Crazy Rich Asians succeeds on its own limited terms

by Russell Baillie / 01 September, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - Crazy Rich Asians movies

Crazy Rich Asians is Hollywood’s first major contemporary Asian movie for 25 years.

The first line in Crazy Rich Asians belongs not to any of the Asian stars of this enjoyable, extravagant, featherweight romcom set in plutiest Singapore, but to a dead white guy. One who didn’t have much luck in the region.

“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.

Latest

The death of Radio Live
99147 2018-11-16 06:54:48Z Radio

The death of Radio Live

by Colin Peacock

14 years after launching “the new voice of talk radio”, MediaWorks will silence Radio Live. Mediawatch looks at what could replace it.

Read more
Should Lime scooters stay or should they go?
99103 2018-11-16 00:00:00Z Social issues

Should Lime scooters stay or should they go?

by The Listener

For every safety warning, there’ll be a righteous uproar about the public good regarding the environment. It's about finding the right balance.

Read more
Kiwi drama Vermilion is hamstrung by a frustrating lack of clarity
98992 2018-11-16 00:00:00Z Movies

Kiwi drama Vermilion is hamstrung by a frustrating…

by James Robins

Academic and film-maker Dorthe Scheffmann has had a hand in some of New Zealand cinema’s most beloved movies. So what went wrong?

Read more
Win the 100 Best Books of 2018
99119 2018-11-16 00:00:00Z Win

Win the 100 Best Books of 2018

by The Listener

Each year, the Listener offers one lucky subscriber the chance to win all 100 of our Best Books.

Read more
Full of light and art, Forestry Cafe is south-east Auckland's newest coffee spot
99142 2018-11-15 16:49:34Z Auckland Eats

Full of light and art, Forestry Cafe is south-east…

by Alex Blackwood

New opening Forestry Cafe brings a city vibe to Flat Bush.

Read more
Turning a corner: Why this wayward Auckland teen stayed in school
99114 2018-11-15 10:34:07Z Social issues

Turning a corner: Why this wayward Auckland teen s…

by Vomle Springford

When Acer Ah Chee-Wilson was 14, he wanted to be in a gang.

Read more
What Kate Sheppard said that changed the course of New Zealand politics forever
99084 2018-11-15 00:00:00Z Politics

What Kate Sheppard said that changed the course of…

by Noted

Helen Clark and even Meghan Markle have quoted Kate Sheppard – what did she say that was so powerful?

Read more
Why Bret McKenzie is going straight with a new band
99026 2018-11-15 00:00:00Z Profiles

Why Bret McKenzie is going straight with a new ban…

by Russell Baillie

After a year of stadium comedy and Muppet shows, Bret McKenzie talks about returning to his music roots in a band whose songs are no laughing matter.

Read more