A surprise hit? This ultra-glamorous rom-com about life among the Singapore 1% would be a fantasy, if everything we see weren’t real. Constance Wu and Michelle Yeoh head an all-Asian cast in a celebration of ostentatious excess — yep, some folks aren’t hurting at all. As an expression of Asian ascendency and female power, the show may have opened a door to a whole new empire of crossover ethnic fantasies.
Crazy Rich Asians
Blu-ray + DVD
Warner Home Video
2018 / Color / 2:40 widescreen / 120 min. / Street Date November 20, 2018 / 35.99
Starring: Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Gemma Chan, Lisa Lu, Awkwafina, Harry Shum Jr, Ken Jeong, Sonoya Mizuno, Chris Pang, Jimmy O. Yang, Ronny Chieng, Remy Hii, Nico Santos, Jing Lusi.
Cinematography: Vanja Cernjul
Film Editor: Myron Kerstein
Original Music: Brian Tyler
Written by Peter Chiarelli, Adele Lim from the novel by Kevin Kwan
Produced by Nina Jacobson, John Penotti, Brad Simpson
Directed by Jon M. Chu
“It’s the first Hollywood movie with an all-Asian cast!” I’d cite a technical precedent in the case of Flower Drum Song but that would be beside the point: after laboring a hundred years under the majority-consensus notion that general audiences don’t want to see specifically ethnic movies, this expensive romantic drama embraces the idea that all things Asian have terrific crossover appeal. Outdoing Hollywood’s own notions of glamour, Crazy Rich Asians will be a strong reminder that The Wind From The East blew past America years ago. The future of prosperity may surely belong to a society of ultra-rich Chinese.
Sort of a fairy-tale version of My Best Friend’s Wedding, Kevin Kwan’s novel reportedly offers a more critical view of the lavish lifestyles enjoyed by the incredibly rich of the Far East. The movie simply lays it all out for us to see, without judgment. A big chunk of the audience might ask, ‘where’s the social conscience in this?’ But there’s also a salient historical irony: Hollywood spent a full century advertising America as a God-given consumer heaven, and Crazy Rich Asians simply shows an ascendant ethnic culture beating us at our own game. I think that fact dawned on me watching the lavishly spectacular production of the 2008 Olympic Games in China, with its astounding high-tech effects, all designed to serve notice on the illusion of American exceptionalism.
Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim’s screenplay is a smart, cagey twist on Cinderella, leavened with a pinch of trendy #Metoo. New York economics professor Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) accepts an invitation from her handsome boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Goulding) to fly with him to Singapore to attend a big wedding. Only during the flight does Rachel discover that Nick is not just rich, but the key heir to an incredible family real estate and manufacturing empire. The Young family compound is enormous and overrun with servants, but Nick’s mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh) shows her antipathy toward the non-traditionally oriented Rachel by suggesting that she stay elsewhere for the visit. Rachel lays over with her nutty friend Peik Lin Goh (Awkwafina), who showers her with advice about how to survive the weekend.
Peik Lin helps Rachel dress for the big reception at the Youngs, where she really finds herself seriously slighted for her less-than-wealthy background. Rachel receives a chilly reception from Eleanor, and meets the serene but judgmental grandmother Shang Su Yi (Lisa Lu). Nick was expected to come home to run the family business over a year ago: Rachel is resented for detaining him.
The men take off for a bachelor party, which turns out to be a grossly overdone circus-brothel on a cargo ship in international waters. Nick and Colin, the groom (Chris Pang) opt out of that. Rachel thinks she’s being welcomed by the society girls that invite her on a pre-wedding party on a Spa Island, but she discovers that the enormity of resentment against her, especially from Nick’s previous girlfriend Amanda (Jing Lusi). The only woman that doesn’t hate Rachel is Astrid (Gemma Chan), a fabulously wealthy businesswoman with a troubled marriage.
The closer the wedding comes, the less wanted Rachel feels. At a dumpling-cooking lesson, Eleanor makes it plain that Nick must have a traditional woman to support him, as Eleanor supported his father. Rachel retreats in despair, but Peik Lin helps her to regroup. It’s all a plot to discourage and demoralize a woman who happens to be a games theory expert. Instead of fleeing, Rachel attends the wedding determined to succeed — not knowing that Eleanor and Shang Su Yi will go even farther to remove her from Nick’s life.
Crazy Rich Asians is cleverly written and smartly directed, with nice graphic touches and handsome cinematography of some of the more lavish real settings seen in recent movies. Astrid comes home to a knockout skyscraper apartment carrying dozens of shopping bags — and a pair of earrings that a jeweler has sold her at cost, for only 1.2 million dollars. Instead of a Brinks vault, she tucks them away above her makeup mirror.
Cinderella was a callow social climber next to Rachel Chu, who begins not knowing that her boyfriend is heir to an empire of riches. In some ways this is still a fairy tale soap, what with Nick ‘not thinking’ to let Rachel know that she’s stepping into a hornet’s nest of social snobbery. Fifty two-faced young women hate her guts, one of them enough to put a bloody dead fish in her bed as a warning. The prospective mother-in-law finds several ways to tell Rachel to scram, all of them witheringly condescending.
The word ‘Rich’ in the title is far more important than ‘Asians.’ Rachel’s clash with a traditional cultural heritage is easy to identify with, and most of us have at least one relative that gives us grief. But the economic gulf is what is going to impress the viewer. When Rachel checks into First Class for her flight, we at first think we’re in an airport lounge. She and Nick are really already on the wide-bodied jet, and are shown to a first-class compartment more lavishly appointed than a millionaire’s honeymoon suite. Instead of rows of squeeze-box seats, they can spend their long flight to the other side of the planet on a kingsized bed.
