Film is arguably the single most impactful medium when it comes to representation. Seeing one’s likeness displayed on the big screen combined with the inherent communal experience associated with movie-going can be both emotionally and socially resonant. Unfortunately, Hollywood has been sorely behind the curve here, but the release of director/writer John M. Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians could signal the beginnings of a cultural shift towards more inclusive representation and diverse storytelling down the line.
Crazy Rich Asians marks the first time in 25 years that a major Hollywood studio has released a film depicting an all-Asian cast (after 1993’s The Joy Luck Club). The film, based on Kevin Kwan’s novel of the same name, stars Constance Wu as Rachel Chu, an economics professor at NYU. When her longtime boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding) invites her to a family wedding in Singapore, Rachel discovers that Nick’s extended family is, well, crazy rich. What follows is your traditional rom-com formula mixed with themes of classism, power dynamics, fame, and the cost of love.
These thematic elements in particular are fascinating. This is depicted most explicitly through Rachel’s interactions with Nick’s protective mother, Eleanor Sung-Young (Michelle Yeoh). Over the course of the film, we learn that Rachel grew up in a lower class lifestyle, having been raised by a single mother, both of them working hard to get to where they are now. Despite her position now, Eleanor herself didn’t always fit in with the family either, but that doesn’t gain Rachel many sympathy points. It’s this difference in socioeconomic status that leaves Rachel wondering if she will be enough for Nick in the end.
To a lesser extent, the Young family’s “crazy rich” status is also visibly perpetuated via social media; after Nick is spotted with Rachel in a diner in New York, an Asian gossip personality snaps a photo and spreads it like wildfire through a network of contacts, resulting in Nick’s family knowing about Rachel before he’s ever introduced her. That idea is fascinating and so emblematic of the times we live in. I almost wish we got more of that.
One of the more striking elements is the film’s immaculate production design. From the art direction to the costuming and the locations chosen, Crazy Rich Asians is visually gorgeous, highlighting various decorations associated with Asian culture. I think my jaw dropped lower than Rachel’s when seeing Nick’s family mansion for the first time — and we haven’t even gotten to the wedding yet. It’s incredible to see these cultural aspects on full display.
The film also makes great use of visual and narrative callbacks from earlier moments. Whether it’s a particular piece of jewelry or a lecture Rachel gives at the university, these things come back around later in more significant ways. These narrative threads were fun to pick up.
The rom-com is charming, held together by Wu and Golding’s easy chemistry, but it’s not perfect. We spend some time with the two in New York before the wedding, and while parts of that are necessary to tee-up the wedding in Singapore, the pace really drags before they board the plane. While I was sold on the “rom” part, the “com” parts didn’t always land for me. However, the notable exception to that is Goh Piek Lin (Awkwafina), Rachel’s college friend who lives in Singapore with her family. Her character is always a breath of fresh air whenever she’s on screen. Awkwafina capitalizes on the script’s quippy one-liners, elevated even more so when Ken Jeong joins her on screen as her father, Wye Mun.
As a story, Crazy Rich Asians covers familiar genre ground; you can probably guess how it will turn out based on the premise alone. What remains groundbreaking, though, is its talented, diverse cast and bold splashes of Asian culture mixed in with the rom-com formula American cinema in particular is accustomed to displaying. Chu also makes daring use of the song “Yellow,” by Coldplay (performed in Mandarin by Katherine Ho in the film). The word “yellow” has often been used as a slur against Asians, but Chu penned a letter to the bandmembers of Coldplay explaining that the song made him see this color in a positive light for the first time. It’s these stylistic and tonal decisions that will have a lasting effect on audiences as they leave the theater.
Representation is so, so important for audiences and the evolution of film. Crazy Rich Asians, despite some pacing issues and familiar story beats, has enough heart to make the price of admission well worth it. Hollywood still has a ways to go, but let’s hope Crazy Rich Asians eventually becomes just one of many films to break the mold.