Written by: Terence Johnson, CC2K Staff Writer
Watching Crazy Rich Asians, viewers are sure recognize the various formulas and tropes constructing the narrative: fish-out-of water, rom-com trajectories and disapproving family members (to name a few). You’ll feel the Hollywood studio sheen (nobody manages to make exotic locales, beautiful clothes and exquisite jewels look quite as stunning as Warner Bros). What you haven’t seen before, at least not from a big Hollywood studio in the past 25 years, is a group of brilliant Asian actors telling a uniquely Asian (and Asian American) story. For that fact alone, Crazy RIch Asians would be a must see experience. Thank goodness the movie is good as well!
This film is all about identity, whether that’s understanding your place as a mom when your son wants to marry a girl, or a fiancee struggling to fit into a new family. These are universal truths that a movie less interesting than Crazy Rich Asians would stop at exploring. However, this story is keenly aware of how the plot’s narrative specificity crafts a universal tale.
The search for identity is more than simply “Can I get my boyfriend’s mom to like me?” In fact, Crazy Rich Asians understands the loneliness and isolation this identity quest brings for people of color. It’s not just that Rachel (Constance Wu) is an outsider Nick’s (Henry Golding) folks try to scare away, it’s that she’s an Asian American outsider which comes with its own set of struggles which Constance Wu gives life to in every moment she’s on-screen in a truly marvelous performance.
Crazy Rich Asians doesn’t take the easy way out with the characters or narrative, even if you can probably guess how the movie will end. In building up the obstacles Rachel must “overcome” with regards to the family, one beautifully staged scene with Rachel and Nick’s family gives viewers real understanding of what Rachel could gain.
A simple act of making dumplings with Rachel’s boyfriend’s family becomes a referendum on the Young family, cultural history of the Chinese in Asia and America, as well as familial problems. It is fascinating to watch the examination of generational cycles through the prism of a Chinese family living in Singapore. There’s a vicious cycle of class and patriarchy which threatens to crush everyone, even those willingly playing a part in it. It’s a miracle that there’s so much substance crammed under the gloss and glitz of this Hollywood rom-com, but Crazy Rich Asians is all the better for it.
Jon Chu is a gifted director and it’s plain to see how his connection to the material affects his filmmaking. The only downside is that in his reverence, the movie takes a while to leap off the screen. The first act plods along, not because they aren’t in Singapore, but because the rhythms feel stilled. If the New York scenes and the early moments in Singapore had the energy of the second and third act, it would have been a real treat.
However, once the movie finds the groove it’s searching for, it takes off, bolstered by strong lead performances from Wu, Michelle Yeoh, and the dreamy Henry Golding. However, the film’s unsung hero is Gemma Chan, whose character is a kindred spirit to Rachel and whose own identity crisis gives the story some of its most potent material.
With the considerable powers of top notch actors, a fun script, and unassuming direction, Crazy Rich Asians balances being a glossy studio picture and meaningful exploration into Asian identity.
Crazy Rich Asians is playing in theaters around the country starting this weekend.