This past weekend (Aug. 24-26) was the second weekend for the opulent, exciting romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians. The film adaption of Kevin Kwan novel of the same name earned almost as much money in this weekend than it did on its historic opening weekend.
The film was the first all Asian cast in over fifty years, and it’s opening success is a testament to the universality of stories and the importance and need for stories told from diverse perspectives. The lesson here is that people will show up, and producers need to pay attention to the shift and green light projects that highlight diversity across all levels: source, inception, directing, and casting.
The film stars an absolutely magnetic Constance Wu as Rachel Chu, an NYU professor that has, unbeknownst to her, been dating China’s most eligible bachelor for over a year. In fact he is compared to a crown prince of Singapore. Nick Young (played by breakout star and instant charmer Henry Golding) and his family are not just comfortable, they are not just rich, they are CRAZY RICH.
And boy does that come across in this film. The sheer opulence and luxury showcased in the fashion, sets and drool-worthy jewelry throughout the film is sinfully decadent. From the moment Rachel and Nick arrive in Singapore the richness is visceral. It begins in a less obvious way – food. The scene at the market where vendors have been perfecting their wares for generations had me thrusting my hand into my bucket of popcorn with the wish that I would somehow find the sizzling, smoking, colorful food of Singapore inside instead. The moment Rachel meets Nicks family however, the simple heartiness of the traditional fare is quickly forgotten in the luxurious trappings of the family mansion, and the even more complex trappings of the Young family.
Rachel experiences culture shock at the same time as many viewers who, much like the stuffy British hotel clerks, never envisioned China with this lens. That is one of the gifts of this film, a new perspective, a break-down of stereotypes that have long been a dark stain on Hollywood when it comes to telling asian or asian-american stories. What is ironic is that certain scenes within Crazy Rich Asians vividly reminded me of those films of Golden Age hollywood. The richness, the saturated, rich jeweled tones, not to mentioned the literal jewels all hearkened back to those classic days. The music with the big bands, jazzy female singer, was vintage inspired, yet totally fit into that world. The rigid family order also seemed like an outdated concept, yet related to an important cultural distinction in China that was paramount to the film’s plot tension.
Playing with that tension magnificently was Michelle Yeoh as Eleanor Young, the matriarch of the family under Nick’s ama (grandmother) Shang Su Yi played with excellence by Lisa Lu. Eleanor is our natural villain, the disapproving-stern mother who is disappointed in her son’s choice of girlfriend. In this sense the disapproval is multi-faceted: Rachel is American and thus a foreigner, her ambition as a NYU professor is admirable but will prevent her from being a dutiful wife to Nick as he takes over the family’s gigantic business, and finally in a scene that was as powerful as it was understated – she is simply “not enough.” This is a common theme in the discussions of marriage and mate-choice throughout the film, which is set in the midst of a lavish wedding celebration of Nick’s friends, Colin and Araminta. The correct choice is important to the Young family and the other rich families in Singapore, just see what happened to model cousin Astrid (a gracefully restrained Gemma Chan) when she strays outside of the socio-economic class. This is all made painfully clear to Rachel, but our New Yorker is not going down without a fight.
The heart of Crazy Rich Asians lies in the wonderful performance by Constance Wu, a performance that should get several nominations if there is any justice in this world. You follow her through this surreal world with its assumptions, judgments, and protocols that are as foreign as the land. We watch her struggle, overcome, and outwit her challengers. This film made me laugh, (specifically current phenom Awkwafina made me cry-laugh) it made me cry, and above all it made me feel for these characters with lives and histories so very different from my own. And in the end isn’t that the beauty of art? – That ALL audiences can and WILL enjoy this brilliant gem of a film? I think yes. I also think that it is a really good thing that Kevin Kwan wrote two more books…