The part of Singapore that we see is a playground for the ultra rich. A ‘food court’ hawks dishes as good as what can be found in any four star restaurant. The ostentatious architecture says that money is no object: buildings are shaped like modern sculpture, and a trio of skyscrapers (The Marina Bay Sands?) are topped and linked by what looks like an oval serving tray the size of two football fields, with a park, a reception area and an infinity pool six hundred feet in the air. The Jetsons might live in this place; all that is missing are flying cars. The place makes Los Angeles look like a strip mall. Rachel’s pal Peik Lin resides in a relative slum, a multi-millionaire’s palace decorated in horrible taste — with gold trim like Donald Trump’s bathroom.
Exotic cars are the norm; I imagine that gang wars are fought over who runs the local Maserati and Ferrari repair franchises. These golden sons and daughters of the rich also travel by private jet and beautiful new helicopters. In the wedding ceremony, the aisle floods a couple of inches deep, and the wedding party half-wades its way to the altar. With enough money, one can turn one’s entire life into a Hollywood extravaganza.
Everywhere we go there are servants, quiet and in the background, making everything happen. This is the most openly patrician film I’ve seen in years — the American-raised Rachel is not shown interacting with any of these servants, beyond a nod or a smile. When ‘Family’ is raised to such a sacred level, it means that anybody without a proper pedigree is a lesser life form. Rachel is a presumed mutt with no appreciation of the ‘old values’ — which mainly boil down to money and economic supremacy.
This amazing 3% at the top of the income chain live in palaces, their property guarded by armies of guards. The unsanitary and unpleasant problems of the world are completely out of sight. Much of Southeast Asia suffers from horrible poverty and misery, with scattered issues of political killings and ethnic cleansing. The Nikkei Asian Review, perhaps with an ulterior motive, criticized the movie’s ‘self-confident view of the Asian continent’s moneyed elite’ in ‘a new era of rising inequality’: Crazy Rich Asia Risks Running Into Trouble.
The show begins with a flashback to 1995 to show how the tables have turned: a younger Eleanor prevails over a racist hotel manager in London, who doesn’t want non-Anglos messing up his floor. We only see a few samples of Eleanor ordering her own servants about, twenty years later. Her cold discrimination is much more efficient than the Brit’s. The successful Astrid has progressed far beyond the submissive China Doll image addressed in the old movie The World of Suzie Wong. When Astrid’s husband lets down the marriage, it’s she that judges and dismisses him.
The ethnic types seen in the old Flower Drum Song are long past their sell-by date, and Crazy Rich offers new characterizations that are both fresh and stale. All the main family people live in a materialist Never Never Land. Cousin Eddie (Ronny Chieng) is a stiff banker who makes his family go through hoops to fulfil his desire for an optimal public image. His brother is Alistair (Remy Hii) a wild-eyed filmmaker whose latest actress-girlfriend Kitty Pong (Fiona Xie) is rumored to have been a porn star.
The classy, sophisticated characters are all played by tall, svelte actors, while most of the ‘colorful’ supporting types are shorter, with round-er faces and more ethnic features. Bernard (Jimmy O. Yang) is presented as an obnoxious, unattractive boor, and one of Peik Lin’s brothers is a creepy little voyeur. Peik Lin herself is an eccentric nut. Rapper-actress Awkwafina makes her into a memorable highlight as Rachel’s socially unacceptable but lovable sidekick for the weekend. Peik Lin and the fashion-conscious Oliver (Nico Santos) gang up to dress Rachel for the wedding, taking on the function of the mice in Disney’s Cinderella or the fairy godmothers in Sleeping Beauty. The cliché is redeemed by great dialogue, as Peik Lin critiques an unacceptable dress: “You kind of look like a slutty Ebola virus.”
The expert playing and focused script guarantee that our sympathies go in the right direction. Constance Wu holds up her end very nicely, but the acting honors go to Michelle Yeoh, who was the one reason to sit through the Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies. And I’m the first to admit that the Singapore ‘lifestyles of these rich and famous’ out-do most everything we’ve seen before. Only at the very end does Asians do anything recognizably stale: a romantic argument aboard a jumbo jet is as weak as they come. It doesn’t matter; we already know this is a winner.
Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray + DVD of Crazy Rich Asians also comes with a digital copy that’s easy to redeem. The flawless image flatters the constant parade of beautiful houses, gardens and island settings. One scene shows a rare flower that blooms in front of our eyes. I assume that a special effect must be involved, and the director wisely doesn’t make the answer obvious. The music track is a kick as well, with a wide range of songs. Not all are recognizable pop tunes sung in Chinese. Every design and music issue is tastefully addressed, for a movie designed to be a crossover knockout.
The featurette extras give us a little background on the film project, and a roundup of the ambitious young talent that sees the show as a breakthrough item. Author Kevin Kwan joins director Jon M. Chu for a commentary; in the featurette he says his motivation was to try to express the grandiose excess he witnessed in the houses of the Ultra Rich — like a living room designed to hold a shark pool.
A selection of deleted scenes and a gag reel assure us that plenty of fun was had on the set.
I should think the marketers did prize-winning work circulating the good word on this one. From my perhaps limited POV, I noticed Crazy Rich Asians when it was given a big push on National Public Radio. Last year they promoted an awful-sounding comedy about parents trying to get involved in their teenagers’ sex lives. But several years ago NPR pushed a small picture called Mr. Holmes that turned out to be a rewarding winner. I’ll bet that most audiences for this picture feel satisfied as well.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Crazy Rich Asians
Blu-ray + DVD rates:
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: Featurette, director and author commentary, deleted scenes and gag reel
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case in card sleeve
Reviewed: November 17, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson