Film critic Scott Wilson reviews Crazy Rich Asians, a welcome window to the outside of our western world that wobbles when it becomes familiar
Crazy Rich Asians – ★★★☆☆
The rom-com is having a bit of a moment after the delightful Set It Up (one of Netflix’s better originals) helped everyone realise how much we had missed it. When once it felt like a new rom-com appeared every Friday, complete with toothy American grins and a country-rock soundtrack, they were pushed to the fringes of mainstream filmmaking in the last decade.
Last year’s small-scale summer hit The Big Sick reminded people that love is rarely easy but the challenges pay off, and 2018 is chock full of people falling in love, from the YA Love, Simon to the musical Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again. Juliet, Naked starring Ethan Hawke and Rose Byrne is still to come, as is Destination Wedding with Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder. In a world that often feels loveless, audiences are keen to remind ourselves how much better life is when we let our hearts beat a little louder for someone special.
Crazy Rich Asians is riding the wave, having already taken over $165m on a $30m budget, making it the most successful rom-com since 2009’s The Proposal over in the States. It could be the case of the right film at the right time, since the UK release date was brought forward after a stellar opening across the pond. It could be that audiences are responding positively to the first Hollywood film featuring an all-Asian cast for 25 years. It could be that these escapist fantasies with little in the way of narrative dread tend to be safe box-office bets according to Forbes.
This is a culture clash wrapped up in class discourse, something which the UK has a chip on its shoulder about, but other countries are less keen to engage with.
It tells the story of Constance Wu’s Rachel Chu, an economics professor at NYU who is dating Nick Young, a well-spoken but secretive stud. Inviting her to his friend Colin’s wedding in Singapore, Rachel’s acceptance becomes the talk of the entire world, the news of her visit to Singapore reaching Nick’s family before they even leave the bar after being overheard by a gossip journalist.
Arriving on the other side of the world, Nick’s hesitance at sharing more of his life becomes evident as his status as the Prince William (Harry, actually, he says) of Asia is unavoidable. His family are crazy rich, while Rachel was raised by a single mum in an apartment.
This is a culture clash wrapped up in class discourse, something which the UK has a chip on its shoulder about, but other countries are less keen to engage with. Rachel’s initial excitement of her boyfriend’s inherited wealth is quickly replaced with isolation from a world entirely different from what she knows, one where she lacks knowledge of the etiquette and customs.
Old money wealth is a family affair, filled with traditions and expectations of the next generation. Nick’s mother is an intimidating matriarch, but she justifies her stern approach by subscribing to the way things have always been. Life is less about happiness and more to do with fulfilling a duty, something which she had to do and something Nick will as well.
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It makes for a thought-provoking watch, not least because Rachel as a proxy for the audience is not a perfect match for the Caucasian audiences who have responded well to Crazy Rich Asians. She is told her face may be that of a Chinese person and she may speak Chinese, but her heart and mind – raised in America - separates her from someone born there. It is a rarely seen tension filled with nuance between cultural identities, where assumptions are upended and seemingly needless barriers are built for the sake of something we do not understand. Our lack of understanding is a good thing here – the culture is never vilified, even if some of Nick’s family members are not exactly welcoming of Rachel. Empathy comes from exposure to different worlds, and these traditional dynamics are a window to something rarely seen in western cinema.
The same cannot be said for the money on display, typical of fantastical wealth-porn. Nods to disparities in class between a few romantic couplings never makes up for the film’s adoration of vulgar excess. Like the latter stages of the Fifty Shades trilogy, this capitalist dream works for some, but for this critic it undoes all the goodness found elsewhere in Crazy Rich Asians. Telling diverse stories is not only essential for our humanity, but it invigorates storytelling as an artform; doing so under an adoration of obnoxious spending strips the empathy from the narrative, leaving us instead with a chiselled elite who grossly benefit off the backs of others.
It leaves the film cold, with an ending that almost commits to a daring yet pertinent point. But this is a rom-com, so you know where this one’s going. For all the good Crazy Rich Asians does to show western audiences something they are not used to, the lavish locations and top-of-the-range fashion will be sickeningly familiar, a reminder that for most of us, these stories are not really for us, and that is true no matter what colour your skin is.
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