Sequels are bound to follow for this kitsch, funny and trailblazing film – and will almost certainly be anticlimactic in the extreme
Already a box office phenomenon, Crazy Rich Asians is an expertly crafted melodrama along Cinderella lines. Shamelessly kitsch but funny and affecting enough to get away with its own excesses and many toe-curling moments, this trailblazing film has extra significance as one of the first mainstream Hollywood films to feature an all-Asian cast. Given its success, many more are now likely to follow.
British audiences may well groan at the grossly caricatured opening scene in which a wealthy Chinese family turn up out of the rain at a top London hotel sometime in the mid-1990s. The openly racist concierge and reception clerks try to send them on their way to Chinatown, saying there is no room for them in the hotel. What relevance the scene has to the rest of the story is hard to ascertain.
Constance Wu stars as the heroine, Rachel Chu, a beautiful young New York university economics professor who doesn’t realise that her boyfriend Nick Young (played by The Travel Show presenter Henry Golding) is a scion of one of the wealthiest families in the whole of Asia. (“These people aren’t just rich,” we are told, “they are crazy rich”).
When she agrees to accompany Nick back to Singapore for the wedding of his oldest friend, the emotional fireworks begin. She is regarded as a gold digger by most of Nick’s relatives and friends. Nick’s mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), is especially frosty towards her.
In adapting Kevin Kwan’s novel, the filmmakers follow a formula which is as old as Hollywood itself. Countless other romances and screwball comedies have been made about scullery maids turning into princesses or poor little rich types going in search of true love.
Most, though, don’t celebrate wealth and consumption quite as flagrantly as Crazy Rich Asians. Rachel finds herself in a world where women at hen parties almost pass out in ecstasy at the prospect of an “all paid shopping spree at the fashion boutique” and where the locals feel that $1.2m is a very small price to pay for a decent pair of diamond earrings from Antwerp.
In its more pedestrian moments, the film risks seeming like one of those travel documentaries that Golding presents for the BBC. His character will tell us that Singapore is the only country in the world where the street food vendors are awarded Michelin stars as we are taken on a tour of local tourist spots.
Thankfully, the film has tremendous energy. Director Jon M Chu keeps the plot racing along as Rachel is introduced to a small army of her boyfriend’s relatives and friends. Like all good fairy tales, the film has a nasty streak.
Rachel has to cope with jealous locals who try to belittle her and sabotage her relationship with Nick at every opportunity. Michelle Yeoh’s stern matriarch is as fierce and forbidding as any wicked stepmother.
The filmmakers can’t always work out whether they’re satirising their filthy rich protagonists or admiring them for their bling. We hear snatches of Asian covers of songs like “Money Money Money” and “Material Girl” and see plenty of very venal behaviour. On the evidence here, snobbery is rife in Singaporean society.
Those at the top of society don’t just discriminate on the basis of wealth and class. They are very disdainful, too, of anyone who has grown up in the US. Rachel is scorned as a “banana,” that’s to say she is yellow on the outside and white on the inside.
Not that Crazy Rich Asians wants to lecture us or to spend too long exposing the hypocrisy of most of its protagonists. It’s a glossy, escapist romcom, after all. The film may be set in Singapore but its characters and themes will be instantly recognisable to anyone who has attended a fractious family wedding anywhere.
We know exactly how the story will resolve itself but the filmmakers still show wit and invention in the way they handle the cliches and take us toward the inevitable (and predictably very soppy) finale. Wu makes a likeable and resourceful heroine, one prepared to use game theory or talk about micro-loans in the developing world if it will help keep her relationship with Nick alive.
Like My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Crazy Rich Asians has come from nowhere and hit the box office bull’s-eye. Sequels are bound to follow – and will almost certainly be anticlimactic in the extreme. The original, though, is just as much fun as all the advance hype has suggested.
The casting of Golding, who’s half-white and half-Malaysian, has raised some hackles, but the appealing chemistry between the actor and Wu adds warmth to all the conspicuous consumption. (Even the Kardashians couldn’t keep up with this.) The film makes sure every extravagant detail pops, and some will probably dismiss this as an orgy for shopaholics, consigned to being a guilty pleasure at best. But why feel guilty around such irresistible fun? And if it’s also a win for representation, so much the better. Kwan wrote two followup novels: China Rich Girlfriend and Rich People Problems. You leave Crazy Rich Asians wanting to see them both made into movies as pointedly entertaining as this one.