'Crazy Rich Asians' Is an Opulent, Over-the-Top Piece of Film History
It's an important movie for Asian Americans, and it's also an enjoyably batshit tour of insane wealth.
Photos courtesy of Warner Bros.
Crazy Rich Asians opens with a kind of parable, a prologue set in 1986: The Young family, soaking wet from rain, is denied a room in the Calthorpe Hotel in London by the racist staff. The father’s response is to literally buy the place after a short phone call. Money can’t solve racism, but it can help solve the problems racism might throw up in your path—and the Youngs have more money than anyone could ever want. By the end, we learn the price of such wealth is that you end up being controlled by it.
The film, directed by Jon Chu and adapted from a quippy book by Kevin Kwan, toes a curious line between celebrating the excess of its Singaporean oligarchs and denouncing it as garish. We’re treated to sweeping wide shots of the resplendent Young estate, with its many pools and topiaries, invited to parties that are held on giant yachts in international waters or attached to the top floors of massive high-rises. It’s a kind of richness that is difficult to even imagine for the average person—the kind of imagery that can’t even be conjured by giving a child a Crayon and telling them to draw her biggest dream house.
The plot centers around Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), a New York native who is invited to Singapore for a summer to attend her boyfriend Nick Young’s (Henry Golding) best friend’s wedding and to meet his extended family. Upon arrival, she learns that his family is practically royalty, the kind of movie-rich who can buy a hotel as casually as you’d order dessert. The world she enters is shellacked, overproduced, filthy, luxuriant, a glossy escapist blockbuster. The island is saturated with bright hues, and the opulent ball gowns—of course there are ball gowns—practically glow. Rachel, after stumbling at the outset, eventually takes on this sweet glamour for herself, emerging in a stunning Marchesa gown and stealing the show at the wedding.
But too much sweetener can make you sick. The most opulent scenes in Crazy Rich Asians turn almost immediately into overkill. During the bachelorette party, women physically fight each other over clothing at an all-expenses-paid shopping trip. During the jungle-themed wedding, featuring a walkway that has been converted into a small river, Rachel and Nick make intense eye contact and start crying and mouthing “I love you” to each other. It’s emotional, it's lush, and much like the wealth, it’s all too much—a type of overwrought sap that we have been taught to accept in rom-coms, but that this film intentionally pushes to the point of souring.
Crazy Rich Asians eventually displays the way wealth is both a superpower and a poison. Nick's family is dysfunctionally obsessed with protecting their capital through their lineage. His mother Eleanor, played with a kind of terror-inspiring dignity by Michelle Yeoh, makes her distaste for Rachel—an economics professor born from a poor, single mother, a.k.a. a foreigner—extremely apparent.
But it isn’t wealth that is weaponized so much as the desperate maintenance of an inflexible version of Asian tradition. Wealth is described as the natural conclusion of immense sacrifice, a willingness to put family before “pursuing one’s passions.” Every time Rachel attempts to compliment the family—like praising the sense of community found in making dumplings together—Eleanor finds a way to make it about the ways Rachel would be unable to hold up the family’s reputation, because she is too busy with her own “passions.”
This is a large part of what makes the film so important for Asian American viewers. It’s not just that this is the first non-period, Hollywood studio film in a quarter-century to have an all-Asian cast—we get to see drama forged from cultural touch points we are familiar with. The physical act of making dumplings, the insistence that the art of previous generations must not be forgotten, your parents yelling at you to finish your food—though this time it delightfully flips the script with the line, “There are poor people in America.” Crazy Rich Asians warps filial piety into a nightmare. They’re crazy rich, and crazy obsessed with the maintenance of their image and their lineage.
Crazy Rich Asians does not offer any kind of deeper commentary on Singaporean colonialism, or address the darker history of the Young family’s preposterous wealth. The closest we get to it is Peik Lin, portrayed with fabulous panache and comedic timing by Awkwafina, telling Rachel Chu that their wealth comes from developing Singapore from a “jungle” into its current incarnation of immense wealth. There’s nothing that touches on the indigenous people who lived there before. The film shows a steady stream of support staff and working class citizens who are nameless.
A different, more serious film might have explored these elements—but Crazy Rich Asians has no interest in being serious, possibly because it wanted to be the type of America-ready fare that fans can really glom onto without feeling alienated. It’s divorced from intense cultural and geopolitical trauma of Asian diasporas. Crazy Rich Asians is a terrific rom-com, but is likely even more important for the potential it has to be the gateway to more nuanced films with Asian and Asian American representation. (It’s for the sake of being that gateway that the filmmakers declined a huge Netflix deal to bring the movie to the big screen).
Some critics have voiced backlash about the film’s lack of range—its failure to portray a greater span of the Asian American experience. But that is a wholly unfair. No single film could give all Asian Americans everything they have been desperate to see rendered on screen. For now it is enough to see Asians represented as something more than a nerd or as part of an impoverished immigrant monolith. It is more than enough: Crazy Rich Asians is dazzling.
The film doesn’t need to be everything to everyone to be historic—and the box office is already teasing that it’s on its way to being a hit. It’s projected to bring in $26 million in its opening week, a haul that could encourage more Asian-driven films. And as the Young family knows, money talks.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Nicole Clark on Twitter.