REVIEW – ‘Crazy Rich Asians’

Earlier this year, Marvel’s Black Panther created a wave of cultural celebration for the black community, sparked by cinematic representation rarely seen in mainstream cinema. While Jon M. Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians may not quite portray a cultural vision synonymous with all Asian people, it still represents a landmark moment for the film industry. It’s been 25 years since The Joy Luck Club, aka the last contemporary Hollywood studio film led by an Asian cast. This has been a long time coming.

It wasn’t all that long ago Hollywood cast Emma Stone as a character of part-Asian descent. And let’s not forget last year’s clusterf*ck disaster of Scarlett Johannson’s whitewashing inclusion in Ghost in the Shell. Asian actors are so often forced to play meaningless supporting roles in major Hollywood productions. Or, as Kelly Marie Tran so brilliantly worded it earlier this week, they “existed only in the background of…stories, doing their nails, diagnosing their illnesses, supporting their love interests — and perhaps the most damaging — waiting for them to rescue me.”

It obviously remains to be seen if Crazy Rich Asians will truly mark a turning point for the industry. But with its intoxicating mix of dazzling Singaporean location filming, deliciously entertaining narrative, and one of the year’s finest ensemble casts, the film is a mighty strong play to make one hell of a difference. This is one of the best times you will have in a cinema in 2018. My screening broke into spontaneous applause at its conclusion. Yep. It’s just that much fun.

Based on the popular novel by Kevin Kwan, Crazy Rich Asians follows the fairy tale romance of two young Asians living in New York City. Rachel Chu (a captivating Constance Wu), an NYU economics professor whose Chinese mother, Kerry (Tan Kheng Hua) immigrated to America when Rachel was just a baby, is madly in love with her dashing Singapore-born boyfriend, Nick Young (Henry Golding). Coming from working-class roots, Rachel is a grounded, intelligent young woman with little interest in extravagance.

When Rachel accepts Nick’s invitation to join him on a trip home to Singapore for the wedding of his best friend, Colin (Chris Pang), she sees this as a great opportunity to meet his family, thus taking their relationship to the next level. Little does Rachel realise the Young family are exceedingly wealthy property developers, with Nick being seen as the “Prince William of Asia.” Her first clue arrives when the pair are treated to first-class travel, which Nick describes as a “perk” of the family business. After downplaying his family’s wealth as being “comfortable,” Rachel feels somewhat at ease. That won’t last long.

Before she meets Nick’s expansive extended family, Rachel stops by the home of her eccentric former college roommate, Goh Peik Lin (scene-stealer Awkwafina). With a decor that is described as “Trump-inspired,” Rachel is naturally dazzled by the opulence of Peik Lin’s family home. When she naively reveals to Peik Lin and family (including sublime cameos from Ken Jeong and Koh Chieng Mun as Peik Lin’s parents) that her boyfriend is Nick Young, it’s left to her old pal to bluntly inform Rachel she’s essentially dating royalty. If she’s impressed by the Peik Lin house, she ain’t seen nothing yet.

Peik Lin also gives Rachel a quick-fire history of the Young dynasty, who left China decades ago to essentially colonise Singapore and transform it into the impressive and luxurious playground it is today. Oh, yes. The Youngs basically own Singapore. No pressure on impressing this lot. Upon arriving at Nick’s family home for a lavish party celebrating Colin’s wedding, Rachel immediately realises Peik Lin wasn’t exaggerating and is immediately thrust into a whole new level of extravagance, which she feels completely out of place in.

Things don’t fare much easier when Rachel first meets Nick’s stoic and intimidating mother, Eleanor (an Oscar-nom worthy Michelle Yeoh), who could essentially tear the flesh off Rachel’s face with one death stare. Eleanor is naturally polite and hospitable, but it’s easy to tell she instantly does not approve of her son’s choice of female suitor. As Eleanor begins to learn more of Rachel’s humble upbringing and apparent lack of understanding of the importance of family loyalty, an epic showdown is brewing, leaving Nick with an unbearable looming choice between family and love.

Fleshing out this charming romantic comedy are a supreme cast of supporting characters with several becoming Rachel’s instantly loyal allies in her battle to prove her worth. She joins forces with Nick’s cousin and “family fixer” Oliver (Nico Santos), the flamboyantly gay “rainbow sheep” of the family who giddily provides Rachel with a glamorous makeover and constant moral support. She finds solace in Nick’s empathetic cousin (he has a lot of them) Astrid (the achingly-gorgeous Gemma Chan), who is dealing with her “commoner” husband, Michael (Pierre Png) and his demasculinising feelings of inadequacy. And, much to her surprise, Rachel manages to connect with Nick’s treasured grandmother and family matriarch, Shang Su Yi (screen legend Lisa Lu). But will it be enough to impress Eleanor, who seems hell-bent on kicking Rachel on the first plane back to America?

