Film Review: Crazy Rich Asians (2018)
Were y’all waiting for this review? I don’t fucking know, but one thing I know for sure was that I was not waiting for this review. The weeks and months and year leading up to this movie, and all the representation politics surrounding it, has driven me absolutely nuts. To the point that I very quickly and, in my opinion, validly lost interest in the film. Crazy Rich Asians, based off the book by Kevin Kwan, is about a handful of extremely wealthy people in Singapore. It follows Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), who is your average Asian American woman, as she follows her boyfriend, Nick (Henry Golding), to visit his family, only to realize that he comes from old ass money and is among the richest of Chinese Singapore. Alongside their story, we get glimpses into the stories of the surrounding family, including beautiful cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan) and her cheating husband. In an extremely Great Gatsby-like fashion, the stories of these people unfold in the most glamorous of ways, with unbelievable vacation spots, lily-infused fairytale weddings, and a hyper-dramatic mahjong game. There is a lot to discuss with this movie, both on and off screen, and now that I’ve seen the film, I have to say that all of it feels just very exhausting.
From a strictly narrative film standpoint, Crazy Rich Asians was a perfectly okay romantic comedy. It truly was like a more optimistic Great Gatsby, complete with luxurious wealth and romantic fall-outs. The premise of a #casual woman realizing her boo is extremely wealthy or royal is old as time (see even: The Prince and Me), and Crazy Rich Asians doesn’t necessarily bring anything new to this trope except for one important distinction. Obviously the entire cast is Asian/Asian American, but more enlightening and more significant than that is the passing theme of Rachel being considered unacceptable to Singapore’s wealthy Chinese circle for the fact that, to Nick’s family, she is American before she is Chinese. This point was possibly the most relatable and intriguing part of an otherwise un-relatable movie and I almost wish they dug into that aspect a little more. For the record, I don’t believe every single film needs to be relatable; it is merely a personal preference. And on the topic of personal preference, this trope of Surprise! Your Boo Is Filthy Rich is not my favorite (because clearly Fake Dating Contract has taken a firm grasp of my soul), but if it is for you, and you enjoy the lavish displays of expansive wealth, I guess this movie could be for you. I can definitely say, that luxuriously gorgeous wedding scene took even me by surprise.
Crazy Rich Asians actually felt a bit lackluster and definitely overhyped. The film begins as a focus on Rachel Chu and Nick Young, but that world expands to include the stories of all these other characters who I frankly didn’t need to know about. As stunning as Gemma Chan is, was the purpose of her story that despite wealth, her life isn’t perfect? Okay, great. Did Awkwafina’s character really have to be there? Perhaps, but she 1000% did not need to have that unfortunate “blaccent”. The same goes for Ken Jeong’s character. In typical romantic comedy fashion, the story is inherently from Rachel’s point of view, and that view actually didn’t seem to include a lot of Nick in it. There really weren’t many scenes with them together, so it was difficult to grasp their chemistry (of which I thought there wasn’t much of actually). Another passing theme in the film was the idea of female independence, which we saw through Rachel's confrontation with Nick's mother (Michelle Yeoh) and Astrid's leaving (Gemma Chan), but it felt half baked because I wanted so badly for Rachel and Nick to not end up together at the end. What I can say is, the gorgeousness of the people and the decadent visual display of the wealth did a lot to hold up this film. For that reason, I’m a firm believer in the idea that this movie should be allowed to flop, just like The Great Gatsby did.
And, from a political standpoint, I almost wish this movie did flop. The massive amounts of extremely valid criticism coming from SE Asians/Asian Americans regarding the myopic portrayal of Singapore through its wealthy Chinese preceded the premiere and continues to be voiced right now. There is a thread out there that lists plentiful, well-written articles that critique the film, of which this is one. And frankly, it’s uncomfortable viewing all of their wealth on screen, knowing that diegetically, it comes from real estate excavating of Singapore’s native land, and nondiegetically, it is an extremely real reality. But it’s a double-edged sword because I’m acutely aware of what the success of this film can and will do for the future of Asian ~representation~ on a mainstream level specifically for the United States. Is that a selfish standpoint, to prioritize the American representation politics of Crazy Rich Asians over what real critics are saying of the blind erasure (or mocking) of Singapore’s real ethnic problems? For me, the answer is a blurry yes. For me, one of the potential solutions to this would’ve been for the film’s publicity team to not hype up the movie as THE representational movie of the year, as THE first major Asian American whatever, as THE movie to watch to support representation. And to actually listen to the critics instead of blindly ignoring them for the sake of media representation. I have heard that the original novel was meant to be a satire on the ridiculousness of the rich, but this film fell extremely short on tackling that. The criticism became diluted and distracted by the Hollywood, glamorized wealth.
There's no neat way to bow-tie my thoughts on this movie, but what all of this tells me, however, is that there is a dire need to simply create more. The reason why #repsweats exists is precisely because there is such a lack of representation, and when there finally is something, you want it to fully encompass your lived experience, and when it doesn’t, it feels bad. In my humble cinephilic opinion, Crazy Rich Asians just reads as a simple and joyous movie about some rich people. Great, there’s a million movies about rich people, and Asians should be allowed to have that too. But also allowed should be movies about other kinds of Asians living in opposite worlds as well. I am amused that Asian Americans are almost single-handedly bringing back the most superior film genre that is the Rom-Com™ (also see: To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, the century’s most superior Rom-Com), but for me, Crazy Rich Asians did only decent. As my favorite writer, Bim Adewunmi, says in regards to Indie Rom-Coms and The Incredible Jessica James, the goal of such movies centering people of color “should not exist to ‘challenge stereotypes’, aka an itchy and needless mantle of singular representation for an entire demographic…the answer is simply: make more.” And to add to that, embrace the criticism.