Clearly, you’ve never been to Singapore.
Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) is a NYC economics professor dating businessman Nick Young (Henry Golding). When Nick is asked to be the best man at a friend’s wedding in Singapore, he asks Rachel to come along. While she’s also looking forward to seeing her old college friend Peik Lin Goh (Awkwafina) whose family resides in the island country, it doesn’t take long for Rachel to realize the truth: Nick’s family is wealthy — ridiculously so — making her the sudden target of every single Asian woman already aware of Mr. Young’s changed eligibility status. But it isn’t only them she’ll need to watch out for; Nick’s overprotective mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh) has her own thoughts regarding her son’s future… specifically on who he’ll spend it with.
When it comes to big Hollywood films, even the most diverse casts may only have one or two Asian actors, and the current backlash against “white-washing” (Caucasians cast in roles written as Asian, for example) has gotten a lot of recent press. The common excuse is that American audiences can’t (read: won’t) relate, but with China and the East’s appetite for cinema increasing and U.S. audiences no longer the sole benchmark for financial success, this kind of change was inevitable. The question is, can a storyline featuring an Asian cast set in an Asian locale demonstrate the cross-audience appeal to become commercially viable enough to feed the Hollywood machine?
Short answer: yes, but the longer answer is better. Combining elements of a romantic comedy and a family drama to create a whimsical ensemble romp, the story champions Asian inspirations while remaining highly approachable to Americans… after all, the main character is a U.S. citizen. Through Rachel, viewers are along for the ride experiencing the differences in class and culture, including a timely “melting pot” back story of immigrants escaping life situations for a chance to become more. While fun and friendly throughout, the film is dramatic where and when it needs to be, and the casting ensures the characters are just as distinct and memorable.
While Ken Jeong and Awkwafina are known actors stateside, the real casting coup is Michelle Yeoh’s villainous turn as the proverbial last person you’d want to cross. One doesn’t defeat Yeoh’s Eleanor; she only changes her mind. Two words that feel very relevant are courtesy of film critic Nguyen Le: “Wealth and worth,” concepts that are repeated throughout the story. There exists of very Asian sentiment to reach as far and high as one can, pushing to never settle and shaming those perceived to have wasted their potential. While the plot cribs Cinderella, it also reads a bit into Disney’s Aladdin; imagine Yeoh saying, “You were born a street rat; you’ll die a street rat.” From the view of someone wealthy enough to be seen by outsiders as inherently noble, newcomers are looked upon with disdain and suspected ill-intent. Of course, our heroine had no idea about any of that before falling for her handsome prince, but “ignorance of the law” is not an exception: perceived image matters.
An important subplot involving Gemma Chan’s Astrid initially appears to fly under the radar. With wealth, smarts, looks, fame, and arguably the biggest heart in the Young family, she has everything while still feeling like an outcast… similar to where we find Rachel following her revelation about Nick. Astrid’s arc is unfortunately one possible future scenario for our main couple, a warning that even when you want for nothing, relationships requires work and should never be taken for granted. While Eleanor comes from a time when duty to family prevails above all, Astrid isn’t beholden to that notion, something Rachel may eventually have to face herself; it’s refreshing to include this weight in contrast to all the pomp, circumstance, and celebration. The underlying theme of staying true to oneself in the face of obligation is a good one, and one needn’t be crazy, rich, or Asian to understand the self-care benefits of that.
Crazy Rich Asians is rated PG-13 for some suggestive content, language, and a wardrobe on standby for every occasion.
Four skull recommendation out of four