Crazy Rich Asians

August 23, 2018
Nick and Rachel celebrate the fact that Hollywood has discovered Singapore

Crazy Rich Asians arrives on a wave of hype that would put Hokusai to shame. We are told with great fanfare that it’s the first Hollywood film to feature an all-Asian cast since Wayne Wang’s The Joy Luck Club (1993). It’s seen more broadly as an antidote to Hollywood’s phobia about using Asian actors, which led to Katharine Hepburn playing Jade Tan in Dragon Seed (1944), or Jennifer Jones as a mixed-race Han Suyin, in Love is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955).

But hey, why is Hollywood’s imprimatur such a big deal anyway? There must be a thousand features made every year with all-Asian casts, it’s just that relatively few of them find their way to western mainstream cinemas. China aims to soon overtake the United States as a centre for film production, although the first fruits of this investment boom (Great Wall?) suggest that quality control might be a problem.

The ultimate accolade for Crazy Rich Asians is that it took a whopping US$35.3 million at the American box office in its opening week. To value a movie through its box office is entirely appropriate in this instance as the story is one long illustration of Deng Xiaoping’s motto: “It’s glorious to be rich.”

In Singapore, where our fairy tale is set, to be wealthy is – axiomatically – to be praiseworthy. In one scene, Nick’s glamorous cousin, Astrid (Gemma Chan), accuses her faithless husband of being “a coward” because he finds it hard to live in the shadow of her wealth. Apparently it takes real heroism to endure the billionaire lifestyle.

I’m often reluctant to read reviews before I write about a film, but I was fascinated to find out why this soufflé of a movie had received such rapturous press. It’s certainly not because of any outstanding cinematic qualities. Crazy Rich Asians is a facile romcom, with more attention given to product placement than storyline. It’s a Mills & Boon routine in which our clever but poor, Chinese-American heroine, Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), struggles to be accepted by the ultra-rich Singaporean family of her boyfriend, Nick Young (Henry Golding).

In New York, Rachel has been dating Nick for a year without ever noticing that he belonged to the richest family in Singapore. This unlikely scenario is necessary to establish Rachel’s creds as a woman who loves Nick for himself, not his money. Love takes precedence over materialism, albeit momentarily.

It is only afer they arrive in Singapore for the wedding of one of Nick’s cousins that materialism takes its rightful place in centre stage. From about the 15-minute mark the film becomes the most bilious display of wealth porn since Sex in the City 2: mansions, extravagant parties, designer fashions, high-priced bling. This is interspersed with scenes intended to establish the authentic ‘Asianness’ of the story with everybody sitting around the table making dumplings, or Rachel giving away a winning hand in a game of mahjong with Nick’s hostile mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh). Such symbolism!

The film also contrasts the high style of Nick’s ‘old money’ family with the nouveau riche vulgarity of the Gohs, whose daughter Peik Lin (Awkwafina), is Rachel’s funky college friend. The Gohs are stock comic relief that allow us to appreciate the dignity of the Youngs. It’s hardly coincidental that the Gohs are a homely bunch while the Youngs are all good-looking. In this story beauty and sophistication are the inevitable corollaries of superior wealth.

American critics found the film to be touching, moving, warm and hilarious, but it merely trades one stereotype for another. Instead of poverty and squalor, today’s Asians are shown dripping with cash, and speaking to each other in Oxbridge accents. Singapore itself comes across as a paradise where everyone is happy, healthy – and Chinese. Even the heat and humidity seem to have disappeared.

Singapore loves to portray itself as a multicultural state but in this film Indians and Malays appear only as servants. It’s a simple equation: “Asian” = “Chinese” = “rich”. If any Hollywood movie were so completely devoid of black, Asian or Latino characters it would be torn to shreds by the same critics that find Crazy Rich Asians refreshing and empowering.

For such a plodding, propagandistic comedy to be so acclaimed suggests that reviewers have allowed their sense of political correctness to overpower the most basic understanding of what constitutes a successful movie. The characters are cut-outs, the plot is feeble and predictable, while continuity moves in fits and starts. Director Jon M. Chu’s previous credits include three films on Justin Bieber.

The major selling point seems to be the all-Asian cast – even if most of the lead actors are actually American (Wu, Awkwafina) or British (Golding, Chan, Lusi). Others hail from Korea (Jeong), Japan (Mizuno) and the Philippines (Santos). Like every other Hollywood take on Asia, it’s assumed the general public will see all these characters as Chinese.

One recognises the insularity of the United States when so many reviewers are willing to believe that the “Asian” identity of this film makes it automatically wonderful. It may be a reaction to the xenophobia that has become so respectable under Donald Trump, but if there is a moral to this feature it would be entirely acceptable to the President: namely that to be rich is to be virtuous.

Crazy Rich Asians
Directed by Jon M. Chu
Written by Peter Chiarelli & Adele Lim, after a novel by Kevin Kwan
Starring Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Gemma Chan, Awkwafina, Harry Shum Jr., Ken Jeong, Lisa Lu, Chris Pang, Sonoya Mizuno, Nico Santos, Jing Lusi, Pierre Png
USA, rated PG, 121 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 25 August, 2018