For a film that’s fundamentally a meet-the-parents romantic comedy, Crazy Rich Asians arrives with a great weight of expectation on its shoulders. It has to carry the burden of being the first Hollywood film in 25 years to have an all-Asian cast, to portray Singaporean and Chinese culture authentically, and to represent the intersecting Asian and Asian-American experiences with delicacy and heart — all while being entertaining and commercially successful.
I saw Crazy Rich Asians at my usual Bangkok cinema, in a packed theatre, surrounded by other excited locals and a few expats. Everyone was on board from the moment the film kicked off, in London, in 1995. By the time our Asian-American heroine, Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), and her boyfriend, Nick Young (Henry Golding), touched down in Singapore to visit his rich family and embark on their life-changing adventure, we were already laughing, talking among ourselves and having a roaring good time. Much has been made of the film’s lavish costumes and locales, its attractive stars and well-executed romantic-comedy beats. But its true strength is the way in which the director, Jon M. Chu, and his screenwriters upgraded Kevin Kwan’s original novel by fleshing out certain themes and characters.
The biggest change from the book is the character of Eleanor Young, Nick’s protective mother, played by the legendary Michelle Yeoh. Yeoh, who was at first sceptical about taking the part, portrays Eleanor not merely as a one-dimensional villain but as a dedicated mother with vulnerabilities and struggles of her own. Together with Rachel, who’s also made more interesting by Wu’s performance, Eleanor anchors the film and its trope-heavy premise in real emotions, making Crazy Rich Asians a story of cultural identity and family relations rather than a forgettable popcorn film. The dynamic between the two women is never more powerful than during a scene involving mah-jong, which isn’t in the novel but adds much-needed gravitas to the story.
Another highlight is Peik Lin, Rachel’s old university roommate, played by rising star Awkwafina, who had the audience in stitches with her quick-witted jokes and physical comedy. But Nick’s wealthy cousin, Astrid Leong, played by Asian-British actress Gemma Chan, steals the show. A fan favourite from Kwan’s novels, Astrid effortlessly brings genuine glamour to the proceedings, and her struggling marriage to her lower-class husband is one of the film’s more interesting plot lines and should have been afforded more screen time. A line of hers prompted applause from several people in the audience. Seeing the reactions of others was just as enjoyable as watching the film itself.
After I left the cinema, I made a point to go online and find out whether other Thais enjoyed the film as much as the people in my cinema did. I was encouraged to discover that their responses were overwhelmingly positive. Even though many viewers found the romance plot clichéd, they enjoyed the film’s humour, its characters, the Singaporean setting and the many elements of Chinese culture that are also infused in Thai culture. We might not hunger for representation in the same way Asians in the West do, but what we see on screen has an undeniable effect on how we perceive those who are different from us and how we understand our place in the world. Seeing certain aspects of our culture on a global platform does give us a sense of pride and community.
Unfortunately, it is impossible for the film to represent every Asian and Asian-American experience, just as Black Panther cannot reflect the story of every African and African-American. Crazy Rich Asians, cursed with being one of the few films of its kind, is forced to also act as a commentary on all sorts of cultural issues. Can Asian actors be cast as Asian characters who are not of their particular ethnicity? Where are the spaces for Asians who are not part of the one-percent elite or Asians who are dark-skinned? What is this film saying about Asians and wealth? The list seems endless.
But for me the most meaningful moments in the film weren’t the grand romantic gestures or the opulent wealth on display. What drew the most joyous laughter and excited whispers from the audience were the Mandarin pop songs peppered throughout; the dim-sum-making session; the joke referencing those red Chinese envelopes; and the scene in which four young Asians, dressed down and comfortable, enjoy themselves in an open-air market, laughing and feasting on street food just as we do on a normal Friday evening.