CRAZY RICH ASIANS. Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Gemma Chan, Awkwafina, Nico Santos, Lisa Lu, Ken Jeong, Michelle Yeoh. Directed by Jon M. Chu. 120 minutes. Rated PG (Mild themes and coarse language).
‘Crazy Rich Asians’ arrives in theatres this week already boasting a handful of impressive stats from its US release. It enjoyed the highest grossing opening weekend of a romantic comedy since 2015. In its second weekend, it dipped only marginally, good enough for third place among features that didn’t have their second weekend coincide with a public holiday. The latter points to excellent word of mouth compelling new viewers to seek it out and repeat viewers to go back for seconds. All of this is not to mention the film’s most notable element: its all Asian cast.
In an already banner year for diversity (‘Black Panther’, for one, has already become the highest-grossing solo superhero film ever), ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ just reiterates that there is an appetite for films that are different from those that have long dominated cinemas, those starring white men and women and confining diversity to sidekicks or comedic relief. But none of this would be true if the film weren’t any good – an Asian-led box office flop would just give the naysayers fresh ammunition. Fortunately, as the American word of mouth suggests, this is a real crowd-pleaser, through and through. It’s loaded with charming talent and luminous spectacle, and while anyone versed in their rom-com staples should be able to pick the plot from a hundred yards, there’s a reason that things become classics. It’s because these tried and tested story templates are terrifically satisfying, which just about succinctly sums up ‘Crazy Rich Asians’.
Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) is an economics professor at NYU, having moved to New York from China with her mother (Tan Kheng Hua) when she was still a baby. Her boyfriend, Nick Young (Henry Golding), invites her to attend the wedding of his best friend, Colin (Chris Pang), in Singapore. In addition to enjoying the “event of the century”, it’s also Nick’s chance to introduce Rachel to his sprawling family, including his domineering mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh). Unbeknownst to Rachel, Nick comes from money, and not just a few casual dollars and cents; the title aptly describes the whole Young clan, the biggest property developers in Singapore. The circles they move in are similarly flush with cash, and Rachel finds herself reeling in an utterly alien world.
When she’s not navigating the minefields of family gatherings with Nick or social engagements with Colin’s fiancé Araminta (Sonoya Mizuno) and her nightmarish brigade of bridesmaids, Rachel finds some comfort in the company of Peik Lin (Awkwafina) and her new-money family. Peik Lin’s father (Ken Jeong) and mother (Koh Chieng Mun) live in a gaudy mansion, which sits in comic contrast to the relatively restrained elegance of the Young family’s palatial estate. With Peik Lin’s helpful insights into the lives of the wealthy Chinese diaspora in Singapore, Rachel sets about winning over Nick’s family and friends and proving that she’s in their relationship for the right reasons.
The conflict at the heart of this rom-coms stems from Nick’s connection with his family, a powerful force in many Asian cultures. Nick’s mother and grandmother (Lisa Lu) want him to return to Singapore, where he is in line to assume the helm of the family business. However, Rachel doesn’t want to leave her life in America behind, nor does Nick want to leave her. This push and pull of family duty and love follows a well-worn path, culminating in an ending so timeworn that the trope it centres on has become somewhat of a running joke in more self-aware films. That said, the earnestness of the whole enterprise sells this moment well, only reiterating why the (spoiler alert!) “last minute dash to the airport” became such a genre staple in the first place.
Its success comes down to two things: our protagonists and the film’s winning sense of humour. In the leads, Wu and Golding are wonderfully charming, and their likability flows over into the characters. Rachel and Nick are just two people that you want to be happy, and preferably end up together. Wu’s luminous smile and unpretentious way of carrying herself gels nicely with Rachel’s fight to distinguish herself … Her performance contrasts especially well with Michelle Yeoh, whose icy matriarch eyes Rachel like a predator coolly assessing her prey. Golding, on the other hand, is all warmth and charisma (the character aptly describes himself as a “Prince Harry”-type). His chemistry with Wu is very sparky, adding the necessary heft to the romance. While Wu and Golding are funny, it’s the cavalcade of ridiculous supporting characters that really bring the laughs. Awkwafina and Ken Jeong are notably excellent, while Jimmy O. Yang, who plays demented playboy Bernard, is also hilarious.
There are moments when one wonders why screenwriters Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim have spread their attention so thinly around the large family, but these have their own strong points. For instance, the marital strife of Nick’s cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan) gets a decent amount of screen time, but ultimately packs the rawest emotional punch of the film.
Also ensuring that viewers are never bored is director Jon M. Chu, who hails from a background of dance and concert films and jams every frame here with bold colours and lighting choices. Between the chic fashions, huge houses and heaving parties, there’s rarely a visually quiet moment, but this energy matches that of the story, which stuffs a lot into its two hours (not the least of which is enough gorgeous footage of classic tourist attractions to presumably get the film some Visit Singapore funding).
At the heart of the press surrounding the film is this: ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ made headlines because of its Asian casting. More pressingly for this critic, however, is that it’s also a solid romantic comedy featuring strong performances and all the requisite laughs and tears. While we should welcome the progress that it represents behind-the-scenes, it should also be celebrated for just being a real blast. It’s an old-fashioned love story and a love letter to classic romantic comedies told through a distinctly 2018 lens, and with its success, we can look forward to more paradigm-shifting hits in years to come.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out August 30.