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This article was published 14/8/2018 (775 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
In North American pop culture, Asian actors are usually relegated to playing sidekicks for white leads, the men often reduced to de-sexed tech-support types, the women viewed as exotic, erotic props.
It can’t be overstated, then, that this effervescent rom-com, which is the first major American studio picture in decades with an all-Asian cast, is a huge thing for representation.
Even more huge? Fizzing with fun, dripping with excess, exuberantly silly but with a few serious asides, Crazy Rich Asians has so much broad audience appeal that Hollywood might actually try this again.
Adapted from Kevin Kwan’s global bestseller, the story centres on Rachel Chu (Constance Wu from television’s Fresh Off the Boat), an NYU economics prof who travels to a Singapore wedding with her dreamboat boyfriend, Nick Young (Henry Golding, known mostly as a TV presenter), only to discover his family is crazy rich.
And also a bit crazy.
This is basically a Cinderella story, in which an ordinary young woman — she’s "not even that pretty," one competitor snipes, while another backhandedly compliments her cute little "Gap outfit," — seems set to snag a scion of Singapore royalty.
Rachel’s romantic rivals are nothing, however, compared with Nick’s mother Eleanor (the magnificent Michelle Yeoh of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and her cool, implacable disapproval. Eleanor is imperiously polite to Rachel in public, but in private tells her she will "never be enough" for Nick and his family.
This is all from the standard rom–com template, but the likable leads and sparky supporting cast manage to reinvigorate these old clichés
The scripting, from TV writer Adele Lim and Peter Chiarelli (The Proposal) is broad and obvious.
There’s a "kooky gal pal" (scene-stealing, raspy-voiced rapper Awkwafina) and a "gay best friend" (Nico Santos). There’s a makeover scene, a temporary misunderstanding between our two lovers, and a last-minute, much-cheered public declaration of love.
This is all from the standard rom-com template, but the likable leads and sparky supporting cast manage to reinvigorate these old clichés.
Then there’s the luxury porn. Like the book, which is jammed with high-end brand names, the film explores the enclaves of the Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai elite, people with unthinkable amounts of money — private-jet, private-island, $40-million-wedding amounts of money.
There are little glints of satire. When we first meet Eleanor, she is with her ladies’ Bible study class, reading a scriptural passage that instructs believers to "set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth."
Crazy Rich Asians, of course, is all about the things that are on earth, its perfunctory moral message — that Rachel’s sturdy middle-class values will triumph over the crass materialism and obscene excess all around her — somewhat undermined by the fact that the film itself totally adores crass materialism and obscene excess.
Director Jon M. Chu lingers over clothes and jewels, food and furniture. He takes the audience on a shiny travelogue tour of Singapore’s exclusive landmarks, dazzlingly photographed and choreographed to a peppy international pop soundtrack.
But just when everything feels superficial, the script sneaks in a little heartfelt truth about identity, the immigrant experience and intergenerational conflicts. Rachel is sure she can win over Nick’s family — "I’m Chinese, they’re Chinese" — but her rivals dismiss her as an ABC (American born Chinese).
Declaring that "Americans care only about their own happiness," Eleanor believes Rachel will never understand the duty and sacrifice that holds the Young family together.
Some of these issues come out in a scene involving dumplings, making this the second "symbolic dumpling" moment of the year, after the Pixar short Bao.
Crazy Rich Asians has already drawn some controversy, with detractors claiming it’s not Asian enough, that it gives little sense of the daily life of average Singaporeans, who are barely glimpsed in the movie, mostly seen holding trays of vintage champagne and opening the doors of $150,000 cars.
If you want a sense of the full range of contemporary Singapore society, you’re certainly not going to get it from this gauzy, gaudy guilty pleasure.
Sometimes moving toward fuller representation involves making films about complex, difficult lived experiences. But maybe sometimes it just involves the right to be as frivolously entertaining as any other Hollywood summer hit.
Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.
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