At some point in the glitzy, colourful extravaganza that is Crazy Rich Asians, protagonist Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) goes through a classic romantic comedy makeover. It’s a transformation worthy of Cinderella, only in this case, there’s less “bibbidi bobbidi boo," and more designer dresses that retail for thousands upon thousands of dollars. Another important difference? Rachel is Asian-American.
The story of an average woman who meets Prince Charming in disguise and and then must endure a fraught first encounter with his family is as basic a romantic comedy premise as you can get. Inspired by both fairy tales and classic literature, it’s a beguiling trope that has fundamentally shaped our cultural understanding of romance, showing up in everything from the Cinderella-based Ever After to Prince William and Kate Middleton’s real life relationship.
The fact that this is also the plot of the feverishly-awaited Crazy Rich Asians, the first Hollywood blockbuster movie to feature an all-Asian cast in 24 years, upgrades this often-trod narrative into something that has the potential to be revolutionary.
Based on the best-selling trilogy by Kevin Kwan, and directed by Jon Chu, the film follows Rachel, an economics professor at NYU who has been dating dreamy historian Nick Young (Henry Golding) for about a year. But when he invites her to his hometown of Singapore for his best friend’s wedding — and to meet his extended family — she has no idea that she’s about to get a backstage pass into the world of some of the richest people on the planet. Take Marie Antoinette’s Versailles, multiply by the Hope diamond, and raise to the power of the Burj Khalifa, and you’ll start to approximate the level of wealth we’re talking about.
The first time we meet Nick’s cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan who, sadly for fans of the book, isn’t given much to do here except look fabulously glam) she’s spending millions on rare gemstone earrings on a whim. His grandmother, the Young matriarch, is one of the biggest landowners on the island — her house is so exclusive that it doesn’t appear on regular GPS. Colin (Chris Pang) and Araminta (Sonoya Mizuno), the adorable couple who meets Nick and Rachel at the airport in beachwear? They’re having the most sought-after society wedding of the year. And Rachel? She’s the daughter of a Chinese immigrant (Kheng Hua Tang) who came to the United States as a single mother with nothing and worked her way up to a career as the top real estate broker in Flushing, Queens.
But even colourful and bombastic fairy tales have a poison apple, in this case the weight of the Young family’s expectations. Far from welcoming this prospective daughter-in-law into her home, Nick’s mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh) actively snubs her. Channeling the ghost of Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben, she reminds her son that with great power comes great responsibility, which she doesn’t believe Rachel will be able to handle.
Wu and Yeoh are perfectly cast in this at-odds relationship, and share crackling chemistry that often threatens to overshadow the romantic relationship they’re fighting over. The latter, who rose to global fame in the 1990s as a martial arts star, nails the steely-spined posture of the very rich mother who thinks she’s protecting her only son from a gold digger — but you can tell there’s a well-contained vulnerability simmering underneath that poised exterior. Wu, on the other hand, balances the wide-eyed sweetness required for the role with the same sharp wit that she skilfully deploys in Fresh Off The Boat, giving Rachel more of an edge than one usually expects from an ingenue. She’s out of her element, sure, but she’s not going to wait around for the mice to make her over and get her to the ball. As for Golding, he nails the suave charm of a man who’s been born to expect everything to go his way, but is also a genuinely nice guy who looks amazing in a suit.
Still, on paper, this could be a story about pretty much anyone. What elevates Crazy Rich Asians is that Chu isn’t interested in blending in. Studio films with minority leads tend to downplay the impact of the culture they bring with them (even Love, Simon was very invested in reassuring us that its gay protagonist was “just like you.”) . Not here — from Brian Tyler’s score, which takes pop songs — most memorably Coldplay’s “Yellow” — and gives them a Chinese instrumental twist, to a cast the director has called "the Avengers of fucking [Asian] actors," the entire film heavily leans into its specificity with a zest that’s infectious. Crazy Rich Asians is here to celebrate in a big way.
