When considering any work of art, it’s important to acknowledge the world around the artwork. Nothing is created in a vacuum, and most excellent art expresses awareness of its own cultural environment. Case in point: Crazy Rich Asians, adapted from a 2013 romance novel, has been produced at a time where there hasn’t been a Asian-dominant cast of a wide American theatrical release in decades (some websites falsely describe Crazy Rich Asians as having an “all-Asian” cast, while the first scene of the movie features three white actors). It’s a testament to the changing makeup of Hollywood that the production made it this far, and its release should be regarded as a success on that front alone.
Yet, while Crazy Rich Asians marks a pivotal moment in America’s film industry, viewers shouldn’t attempt to apply the production’s progressive philosophy to the movie itself. While you can’t divorce a movie’s from its external circumstances, you shouldn’t conflate the two. It’s great to see a big-budget film from a genre typically dominated by mediocre white actors receive a diverse cast and widespread audience enthusiasm, but what does Crazy Rich Asians really have to say about Asian identity and wealth? For that, we’ve got to look at the content of the movie.
Aside from the cast and location (taking place primarily in luxurious Singaporean locales), Crazy Rich Asians feels incredibly conventional. Rachel Chu, an economics professor at NYU, gets invited to a wedding in Singapore, along with her boyfriend, Nick Young. He mentions that she’ll get to meet his family, who also live in Singapore. The catch? They’re an insanely wealthy family who don’t approve of Nick dating an American “commoner.” From there, the story plays out exactly as you’d expect. Rachel tries to impress the mother, the mother rejects her, Nick argues on her behalf, his family spurns him, the tension rising until the wedding, and he finally has to make a choice between her and his family. Is there any doubt he’ll choose the love of his life over his narrow-minded family? The plot feels like a mashup of Meet the Parents with Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, with a healthy dash of rom-com tropes sprinkled in for good measure, including a dreadful montage where Rachel’s flamboyantly gay friend gives her a makeover.
The family’s pushback against Rachel stems from Nick’s mother, Eleanor, who believes that the Young legacy depends on her son’s focus on the family business. See, the Young’s have owned property in Singapore since the 1800’s, and their legacy was due in part to steeping their business in tradition. Nick’s being groomed to take over—Eleanor makes it clear he’s the favorite son—, but his heart is with Rachel, who expresses hesitation to uproot her life. Yet, it never really feels like she has much to lose if she moves away from New York, especially considering she wouldn’t have to work ever again if she married Nick. She says she loves her job, but never explains why. Likewise, Eleanor makes it clear she’s anti-American, believing that they “follow their passions” instead of “building things that last,” as their family did. However, Americans are enterprising and imperial too! We’re sort of known globally for that.
Regardless, Nick’s conflict between commitment to his family and to his girlfriend is enough to carry the movie. However, the movie makes a mistake by focusing instead on Rachel, who doesn’t have any decision to make. She’s plagued by over-the-top xenophobia and bullying from the Young family and other wealthy Singaporeans, including one scene where Nick’s jealous former lover guts a fish and leaves it in Rachel’s bed, calling her a “gold digging bitch” via bloody message above the bedpost. The central conflict initially seems to be subtly tugging at the commitment Asian children feel toward their relatives and traditions, until bloody fish guts spoil it.
The direction by John M. Chu and cinematography by Vanja Cernjul deserve special mention. Remarkably lavish and intricate set designs and a clean, vibrant color palette make each scene a feast for the eyes, even when shuffling through crowded street markets. The costume designs mesh modern and traditional Asian designs with flair, also achieved by the score, which repurposes showtunes and pop music with Chinese lyrics—to either excellent or mediocre effect. Aside from the movie’s landmark casting, the main draw in Crazy Rich Asians would be to see, well, crazy rich Asians doing crazy rich things. You want big mansions and fast cars? Okay, but how about renting a shipping freighter and hosting a bachelor party out in international waters, as you launch a fireworks bazooka off the bow?
Yet, watching all these excesses makes me think about how the movie never treats these moments as excessive. One moment set up to refute the superfluity of the bachelor party—wherein Nick and the groom-to-be, Colin, agree to fly off the freighter—, cuts instead to the two wealthy, handsome men relaxing on a floating dock outside a secluded Singaporean island, with their helicopter perched on a rock face nearby. The image can simultaneously feel down to earth, while remaining an incredibly privileged experience. One has to wonder how timely a movie that glorifies the lives of a wealthy family headed by a xenophobic real-estate tycoon actually is in 2018. It feels tone deaf that the family’s classism is never once addressed, even in passing. Despite seeing dozens of servants in the Young residence pour drinks, prepare food, clean, and valet, we never once hear any of them speak, nor is there any slight condemnation of Singapore’s growing income disparity gap. The movie is quick to make a statement about the relationship between wealth and racism early, namely that it’s easy to find a hotel that will accept your family when your husband can just buy the whole hotel. Altogether, the movie seems to not only glorify excessive riches, but promote them as a “cure” to discrimination, while completely glossing over the cultural and classist divide in Singapore.
Perhaps I’m thinking too much about Crazy Rich Asians. It’s a rom-com, which makes it tempting to switch my brain into standby mode and just enjoy the carnal pleasures of pretty dresses, elaborate cinematography, and true love. I’m trying, however, to do my part to be an aware consumer of media, and that means everything begs extra attention and analysis. Despite showing an Asian cast enjoying the opportunities that wealth can afford, in a space where racism isn’t an oppressive force, there is nevertheless something distasteful in seeing Awkwafina play up her appropriated vernacular, or in seeing Eleanor’s xenophobia thwarted not by a change of heart, but instead by Rachel bowing to her demands. It’s escapism, surely, but while the movie’s being praised for the leaps and bounds it’s making in the scary real world, the world onscreen stands at odds with that progress. Crazy Rich Asians proved everything it wanted by simply being made; everything else can be superfluous. The special attention the movie is receiving for its release and monster opening weekend, however, means the message the movie sends deserves extra attention. We can praise the way the movie is changing up the industry, while still holding reservations about the movie itself.