Film Review: Crazy Rich Asians (USA, 2018) is a well-executed romantic comedy with grounded observations on family traditions

A film like Crazy Rich Asians is a long time coming. For the past 25 years, since the release of Wayne Wang‘s expansive drama, The Joy Luck Club, there haven’t been a lot of films in the Hollywood system that featured Asian-Americans in substantial roles; let alone managed to assemble a talented ensemble cast.

Whilst, the independent film system has spawned many wonderful films, across different genres, with a strong Asian-American persuasion; such as Justin Lin‘s Better Luck Tomorrow, Danny Leiner‘s Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, or my personal favourite Jessica Yu‘s Ping Pong Playa; the mainstream Hollywood system has often been found lacking. Often these films only offer roles for Asian actors/actresses that are small in nature; or they’re roles they are conform to  old stereotypes (eg. people skilled in martial arts) or worse, roles that are created purely to placate the Chinese market (eg. Jing Tian in Jordan Vogt-RobertsKong: Skull Island and Zhang Jingchu in Christopher McQuarrie‘s Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation). Even when Hollywood attempts to tell a story that significantly involves Asian culture, those attempts often come across – despite some exceptions like Clint Eastwood‘s Letters from Iwo Jima – quite poorly or misguided (eg. Rob Marshall‘s Memoirs of a Geisha, which cast Chinese actors for roles of Japanese descent).

But, now at least we have Crazy Rich Asians, the latest film from director Jon M. Chu (best known for directing glossy films like Step Up 2: The Streets, Now You See Me 2 and G.I Joe: Retaliation), which is jam-packed with both established and upcoming Asian talent, including Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Awkwafina and Michelle Yeoh. Will the film succeed as an entertaining film as well as a stepping stone for representation?

The story follows New Yorker Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), an American-born Chinese professor of economics and game theory, who travels to her boyfriend Nick’s (Henry Golding) hometown of Singapore for the wedding of his best friend Colin (Chris Pang). Before long, his secret is out: Nick is from a family that is impossibly wealthy (or comfortable, as Nick puts it). He’s perhaps the most eligible bachelor in all of Asia, and every single woman in his higher-upper-ultra-peak social class is incredibly jealous of Rachel and wants to bring her down. But that is all small potatoes in comparison to the biggest obstacle Rachel has to contend with – Nick’s disapproving mother (Michelle Yeoh).

Crazy Rich Asians is a winningly enjoyable romantic comedy and a significant step towards meaningful representation of Asian-Americans in the limelight. Let’s start off with the positives as to why it succeeds as a film. In order for any romantic comedy to work the chemistry between the lead actors has to be convincing, genuine, enjoyable to watch and they both have to compliment each other, as well as work separately. Thankfully, both Constance Wu and newcomer Henry Golding are up to the task.

Wu has already proven her mettle in the hit TV show, Fresh Off The Boat, and with her roles in films like Zal Batmanglij‘s Sound of My Voice and she takes the reins of the role of Rachel like a pro; exuding charm, humanity and a steadfast demeanor that is both compelling and refreshing for a romantic comedy lead, let alone a female one. Likewise, Golding is likable and charismatic in his acting debut. Although he is not given too much to do in terms of dramatic range, he not only convinces the audience that he is in love with Rachel from the very first second he’s on-screen (and vice-versa for Wu), he also has an appealing presence that keeps him grounded and down-to-earth, making it easy for the audience to relate to him, aside from his wealthy origins.

The supporting cast are all great in their varying roles. Awkwafina shows good comedic chops as Goh Peik Lin; whilst fellow Aussie Chris Pang lends fine support as Colin Khoo. Gemma Chan gives a fantastically nuanced performance as the conflicted Astrid Leong-Teo and Sonoya Mizuno, who finally has a fun character (who is not a dancer, an android or an extraterrestrial being)to sink into, also impressed as Araminta Lee. But the real standout is Michelle Yeoh, who brings such grace and heart to the film’s supposed antagonist (Eleanor Young) with a performance that in the wrong hands could’ve easily veered into evil-stepmother territory.

Another big plus is Jon M. Chu‘s direction, which gives the film a strong visual and aural punch that works aesthetically as well as emotionally. Director Chu with the aid of editor Myron Kerstein, composer Brian Tyler and cinematographer Vanja Cernjul pace through the various characters with efficiency and briskness, conveying the high-life of the titular people as garish and overblown as possible, whilst also capturing the beauty of the film’s Singapore (both the metro and the country) settings beautifully. A well-chosen soundtrack certainly helps too, with young artist Kina Grannis‘ “Can’t Help Falling In Love With You” and Cantopop superstar Sally Yeh‘s cover of Madonna‘s “Material Girl” (known as 200 Degrees) being just two of the standouts.

But, most importantly of all, on this film the whole crew give a spit-shine to those tired romantic comedy tropes, and help make the genre feel fresh again. They rely more on strong characterisations, rather than stereotypes (whether cinematic or racial), and often opt to show restraint rather than histrionics or even overt emotions. All of which allows them to  successfully convey different cultural viewpoints on lifestyle, status and even film tropes. For example, a scene in the third act, involving a conflict between Wu and Yeoh during a round of Mahjong is executed with remarkable subtlety and detail and is emblematic of all of these positives.

So far, what we have proven here is that Crazy Rich Asians is an above-average romantic comedy. But what makes it truly stand out from the pack is its accurate portrayal of filial traditions and viewpoints. This lends the story and the romance a strong, emotional through-line; as well as creating a compelling dichotomy between what is seen as wealthy and what is seen as traditional.

As for the negatives, I’d say at just over two hours it is quite overlong. Also the formulaic trappings of the romantic comedy genre do break through in Adele Lim and Peter Chiarelli’s script. Scenes involving a dash to the airport or involving makeovers, for example, that have been done many, many times before. There are of course also likely to be audiences out there that will say that the film does not represent the true nature of the Singaporean community.

But overall, it is with great pleasure to say that Crazy Rich Asians is a load of fluffy, old-school rom-com fun, all thanks to likable leads, memorable characters, visual pizazz and some welcome thematic weight thanks to its respectful look at family traditions. Is it a major step in the fight for representation of the Asian community? No, but it is a loud step, one that will garner attention thanks to the film’s keen commercial sense. Hopefully, through its success there will be more films like this one on the horizon in the future.

FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Crazy Rich Asians is in cinemas tomorrow, August 30th