Crazy Rich Asians
Jon M. Chu
Peter Chiarelli, Adele Lim (Novel: Kevin Kwan)
Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Gemma Chan, Lisa Lu, Awkwafina, Harry Shum Jr., Ken Jeong, Sonoya Mizuno, Chris Pang, Jimmy O. Yang, Ronny Chieng, Remy Hii, Nico Santos, Jing Lusi Carmen Soo, Pierre Png, Fiona Xie, Victoria Loke, Janice Koh
PG-13 for some suggestive content and language
Buy on DVD/Blu-ray
Since the early days of cinema, romantic comedies have been a central part of the film landscape. While their efficacy and credibility have waxed and waned over the years, there are a handful of exemplary features that crop up from time to time even in the midst of a meager period. Crazy Rich Asians is a genuinely engaging, emotionally fulfilling pop of excitement in our dull modern landscape.
The son of a wealthy Chinese dynasty (Henry Golding), the Youngs, has fallen in love with economics professor Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) and wants to bring her to meet his family against the backdrop of his best friend’s wedding. Her history doesn’t jibe with that of his family and the tension mounts as the Young family struggles to tame its own demons while outright rejecting the impoverished origins of Chu and her mother. Clashes abound and while Rachel never quite feels a part of this world of exorbitant wealth, it’s her passion for Nick Young that keeps her going and determines each of her actions, even if her own comfort and safety is at risk.
The story at the center of Crazy Rich Asians may seem formulaic on the surface as we’ve seen it played out countless times over the decades; however, that familiarity helps connect the story to our lives personally and although it plays out with expected outcomes, it never feels disingenuous. This is the strength of Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim’s adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s popular novel, the first of a trilogy. There’s a forthright earnestness to each character, even those who act as antagonists. It’s a compelling dynamic given firmer credibility through the performances of its cast.
Wu brings Rachel’s confidence and insecurities to bear on her performance, fostering the audience’s love for her and exemplifying why someone as wealthy and connected as Nick might fall for her. It never feels that she’s somehow a step below him. It’s a simple fact of her performance that anyone, rich or poor, would fall in love with her passion, sensitivity, and exuberance.
For his part, Golding helps convey that emotional response with his confident and determined Nick Young. Nick moves about the film as if he’s eternally enamored with Rachel. She’s everything he wants in a woman, his family’s approval be damned. What sets his character apart from others of his type is that he never once hesitates in his desire to be with Rachel. Golding makes it clear that even when faced with insurmountable odds, societal trappings, or family obligations, he’d give it all up for her.
Michelle Yeoh has an easy part to play as the film’s antagonist. Eleanor Young, Nick’s mother, is a tradition-bound woman who, in spite of her own struggle for acceptance with her late husband’s mother, couldn’t earn that respect. Yeoh exposes Eleanor’s insecurities in several exchanges through subtle mannerisms, physical posturing, and withering glances. It’s a refined performance that only someone of Yeoh’s caliber could deliver without feeling overbearing.
The rest of the cast, especially Gemma Chan’s emotional performance as Nick’s cousin Astrid and Awakwafina’s surprisingly grounded as Rachel’s former college roommate Peik Lin, is incredibly strong. Only the outlandish Ken Jeong as Peik’s father hits a wrong note and even then, what’s going on around him is inconsequential and thus limits his liability.
Eastern and Western traditions are infused into Crazy Rich Asians in ways that exemplify how film can be used to explore the delicate relationships between cultures foreign and domestic. Not since Joy Luck Club has a film so succinctly expressed the heart and sensitivity of Asian culture, making it both accessible and resonant for those who are not familiar with it.
One crucial set piece to the film is the wedding that caps the second act. A gorgeous rendering of design elements including production design, music, and cinematography make for one of the most exquisite wedding sequences ever filmed. Even without the strength of the movie surrounding it, this one sequence, which includes plenty of narrative development, is a compelling evocation of where Jon M. Chu’s expert direction, and the film’s overall meritorious qualities, are exemplified.
Crazy Rich Asians may feature cultures somewhat different than with what most western audiences are familiar, but there’s a universality to the proceedings that make the film stand out from a crowded marketplace of blockbusters. A simple, forthright, and exuberant examination of theme awaits those viewers willing to put their own traditions and prejudices aside.
If you have never played the Chinese tile game Mah Jongg, and we aren’t talking about the tile-matching game that bears the name, one scene at the end of the film may confuse you. Yet, if you are familiar with the rules and how the game is played, its resonance becomes exceptional.
Mah Jongg is similar to Rummy, a game where runs and matching values help win the game. Knowing this other game’s rules may help better explain what happens. In the scene, Rachel invites Nick’s mother Eleanor to a Mah Jongg Parlor where the two engage in a contest of wills, each one carefully selecting tiles and forming a winning hand.
It’s immediately important that the viewer hearken back to the opening scene in the film where Rachel is explaining a concept through a poker analogy. In that moment, she manages to successfully bluff a student who has an exceptional hand to fold when he believes he’s going to lose. Rachel has nothing of value in her hand, thus demonstrating the entire film’s thematic importance.
This brings us back to the final act with Rachel and Eleanor are locked in their Mah Jongg combat. At one point, Rachel takes a tile from her hand, 8 of Bamboo, and discards it. She knows that this tile will allow Eleanor to win the game. Eleanor seizes on the opportunity and declares Mah Jongg, winning the hand. Rachel then plays her own hand, revealing that the tile she intentionally gave up would have given her one of the rarest winning hands in the game, a series of 1 to 9 of Bamboo, plus winds and dragons.
Suffice it to say, in that moment, without the need for words, Rachel confirms to Eleanor that she chooses to lose to protect Nick’s familial standing rather than exult over her victory. This determination of character demonstrates to Eleanor the kind of character Rachel possesses and it’s a great one.
It’s this scene, perhaps more than the wedding sequence, that is the gem of the film. That few people will understand this scene is disappointing, but it made the film even more significant in my mind.
Potentials: Picture, Adapted Screenplay
September 11, 2018