As it should — the last Hollywood blockbuster to feature an Asian-American lead was The Joy Luck Club back in 1993. And though the years in between have brought us the likes of 2000 foreign-language Oscar winner Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and 2005’s Memoirs of A Geisha, Crazy Rich Asians stands out precisely because its protagonist is an Asian-American woman living a real, modern-day existence. The deeper issues she’s struggling with are relatable – not just to Asian-Americans, but any second-generation immigrant fighting to carve out an identity that reflects both the culture they were born into, but also the one they grew up in.
That push and pull between tradition and modernity, the old world of Nick’s very elite aristocratic upbringing and Rachel’s new world of innumerable possibilities, is central to the Crazy Rich Asians narrative, a set of problems usually reserved for the white Downton Abbey set. When Nick’s mother tells Rachel that she’ll “never be enough,” she’s referring both to her social status but also her Americanness, which in this universe, makes her almost crass. You can almost hear Lord Grantham saying the words himself, subverting deep-rooted stereotypes about who is allowed to enjoy economic prosperity, and the high life that comes with it.
Hollywood stories about the immigrant experience so often focus on poverty, and the struggle to build up the American dream from nothing (usually with the help of a well-meaning white character). But there’s no pity here, only aspiration, and it’s a refreshing perspective.
Part of the allure of adapting Kwan’s book for the screen is to bring all the trappings of ostentatious privilege to life, and Nelson Coats’ production design does not disappoint. Culture shock sets in early when Rachel and Nick board the flight to Singapore, only to be led to a private airline suite, complete with silk pyjamas and a full bed, and things only escalate from there. Private islands, designer couture, paparazzi, a wedding aisle complete with real water and lily pads — everything is possible in this enchanted universe. And the costumes! It would be a crime to spoil what Mary E. Vogt has in store by describing the many fabulous outfits, but rest assured that they are worthy of this historic Asian-American Cinderella story.
It’s in the nature of a project like this that even the smallest details hold far more significance than they first appear to. Take the way the camera pans over Golding’s naked chest, revealing his very nicely defined abs. As Rachel’s friend Peik Lin (Awkwafina) so bluntly puts it, he looks like the “Asian Bachelor.” That’s not just a throwaway line. Asian men have been sidelined as romantic leads in Hollywood for decades (and for the record, we’ve never had an Asian-American Bachelor on the ABC series). In that context, the normalised and encouraged ogling of Golding as an object of desire is momentous, as is Wu’s entrance at Colin and Araminta’s wedding in a ball gown worthy of a Disney princess. The fact that they both look like such movie stars is an added bonus.
Director Chu is clearly aware of the film’s importance, both culturally and commercially, but doesn’t allow the action to be weighed down. Playful touches like the Gossip Girl-like way news about Nick and Rachel’s trip spreads throughout the Singapore elite, and essentially every single scene Awkwafina is in, keep things grounded in comedy. Stand-up comedian Ken Jeong, best known for his role on NBC’s Community, and as gangster Leslie Chow in The Hangover franchise, leans into his persona as Peik Lin’s inappropriate father sporting an Elvis pompadour. And as Oliver T’sien, Nick’s fashionable cousin and Rachel’s de facto fairy godmother who orchestrates her sartorial transformation, Nico Santos (Superstore) is also one to watch.
And yet, for those very same reasons, Crazy Rich Asians might disappoint on some level. Ultimately, like Nick Young himself, the film’s greatest struggle is that it has a very ordinary rom-com structure, but is shouldering the symbolic expectations of something much greater. It’s a sad reality that Crazy Rich Asians bears the burden of representation for future Hollywood films with Asian casts, with many studios waiting to see if the film performs at the box office before greenlighting similar new projects. This is an issue already on display in the run-up to the film’s release, with many calling it the “Asian Black Panther.” (It’s not. Nor should it be.). That’s not fair to the film, which doesn’t pretend to be anything other than it is. Crazy Rich Asians is a fantasy, and a beautiful, opulent, often funny one at that.
Ultimately, the film delivers as a blockbuster romantic comedy: It’s joyous, decadent, and yes, extremely predictable. But seeing new characters inhabit and thrive within a story we’ve seen countless times before is a major achievement in itself. Who said blonde-haired, blue-eyed Cinderella had a monopoly on the happy ending?