Crazy Rich Asians succeeds on its own limited termsby Russell Baillie
Crazy Rich Asians is Hollywood’s first major contemporary Asian movie for 25 years.
“China is a sleeping giant,” says the on-screen quote from Napoleon. “Let her sleep, for when she wakes she will move the world.” The Bonaparte line is just there to look prestigious – not only is it an odd touch for a movie that doesn’t actually set foot in China (it briefly swoops by Hong Kong and Taiwan), it’s also an early sign that there’s something wobbly about the tone. That’s soon apparent as the movie teeters on its designer heels between soapy drama, mildly amusing satire of the hyper-rich, culture-clash comedy, old-fashioned romcom and Singapore travelogue, all given a dazzling high gloss by US-Asian director Jon M Chu.
As has been widely touted, CRA is the first major American-made contemporary Asian movie since The Joy Luck Club 25 years ago. Like that adaptation of the Amy Tan bestseller, CRA is also from a hit book, penned by Kevin Kwan. Both films also have in common veteran Chinese-American actress Lisa Lu, who played a mother in the 1993 film. Here, she is a doting, if steely, grandma to leading man Nick Young (Henry Golding), the heir apparent to their family’s fortune.
Teaching in New York, Nick invites his Chinese-American girlfriend Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) back to Singapore for a mate’s wedding. Rachel is an economics professor, specialising in game theory. The daughter of a solo migrant mother, she is clearly smart, though, curiously, not savvy enough to know Nick is from a powerhouse dynasty in the city-state.
She finds herself doing the rounds of Nick’s friends and family, some welcoming, many not. The latter includes imperious mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh, in the movie’s standout performance). Rachel has scene-stealing sidekick Paik Lin (hip-hop comedian Awkwafina) for support; there is help, too, from Nick’s sister Astrid (Gemma Chan of television’s Humans) who, in the movie’s soapiest subplot, is having her own problems with class and economic disparity.
You do spend much of the movie waiting for Golding’s character to express anything but abject handsomeness, though the script doesn’t really give him much to do. Defiance against his mother seems out of the question: “Chinese sons think their mums fart Chanel No 5,” reminds Paik Lin. Thankfully, Wu’s Rachel makes an engaging Cinderella, though one who doesn’t exactly need to escape the scullery. An episode in which her academic speciality proves useful in an encounter with Yeoh’s tiger mother is the best scene of the movie. But that culture clash between self-determined Asian-American and old-money Asian matriarch winds up as something of a sideshow.
However, CRA succeeds on its own limited terms, especially in its aim of being a not-too-spicy Chinese romcom for the subtitle-allergic and showing Singapore is indeed the Wakanda of Asia.
IN CINEMAS NOW
Video: Warner Bros. Pictures
This article was first published in the September 8, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.
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