My friends and I made a game out of it. When we see movies, we count the Asian characters. There are two tallies actually: one for Asians that appear, and the second for Asians that matter in the context of the narrative. For maybe the first time in my adult life, there was no game to play–I sat back and enjoyed.
The plot is a familiar one in both the East and West. Hardworking, down-to-Earth girl Rachel (Constance Wu) is taken to meet her dreamy boyfriend Nick’s (Henry Golding) family, and finds that his family is both incredibly wealthy and judgmental of her.
Skeptics wondered if an Asian cast and locale would really be enough to mix up the trope–you can bet your bottom Singaporean dollar that it does! Hell hath no fury like the scathing, scrutinizing gaze of a wealthy Asian family.
Chris Pang and Sonoya Mizuno play married couple-to-be Colin and Araminta, whose wedding is played up to be the Singapore equivalent of the Royal Wedding.
Rachel’s humble meekness soon turns to fire and righteousness as she is continually tested, mocked, and bullied. She is an intelligent and likable heroine the audience will have no issue rooting for. Wu was faced with a difficult challenge: playing a wide-eyed outsider in an outlandish world who must ground the film’s emotional center, but she very much rises to the occasion and performs splendidly.
Henry Golding’s Nick does its part as the supportive and sexy (yes, there are plenty of ab and pec shots for all you thirsty fans) male lead. If anything, he comes off as so sweet despite his upbringing, it’s hard to believe he would fail to adequately warn his love of the vipers in his home life.
Michelle Yeoh, who paved the way for Asian American actresses in her youth, plays Eleanor, the matriarch of the family and the film’s antagonist. There’s a particularly acidic level of snark combined with brittle pride that Asian audiences will recognize from their own family lives, and non-Asian viewers will be captivated and horrified by Eleanor’s schemes to break up her son’s relationship. Yeoh is the perfect mixture of graceful, wounded, and bitchy. Every time she appeared onscreen, you could hear an audience member gasp, “Oh, the shade!”
Aside from the Young family’s intensely anti-American sentiment, the film only deals with discrimination against Asians once in a prologue where they buy a luxury hotel to spite its racist management staff. The film is more concerned with letting its Asian cast play then suffer, and that alone, is such a landmark moment for Asian American representation.
And play they do! The film does an excellent job of featuring its ensemble Asian cast, each one having their moments.
Rapper turned actress Awkwafina puts on the breakout comedic performance of a lifetime as Goh, Rachel’s sassy wisecracking best friend from college and Singapore native, who gleefully introduces her to the island’s culture. In one notable scene during Rachel’s attempt to give herself a makeover, Goh quips, “You kind of look like a slutty ebola virus.” Ken Jeong and Goh Wye Mun play her equally ridiculous and sassy parents.
Gemma Chan dazzles as socialite with-a-heart-of-gold Cousin Astrid, whose marriage to a poorer man (Pierre Png) is painfully tested. There’s also Nico Santos as gay cousin and master of whisperers Oliver.
Lisa Lu plays Nick’s grandmother Su Yi, who at times appears befuddled yet charming, but is hiding a dangerous temper of her owm. Tan Kheng Hua helps ground the beginning and end of the movie as Rachel’s hardworking and loving mother. Full disclosure: this is only a standout portion of the film’s magnificent cast!
If anything, my only critique of the story is that the women feature so prominently as forces of nature and compelling characters, that some of the men feel a little underdeveloped by comparison. Despite his power and privilege and the world’s obsession with him, Nick comes off as fairly passive. Still, it’s wonderful at all that we’re getting an Asian male lead whose main job is to look pretty, so this is a pretty minor nitpick.
Brian Tyler’s colorful jazz-infused score follows the story and set pieces with brassy gusto. Of particular note are the many, many Chinese covers of popular American songs, including a catchy Cantonese remix of Madonna’s Material Girl and a surprising Mandarin Coldplay cover that features during the film’s emotional climax.
Crazy Rich Asians was a dazzling and surprisingly moving experience. I’ve already seen it with my mom, who marveled every time she recognized an actress from her past: “Oh, she was in the Joy Luck Club! Ooh, I haven’t seen her in awhile. It’s good to see she’s working!” I plan to see the movie again with my grandmother and guilt my white friends into seeing it.
In terms of representation, the film’s existence and casting alone are revolutionary. Asians playing hot? Asians playing in love? Asians playing silly? Asians playing privileged? There will be a day when that feels far from crazy, and this movie is a wonderful stat, and as a romantic comedy, it very much stands on its own.