The entire ensemble cast is a delectable treat that demands attention come award season. If the film fails to receive a SAG Award nomination for Best Ensemble, something is terribly wrong with that voting body. Wu and Golding have sublime chemistry together, with their relationship feeling entirely earnest and authentic. This is particularly impressive, given the film begins in the midst of their relationship, as opposed to most romantic comedies which allow us to witness love blossoming.

Both actors hit the ground running, creating a romance that’s one of the best you’ll see on screen this year. Wu is a stone-cold movie star and someone you cannot take your eyes off. Her impeccable comedic timing is a delight and casting directors would be wise to start banging on her door. Golding can’t quite match the comic wit of many of his co-stars, but he’s so breathlessly charming, it doesn’t matter. He manages to perfectly capture the deep conflict and inner turmoil Nick is beleaguered with, creating an entirely empathetic and understanding performance.

For the second time this year, Awkwafina steals every single frame she’s gifted with. She’s naturally given the film’s best lines (how can you not?) and elicits hearty laughter with practically every word of dialogue. The quirky Peik Lin is completely unfiltered and entirely unique, making for a character you cannot help but adore. With her acerbic wit and biting sarcasm, she tells it like it is, which is entirely needed in a film where most of the characters are so desperately concerned with acting as they “should.” In Awkwafina’s capable hands, this is another tour-de-force performance that establishes her as the go-to performer for irresistible comedic supporting turns.

But the star of the show here is undoubtedly Yeoh, delivering a deeply-layered performance (pay attention, Academy) full of complexities and dimensions from a screenplay that rightly refuses to cast her as a one-note dragon lady. Cinema often portrays this kind of maternal figure as nothing more than a nasty witch with a chip on her shoulder, and Eleanor is anything but. Yes, she’s brutally protective of her son and family, but there’s reason for that. The narrative slowly unravels the inner workings of this supposed monster, crafting something much more intriguing than this genre often delivers.

Through the discovery of her complicated backstory and the realisation that contempt for those without family loyalty has been inherently bred into her very psyche, we understand the reasoning behind her behaviour. Eleanor may be the “villain” of the piece, but Yeoh somehow manages to entirely steal your empathy. She balances that compassion with plenty of spite too. At times, you’ll naturally despise Eleanor, given her displeasure of Rachel is perfectly delivered with a momentary glance or acid-laced comment. Yeoh’s confrontations with Wu are a dream, particularly one sensational sequence over a game of mahjong that is one of the film’s biggest highlights.

Director Jon M. Chu crafts his romantic comedy with some of the year’s best production and costume design (pay attention again, Academy), with the film genuinely bursting off the screen with its deft use of striking colours and gorgeous location photography, captured effortlessly by cinematographer Vanja Cernjul. Intentional or not, the film ultimately serves as a dazzling tourism commercial for Singapore, capturing the city’s juxtaposition between stunning modern architecture and its classic colonial heritage. There’s also some detours to the nation’s more exotic locales, which provide the perfect setting for some pre-wedding party mayhem. Brian Tyler provides a playful and lively score, boosted by the inclusion of a whole host of Asian pop music, including a campy Cantopop version of Madonna’s “Material Girl” and a gorgeous Mandarin cover of Coldplay’s “Yellow,” which is rather tongue-in-cheek, when you think about it.

Crazy Rich Asians is certainly far from perfect. Its narrative is hardly the most original and there’s a hefty use of some well-worn movie clichés dotted throughout. But you cannot escape the film’s heart which is as infectious as any romantic comedy of the 21st century. It may be wrapped in plenty of glitz and glamour, but there’s deep meaning to be found here. It tackles class differences head-on, creating a film that highlights how the quest for love can test the ties that bind a family together. With a cast filled with characters to genuinely root for, this is one of the most entertaining experiences of the year.

This is truly a groundbreaking moment for Asian representation in Hollywood cinema that demands to be celebrated. It’s an impressive and credible push to highlight a minority group long-ignored by the studio system. Crazy Rich Asians is naturally not representative of all Asian experiences, but it’s not trying to be. It’s a thumbnail of a much larger picture which we are yet to fully see, but it’s a damn good place to start. It’s not often a film critic will implore you to see a film, but I can’t help it. I absolutely adored this film so very, very much. See it immediately. I practically guarantee you will have a fantastic time.

★★★★☆

Distributor: Roadshow
Cast: Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Gemma Chan, Lisa Lu, Awkwafina, Harry Shum Jr., Ken Jeong, Sonoya Mizuno, Chris Pang, Jimmy O. Yang, Ronny Chieng, Remy Hii, Nico Santos, Jing Lusi, Tan Kheng Hua, Carmen Soo, Pierre Png, Fiona Xie, Victoria Loke, Janice Koh, Amy J. Cheng, Koh Chieng Mun, Calvin Wong
Director: Jon M. Chu
Screenplay: Peter Chiarelli, Adele Lim
Producers: Nina Jacobson, Brad Simpson, John Penotti
Cinematography: Vanja Cernjul
Production Design: Nelson Coates
Music: Brian Tyler
Editor: Myron Kerstein
Running Time: 121 minutes
Release Date: 30th August 2018 (Australia)

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