“Crazy Rich Asians” is more than a movie. It’s a social movement that you might want hop on despite your personal tastes in rom-coms. The book and the movie, “Crazy Rich Asians” begins with a prologue on a bone-drenching day in England. A sopping wet group of women with young kids enter an exclusive hotel. Assessing them by race, the manager pretends the women do not have a reservation. Eleanor Young (Michelle Yeoh) calls her husband who resolves the issue–by buying the hotel.
The premiere audience at the TCL Chinese Theatre cheered although Eleanor, we’ll soon learn, is the main “villain” of the movie. But there’s something more in the swelling wave of cheers–recognition.
We’ll get back to that point later because if you’re thinking this is a flick with social justice fomenting from an angry place, sit back and relax. From there “Crazy Rich Asians” becomes a fish-out-of-water, rom-com that will stir up your shopaholic and foodie fantasies more than your social conscience. The book should have come with recipes or set up a reading group at local restaurants and the film lingers on food before dazzling us with opulent jewels and character-building fashion (great work by Mary E. Vogt).
Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) is an ABC (American Born Chinese) of the mainland Chinese sort, who speaks Mandarin (not Cantonese) and is a professor in economics at NYU. For almost two years, Rachel has been exclusively dating history professor and Asian hunk with an English accent Nicholas Young (Henry Golding). She knows he’s from Singapore and if you’re wondering why she didn’t do an internet search (as did one reviewer), think of how common that name is. Today you’d come up with either a 69-year-old British actor or a 38-year-old Muslim convert from Alexandria, VA–neither is ethnic Asian.
Nicholas’ best friend, Colin Khoo (Chris Pang), is getting married to Araminta (Sonoya Mizuno) and Nicholas asks Rachel to spend a few weeks of their summer break in Singapore, meet his family and, at the same times, reconnect with her college best friend, Goh Peik Lin (Awkwafina).
Before Rachel even sets foot on the airplane, Nicholas’ mother and her snippy social set know about Rachel after another Singaporean eavesdrops, snaps a photo of the couple and begins the gossip chain. At 278.6 square miles, Singapore is smaller than Los Angeles (503) and San Diego (372.4) and the island of Oahu (597). That’s an extremely small fish bowl and the Young family isn’t just part of the upper class within those 278 square miles, but the more than very rich or comfortably rich (like Peik Lin)–his family is crazy rich. Nicholas doesn’t properly prepare Rachel for rubbing shoulders with the snob set of Singapore and getting her backstabbed by these rich bitches. Luckily, Peik Lin acts as her fairy godmother while gawking and selfie-snapping during her tour of the snob settings.
The script has dulled the sharp fangs and claws of vicious mean girls grown up but not out of their cruel ways as found in the book. The class system remains but the catty details of how the Chinese rate the different Chinese ethnic and nationality groups as well as other Asians has been diluted to make this a more palatable dessert for a pan-Asian support system crowd. East Asians don’t see themselves as one race and even the Chinese divide themselves up into different races and ethnicities but hopefully, living in the San Gabriel Valley, you already knew this.
The prologue in England takes place at a time of heightened focus on the Hong Kong Chinese–should the U.K. take in more immigrants or would the British would feel too “swamped” as Maggie Thatcher infamously put it. Singapore, unlike Hong Kong, was never threatened with reversion. Instead, Great Britain gave it independence and that made it a more secure place for the wealthy Chinese to invest. The after effects of colonialism looms in the distant background of the movie but remember that the fusion of Western and Eastern styles has been going on for centuries. Don’t confuse modernization and Westernization or at least consider how Asian culture has contributed to modern Western culture from things as disparate as trousers to art movements.
Neither the Hong Kong nor Singapore British rule is a major theme nor the reason the movie has become a movement. “Crazy Rich Asians” challenges a Hollywood movie and TV system that has denied Asians and Asian Americans lead roles in TV programs like “Hawaii Five-0” or “Magnum P.I.” and whitewashed them out of true stories like “21.” Like San Francisco-born Bruce Lee’s 1960s Kato, Asian Americans are still sidekicks and exotic background even though they’ve been in the Americas for centuries and fought in the Civil War. Director Jon M. Chu shows some Asian male hunkiness rather than pandering to white male yellow fever (e.g. “Memoirs of a Geisha”) in a few brief but tasteful scenes and he creates a visual orgy of spectacular wealth and fab fashion. But this too is, sadly, even in 2018, social protest.
If you like rom-coms that are predictably happy and filled with unaffordable fashions with attractive people surrounded by zany friends (Awkwafina with Ken Jeong as her father and Koh Chieng Mun as her mother are hilarious), this is for you. Perhaps I’m reading my own personal experiences in the UK and the US into the premiere crowd’s reaction to the take down of the racist hotel manager, but the vibe I got was Asians still face racism in the U.S. and the scene was a welcome fantasy revenge. While I wish Wu’s Rachel had more fire, “Crazy Rich Asians” is frivolous fun that challenges non-Asians–white, black, Latino or Native American–to empathize with Asians and Asian Americans characters. If you have problems with the Asian element, it’s time to ask yourself why. In the San Gabriel Valley where the new Chinatowns are and where a sizable portion of the population is ethnic Asian, that’s an important question. The first Asians arrived before the US was a nation but when will ethnic Asians arrive at acceptance in America?
—An edited and abridged form of this review was published in the Pasadena Weekly