When Crazy Rich Asians ends, with a synchronised swimming performance and fireworks atop Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands hotel, it is hard to believe that director Jon M. Chu actually had to tone down the film from Kevin Kwan’s bestselling novel of the same name. This is because the film’s outrageous display of wealth and opulence is enough to make Jay Gatsby himself blush. Adapted by Adele Lim and Peter Chiarelli, the film follows Chinese-American economics professor Rachel Chu (Fresh Off The Boat’s Constance Wu) as she travels with her historian boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding) to Singapore for his best friend’s wedding. Quickly Rachel discovers that Nick belongs to a property development dynasty who are one of the richest families in Singapore. Suddenly, Rachel finds herself trying to defend her relationship to snobby socialites, crude nouveau riche cousins, and crucially, Nick’s intimidating mother, Eleanor Young (Michelle Yeoh).
The film sees every good romcom trope dutifully deployed: the makeover montage, the quirky best friend, even a soppy Chinese-language cover of ‘Yellow’ by Coldplay. Golding is every part the ‘Asian Bachelor’ – smouldering, confident, and confronting racist stereotypes that Asian men are romantically undesirable. For the romcom genre, it is refreshing that the heroine’s transformation is much more about finding herself than finding love. Director Chu commented that the film is “not about getting the guy”, but instead about Rachel’s personal and literal journey. By the end of the film, it is the relationship between Eleanor and Rachel that proves the most interesting, both struggling in their own ways in tradition and sacrifice for men.
Whilst falling firmly within the romcom genre, the film finds its greatest strength not in its depiction of romance, but instead in its exploration of immigrant identity. Rachel is taken aback to find herself not Asian enough for Nick’s family, who see her as “an unrefined ‘banana’ – yellow on the outside, white on the inside”. This culture shock provides the film with some of its funniest moments; when Rachel chooses to wear a red dress to meet Nick’s family believing that red is a lucky colour, a family friend (Ken Jeong) quips “only if you’re an envelope”. Not only played for laughs, Rachel’s struggle to reconcile her Asian and American identities also supplies the film with a compelling emotional depth, particularly evident in the scenes between Rachel and her single mother (Kheng Hua Tan).
Whilst the meme “Scarlett Johansson could never” humorously addresses issues of Hollywood whitewashing, it is important to note that a producer sought to reimagine Rachel as a white woman. Indeed, the film has prompted not only important conversations about representation, but also about the responsibility of film reviewing. Observer critic Simran Hans notes that assessing Crazy Rich Asians exclusively on the basis of representation “is to do [the film] a disservice and to further narrow the parameters of how we’re allowed to talk about movies that feature ‘diverse’ actors”. With there being such a lack of mainstream films about the Asian experience, Crazy Rich Asians would never be able to fill the vast hole created by decades of Hollywood whitewashing, misrepresentation, and exclusion. Nor should this be Crazy Rich Asian’s burden. There is a worrying trend developing that sees racially diverse films somehow saddled with far more responsibility than their white counterparts.
Even acknowledging that Crazy Rich Asians could never meet all the expectations imposed on it, there are still elements of the film that are genuinely uncomfortable and merit deeper discussion. Journalist Kirsten Han asks “would the white Hollywood executives who backed the film have done so if it hadn’t been about over-the-top Asian wealth?”. Nora Lum’s (also known as Awkwafina) performance as Peik Lin has led to accusations of appropriation over her ‘blaccent’. The film’s unquestionable embrace of capitalism is also concerning given Singapore’s staggering wealth inequality. The Indian and Malay minorities living in Singapore are glossed over, as too are the working class who enable the lifestyles of those the film is concerned with.
With a sequel supposedly in the works, it will be interesting to see if these issues are addressed.
Image: Sanja Bucko.