of the East, if this film is anything to go by. The obscene extravagance renders it unrelatable to your average cinemagoer, and although Rachel’s situation of a ‘regular’ woman falling into that world isn’t something new to film, the difference between her world and Nick’s is a wider margin than we might have known in similar stories. To come as far as this, to have such a wonderfully diverse cast, and then to provide such a superficial story, is a shame. Without giving anything away, the third act seems as far from the reality of the situation than what would likely be expected. It’s far too Disney-esque, wrapping things up in a neat little bow where the reality would probably be far more complicated. The story may be a glimpse into the world of ‘old money’ in East Asia, which is interesting if a little sickening in the way money is thrown about, but it’s certainly not a circumstance most audiences will be able to relate to.
When it comes to casting and performances, Golding’s ethnicity isn’t really an issue, but his acting experience (or lack of) should have been. Initially he refused to audition, but was then convinced by Jon M. Chu to do so, and won the part. This is his debut film, and while he doesn’t exactly bomb, he could do with going away from this film and working on his abilities. Perhaps it was just the part of Nick that made his performance less than good; a young, rich male who has everything he could possibly want, and in spite of circumstances being against him, still manages to get what he wants. Nick isn’t the most well-rounded of characters as everything comes far too easily for him, making him monotonous and really rather boring. Golding does have potential, and with some help and a better choice of roles he could do better, he just needs to invest in himself. We’ll see him again later this year in A Simple Favor, so it’ll be interesting to see how he fares. Constance Wu is sweet, endearing and at times comical as Rachel; as a character she is relatable, it’s just her circumstances as the film progresses from its innocent beginnings that aren’t. Yeoh strongly portrays just the type of mega-rich matriarch we’d come to expect of such a family, and out of all the wealthy characters she is the only one to show some depth, understanding the burden that comes with wealth and Eastern traditions, particularly pertaining to family. At times the film is saved by the comedy of Jeong and the lovable Awkwafina, whose character of Peik Lin is the ultimate Asian-American (or ‘Asian Ellen’, as Jeong’s character puts it), possibly bridging that cultural gap more than any other character. Chan as Nick’s sister Astrid also provides a decent performance, her character’s life thrown into disarray at one point but with no real resolution, which is unfortunate as it would have been interesting to see where her character would have gone.
If there’s a question this film can leave one asking, it’s possibly along the lines of ‘who exactly is the story aimed at’? It’s completely unrelatable for average people, both Western and Eastern, and the younger audiences that you might assume it’s going after will likely either come away baffled or fantasising about such a realistically unattainable lifestyle. Even Rachel’s situation is too on the wrong side of fantastical to relate audiences to her single-parent upbringing. Yes, it’s good to have ambitions from small beginnings, and happen to have a boyfriend who has never had to worry about money and never will, but what are the chances of that being anyone’s reality? The romance between Rachel and Nick is sweet but too easy, at least from Nick’s side of things, and eventually from Rachel’s too. To be fair to the film, it does live up to its title: Crazy rich Asians are exactly what you get, and they are entertaining at times, but there’s no real point to its story. It’s a step in the right direction for Hollywood and Asian-Americans, but the next couple of steps should include a stronger plot and relatable characters, at the very least.