Crazy Rich Asians Revives A Dying Genre

Hello, everyone! Sorry for the break between posts, but the new school year has stolen my attention and energy so even though I’m still going to try my best to meet my weekly posting goal, don’t be shocked if it’s more like every two weeks…or three. Anyways, I finally got to see Crazy Rich Asians! I’ve been looking forward to watching it since I first heard about its inception and thought “rich people? East Asian culture? It’s like they read my mind!” While Kevin Kwan’s trilogy is a more snarky and satirical look at the mind-boggling wealth and petty class struggles of Singapore’s elite, John M. Chu’s film adaptation focuses on the emotion and the romance in Kwan’s story. He relishes in the spectacle and the humor of the characters. As a final product, the film adaptation of Crazy Rich Asians resembles the novel, but also exists as its own heartfelt, lush incarnation.

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Synopsis: Economics professor Rachel Chu is head-over-heels in love with her dashing boyfriend, fellow professor Nick Young. When he invites her to his best friend Colin’s wedding in Singapore, and asks her to meet his family, Rachel is excited, if a little curious at what Nick’s been keeping under-wraps. It’s only when they arrive in Singapore that Rachel realizes she’s in for more than she bargained for: Nick is the heir to one of the richest real-estate families in East Asia, his grandmother owns a palatial estate, and everyone, including his mother, Eleanor, thinks Rachel is a gold-digger trying to snatch away his fortune. As wedding week begins and Rachel fends her way through the gossip and relationship sabotage, she must come to terms with Nick’s snobby family, and decide whether her relationship is worth more than her dignity.

My take: Although Crazy Rich Asians is set in 2018, the film could just as easily take place in Jay Gatsby’s Roaring Twenties. Chu’s dazzling sets, decadent art-deco interiors, and slinky flapper-esque costuming overtly reference the free-for-all paradise of the Jazz Age, while updating the story with text-messaging and social media. Another clear inspiration is Pride and Prejudice. The opening scene features a network of rich, beautiful Singaporean women spreading the news about Rachel from NYC to England to India and Singapore, all with increasingly gossipy and classist undertones. The idea of rich, elite women gossiping about an eligible bachelor’s potential match would fit perfectly in any Austen story, and the witty, intelligent Rachel Chu makes a perfect Elizabeth Bennett.

Nick is no Darcy, however. Crazy Rich Asians is foremost a romantic comedy, which means that Rachel is the main perspective of the film. The film spends most of its allotted time for character development on defining who Rachel is: what makes her tick, her relationship with her single-parent mother, and how she feels about her sudden circumstances. Constance Wu plays Rachel vivaciously, with excellent comic timing and a twinkle in her eye that can just as easily harden into a glint. She’s magnetic on screen, which means that other characters, primarily Nick, fade into the background. Even though the film is ostensibly about the pair of them, it’s really about Rachel’s emotional journey, not Nick’s, and he becomes little more than a gentle-hearted hunk. Henry Golding is charming and commanding on screen, but the script gives him little to do besides smile kindly and act as a comfort to Rachel. That’s not really the script’s fault however, because Nick’s character doesn’t become meatier until the sequel China Rich Girlfriend.

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That’s not to say that all of  the supporting characters blend into the background. Comedian Awkwafina, who plays Rachel’s eccentric Singaporean friend Peik Lin amps up the novel’s characterization of a confident, American-educated woman into that of a ballsy, outspoken class clown with a thick Bronx accent that’s funny, even if it doesn’t make much sense. Her family didn’t play too much of a role in the book, but Chu brings their humorous antics into the foreground to give Rachel a much-needed haven of acceptance in otherwise the snobbish Singapore crowd.

The most significant character, however, is Eleanor Young, Nick’s elegant, traditional mother. She and Rachel engage in a sort of Cold War throughout the film, each trying to exert the most influence on Nick. While in the novel Eleanor’s motivations were purely about class, Chu gives Eleanor a more personal story in the film, which actress Michelle Yeoh uses to perfect advantage. She’s the ideal foil to Rachel: cold where Rachel is warm and bubbly, quick to judge while Rachel is open-minded, steeped in Chinese tradition, while Rachel is the epitome of a modern, Americanized Chinese woman. Their battle of values is at the heart of the film, and what gives it its emotional core. Even though on the surface Crazy Rich Asians is about a woman trying to win over her lover’s mother, it’s really about a clash between a modern, globalized Asia and the ancient traditions and ideals that oppose it. It’s also, of course, a clash between women, and about whether a mother’s involvement in her son’s life can eventually cost him his happiness. Even though Nick has the monetary power in the story, and is the at the center of the scandal, it’s Rachel and Eleanor who have the agency.

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I would have liked to see more in this film about Astrid, whose subplot with her husband Michael was underserved. She’s more than just a pretty, kind face, and I hope that in the sequel she’ll get a more developed plotline. But i understand that a film can’t cover all the intricacies of a novel, especially one with twenty+ characters, all with equally rich and humorous stories. At least  Crazy Rich Asians honed in on the most important aspects of the novel and made them richer and more fulfilling.

Final Consensus: CRA is a bold, glamorous film that serves a dual purpose. As a love story, it’s cute, compelling, and satisfying in all the right places. But as a subtle commentary on class and tradition, it surprises. It’s exactly what you would expect from a romantic comedy while also managing to bring something new to the table. I can’t wait for the sequel!

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