Crazy Rich Asians is an example of how an ostensibly formulaic film can soar when approached with a distinct voice and a genuine investment in making the audience care about the somewhat familiar situations and characters. As the first major Hollywood studio production with a predominantly Asian cast since 1993’s The Joy Luck Club, director Jon M Chu’s film has been widely and rightly celebrated as a mile stone for representation (albeit not without criticism of the absence of darker-skinned South Asians outside of very minor roles), and it wears that mantle with an effortless confidence and a strong sense of its own identity that make it almost irresistibly charming.
Adapted from Kevin Kwan’s 2013 novel of the same name (the first in a series of three), the film opens with a smart, crowd-pleasing prologue set in the 90s which establishes the films cultural specificity and sharp, almost Howard Hawks-esque wit before moving ahead to present day New York, where we’re introduced to Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), an economics professor at NYU. The daughter of a single, immigrant mother (Tan Kheng Hua’s Kerry), Rachel is now a widely respected specialist in game theory and dating the dashing Nick Young (a charming Henry Golding). Nick invites Rachel to Singapore for the wedding of his best friend Colin Khoo (Chris Pang) to Araminta Lee (Sonoya Mizuno), where Rachel will meet his whole family for the first time. However, after the two are abruptly ushered into first class on their flight, a confused Rachel is rather taken aback when Nick reveals that his family is “comfortable”. That’s putting it mildly: as the title would suggest, the Youngs are among Singapore’s wealthiest families, and Nick one of the country’s most eligible bachelors. As Rachel navigates an unfamiliar world of outrageous wealth and gets to know the Young family, she must deal with the preconception that, being American raised and not from money, she is a wholly unworthy match for Nick – not least in the eyes of stern matriarch Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), who places great pride in her family’s traditions and is none too eager to see the legacy she’s built interfered with by an outsider.
On the surface, this is a fairly standard set-up for the kind of screwball-inflected romantic comedy that dominated multiplexes in the 1990s and 2000s – however, it is in this familiarity that Crazy Rich Asians finds its greatest strength, both in embracing the panache and sincerity of a bygone era of the genre, too often absent in the post-Apatow era, and in inflecting the old tropes with a refreshingly distinct point of view and attention to detail. The character relationships feel authentic and lived in, with Rachel and Nick sharing a relaxed, sparky chemistry that genuinely feels like the dynamic of two long-term partners who like and trust each other, the kind of truly adult relationship rarely depicted in mainstream cinema, while Rachel’s bond with her mother is shot through with a sense of warmth and mutual respect. Even with relationships that aren’t given much focus – like Nick and his cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan, effortlessly charismatic) – still have a palpable texture in every dialogue exchange, little details of conversation and body language letting us in on their shared histories. Writers Adele Lim and Peter Chiarelli work to earn our investment in these characters, which makes both the laughs and the drama land that much more effectively. There are comedic set-ups here that are as broad as they come, but they consistently work because they are grounded in coherent characterisations. This attentiveness to nuances pays off as the film becomes something like an Austenian comedy of manners in its later stages, as the specific histories and cultural backgrounds of different characters inform their actions in a series of pay-offs that feel genuinely earned and cathartic.
The cast shine across the board, with the two leads proving effervescently likeable. Golding has a smouldering allure and good humour that makes him seem born for leading man status, but it’s Wu’s everywoman charm that makes the film what it is: there’s a wry exasperation to her performance, an askance eye she casts over the Singaporean elite’s ostentatious displays of wealth that gives Crazy Rich Asians a sense of sly scepticism which places it firmly apart from Entourage and its ilk. If anyone can be classed as a scene-stealer it’s Awkwafina as Rachel’s college friend Peik Lin, a live-wire comedic force of nature who storms through her every scene with gloriously unrestrained confidence (she somehow makes the mere act of taking selfies at a party into one of the best displays of physical comedy you’ll see all year), however, the film’s most complex performance comes from Yeoh, who has a stony gravitas that can bring a conversation to a halt with one line or just a gesture. It would have been easy to slip some elements of camp or archness into the character of Eleanor, but Yeoh plays her completely straight-faced, imbuing her with a sense of sincere commitment and determination that makes the central conflict far more layered than it could have been.
Indeed, it is through Yeoh’s performance that the film’s dramatic and thematic heft becomes clear as the film reveals a surprising complexity. Family histories and how culture and power are passed down through generations which all treat these things differently weigh heavy on the films mind, and it weaves them through its narrative in a poignant fashion. When it goes for drama, the film is unafraid to embrace old-school melodrama, the kind of unabashed heart-on-sleeve emotionalism where characters overtly express their feelings in bold, underlined dialogue exchanges and gestures. It’s a disarmingly open style of drama we see all too rarely in mainstream Western cinema, and it’s part of what elevates the film.
Similarly setting the film apart is its fixation on aesthetic and mood. The various locales are captured beautifully, with vivid, popping colours (in places, it looks almost like a Tony Scott film), by Chu and director of photography Vanja Cernjul, while Mary E. Vogt’s costumes are stunning, and the film is willing to dwell on images and sensations for unfashionably prolonged periods not because they advance the plot or tell us anything, but simply for their own sake. When Rachel, Nick, Colin and Araminta go for dinner at a hawker centre (one of Singapore’s famous street food markets), the film captures the events in a montage, largely shot intimately on a hand-held camera, which dwells on images of delicious food being prepared and characters eating, drinking, and laughing together, simply letting us drink in all the sights and textures of its setting in a moment of blissful sensory rapture. The third act, meanwhile, features a scene which weds heightened emotionality to extravagant visual spectacle in a manner redolent of Baz Luhrmann at his best.
Crazy Rich Asians may not be the most original film this year, but its superlative cast, smart writing, and sharp direction ensure it is a superbly pleasurable experience and one of the modern high water-marks for its genre. Rarely does a film make being this important and this well-crafted look so easy.