By Cameron Lee
August 14, 2018
With the rarity of Asian-led movies in Hollywood, some may wonder why Asians may be so underserved in representation on-screen in American film. Although there’s been a recent influx in the last decade in music, food and entertainment, the cultural customs of most Asian families may have something to do with it. Often understated in awkward moments of cultural appropriation and unphased by idiotic stereotypes, Asians still only represent less than 6% of the American population.
While Asian culture may be lacking on camera in America over the last decade (many may point to the 1993 Amy Tan literal adaptation Joy Luck Club as the last significant American film with an all-Asian cast), we often forget films like Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. A film that introduced many Americans to the legendary Hong Kong actor Chow Yun-Fat who had already garnered a huge cult following with his starring roles in the iconic action films of director, John Woo, best known for his films The Killer, Hard Boiled, and the more Americanized Face Off. Asian film culture— especially kung-fu films— were heavily popularized in the mid to late ‘90s with the hip-hop group, Wu-Tang Clan, who even nicknamed their hometown borough of Staten Island, “Shaolin.”
Eddie Huang, the heavily hip-hop influenced restaurateur, author, and Viceland food personality’s autobiography Fresh Off the Boat: A Memoir, was adapted into a television show in 2015, airing on ABC right after the uber-popular Modern Family. The show, starring Constance Wu, who also stars in Crazy Rich Asians (I know, we’ll get to the review), served as a landmark moment in television, but has been criticized for being a pasteurized version of the book according to Huang. Fresh Off The Boat is the first major television sitcom starring an Asian American since the forgettable Dr. Ken starring Ken Jeong (also in Crazy Rich Asians) and more notably Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl in 1994, both of which were canceled fairly quickly.
So now in 2018, we have a much-hyped and heavily marketed romantic comedy, Crazy Rich Asians. In the theatrical trailer they highlight the tired Asian-American banana joke, “yellow on the outside and white on the inside.” Accompanied by the Macklemore track, “Glorious,” it may hint at a hackneyed film over-serving to the highly race-sensitive era we currently live in. But despite the misguided marketing, Crazy Rich Asians is a wholesome and entertaining romantic comedy based on the 2015 Kevin Kwan novel of the same name.
Rachel Chu (played by Constance Wu) is an economics professor from a humble immigrant background who is asked by her boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding, not Swaggy P) to head east to attend his best friend Colin’s wedding and meet his family. Although the audience is introduced to the wealth of Nick’s family in a discerning flashback opening scene, Rachel has no idea of the affluence of her boyfriend’s pedigree.
While Rachel’s innocent nature may have prevented her from realizing Nick’s background, she quickly grasps his wealth when boarding an extravagant first-class experience on their way to Singapore. Perpetuating the nosey and gossipy stereotype of older Asians, mostly all of Nick’s family are aware of Rachel and her background far before she lands on the island. She’s introduced to the groom-to-be Colin (Chris Pang) and his bubbly fiance Araminta, played by the stunning Sonoya Mizuno. The opening montage after landing in Singapore displays the rich and diverse food culture and a vibrant array of cuisine found in hawker centers (food courts) in Singapore.
As you are immersed in the set-up of the story and start to wonder if this is a comedy or just a romantic drama, we are introduced to Peik Lin played by rapper Akwafina, Rachel’s outlandish college friend who also happens to be a crazy rich Asian. Her father Wye Mun, played by Ken Jeong (The Hangover and Community), offers some comic relief as the first laugh-out-loud experience arrives in a dinner scene inside their tacky gold-laden mansion. When Peik’s family discovers she is dating Nick, the movie quickly shifts into a Cinderella-esque Pretty Woman-type vibe, as she gets ready to meet Nick’s family at an extravagant party hosted by his grandmother.
The decadent nature of astounding wealth is evident in every scene as extravagant jewelry, garb and set designs are the backdrop to this love story. Despite the Meet The Parents premise, Crazy Rich Asians is a story predominantly about love and acceptance. While the surface of affluent wealth and material possessions may draw the audience in, Rachel’s character is never smitten by the riches, but more intrigued by gaining approval. The judgemental nature of Asian culture and the overt opulence serves as the motif of the film as she navigates through pretentious discernment of not only Nick’s parents, but his ex-girlfriend, extended family and the Singapore media.
For a movie that runs right at two hours, they cram in a horde of characters hitting the full spectrum of personalities. There’s Oliver played Nico Santos, a close but distant relative and fashionista who serves as a minion to the royal family and an ally to Rachel. There’s Astrid (Gemma Chan), Nick’s impeccable philanthropist sister who is a closet shopping addict. There’s Eddie played by Ronny Chieng, Nick’s conceited cousin who is all surface and no substance, putting on the illusion of a happy and sophisticated family. There’s also Bernard (Jimmy O. Yang), the douchey party boy who rents out a cargo ship on international waters equipped with Asian models and firework launching bazookas for Colin’s bachelor party.
The matriarchs of the family also serve as the villains in some parts of the film. The battle of gaining parental approval may be nothing new to traditional Asian families, but in 2018 this film also serves as a clash between the old and new. While family pressure may be customary for most Asian millennials, this is a generational movie that naturally captures the perspective of many character types that may seem all too familiar.
If you are walking into Crazy Rich Asians looking for a gut-busting comedy, then you might walk out disappointed. The film is edited and shot much like a summer blockbuster romantic comedy, but the story and characters play more like an Asian drama. But that’s okay! Although there are lulls in laughter, the eyes are always captivated by beauty: beautiful Asian faces, design, clothing, food, and production. There are decadent backdrops, cars, hotels, fireworks, and flowers but, this is more of a modern Asian fairy tale that showcases a multitude of talented actors and filmmaking professionals than an award-winning comedy. It’s a simple story with complex characters that, in the end, is more enriching than it is rich.
Star Rating: 3.75 out of 5