It’s a reflexively tickling and gloriously ironic thought that an adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s celebrated novel “Crazy Rich Asians,” in which a Chinese-American economics professor visits her boyfriend’s obscenely wealthy family in Singapore during a wedding vacation progressively fraught with one-percent melodrama, only bears a production cost of $30 million. Aside from the gloriously extravagant scenery shown in the film’s advertising, such modest costs are an increasing rarity among major Hollywood pictures, particularly those with as much media coverage as this one, but when the dramatic stakes of this specific material are comparatively low next to the average Marvel flick or general summer blockbuster – last week’s The Meg cost a cool $130 million before marketing costs – $30 million seems about right. But, as has been repeated ad infinitum, Crazy Rich Asians is hardly your standard August filler.
25 years have passed since Wayne Wang’s The Joy Luck Club featured a predominantly Asian cast, becoming a vanguard for such representation, and between then and now, you could likely count as many, if not many more instances in which Hollywood films have used Asian stereotypes as characters, completely whitewashed Asian characters in favor of White actors or contained an unconscious or otherwise propagation of the White savior narrative in the ‘exotic’ East. And so, it bears repeating that Crazy Rich Asians represents a massive step forward in greater diversity in Hollywood pictures, and though it may be so, it almost doesn’t feel worth mentioning that the film structures and markets itself as yet another studio rom-com. It is, and yet upon viewing, it’s deceptively so much more.
You have your somewhat usual ‘fish out of water’ set-up where one half of the core heteronormative romantic partnership meets the other’s highly scrutinizing family, particularly the parents, this time applied to less familiar circumstances for non-Asian audiences, though it is a refreshing twist to see the woman, in this instance Constance Wu as Rachel, be the plot’s focus who is potentially afforded greater depth of character while the man is her support. Then, you get your typically kooky familiar members and friends respectively providing the protagonist great stress and relief in addition to the requisite dinner/party sequences where the former truly express their threatening antagonism and imminent domain – this time set against lavish interior decoration and throngs of powerful individuals representing Singapore’s traditional elite. Jealousy reigns supreme, love wins out – you get the idea.
Director Jon M. Chu’s execution behind these broadly recognizable circumstances, however, embodies a significant awareness to formula that uncynically reveres its undeniable emotional effect and transports the audience toward unironic bliss amidst the glitz. Appropriately juxtaposing thematic significance in technical achievement with narrative and cultural context, the film presents a stylistic visual dichotomy between Singapore’s old and new money populations by depicting signifiers of old money, particularly initial soiree scenes and general interactions between Rachel and her boyfriend’s intimidating, calmly exacting mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), as reminiscent of Hollywood’s Golden Age, meanwhile scenes such as the bachelor and bachelorette parties are shot and edited like promos for an MTV Spring Break special.
Such directing tactics may not serve much purpose other than the inevitability that the two disparate styles will converge come the final reconciliation between the two sides, though as it comfortably does justice to the title’s first two words, it does effectively underscore the film’s most prominent, though lightly touched upon and thoughtful subtext regarding the harm of isolated perspectives and philosophies of life and happiness. Undoubtedly, the story’s thrust concerns the push and pull relationship between Rachel and Eleanor, the latter of whom, in addition to many others in the family or tangentially associated, sees the former as an outsider not just unworthy of her son Nick’s (Henry Golding) love, but also as a threat to his Singaporean identity and inheritance of the family business.
Not only does this context add more meaningful shades of nuance and intrigue to the usual genre plot points, as well as its relevant scenes being wonderfully performed by Wu and the compulsively watchable Yeoh, it presents pressing questions towards concepts like the relative longevity and importance of tradition and legacy, issues of ethnonational and maternal identity and even sobering reflections on class; what it means to come from inherited wealth versus what it means to come from less privileged backgrounds. With regards to the latter, the film has a couple of characters, including and particularly Nick, who visibly express self-consciousness toward either their inherited socioeconomic status or their attained wealth, providing even further dimension to the film’s unmitigated and unabashed flaunting of material prosperity. Nick, even though his depth of character doesn’t stretch too far in relation to Rachel, with his personality being explained more through supporting characters than him, especially represents the strongest visualization of what a supporting half of a romance can be in this context.
It’s delightful watching how Crazy Rich Asians moves in its healthy doses of familiarity and pleasantly unexpected ideological pursuits, unashamedly declaring itself an uncomplicated crowd-pleaser while containing the visible craft to justify its relative simplicity. It places equal emphasis on Yeoh’s Eleanor anchoring both its dramatic and subtly intellectual intentions as well as letting performers like Awkwafina, Ken Jeong and Nico Santos hilariously run riot with the scenery whenever they appear. And for what it’s worth, considering the film’s flagrant identifying as a popular film, it’s worth mentioning that its headier subtext doesn’t impose itself upon the narrative, merely content to lay back and remain noticeable enough for those looking for something else to grasp.
Purely, Crazy Rich Asians is a nakedly unambitious studio picture whose charms are self-evident and guilt-free, allowing us to indulge ourselves upon gorgeous scenery, glamorous peoples and rich drama while delivering upon what Hollywood has sorely lacked for so long. We all use film to vicariously live through various settings, eras and character archetypes, and while there’s enough eye candy to go around for viewers to get their fix in that regard, the sociocultural implications projects like these bring for anticipating Asian-American audiences cannot be understated. $30 million may not be a crazy rich price tag, but this film stands as proof that it isn’t what you spend, but rather how you spend it that matters.