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“You never know how much you miss being represented on screen until you actually see what it’s like to be represented.”
Chrissy Teigen summed up my feelings about the importance of Crazy Rich Asians in this Instagram post. On paper, it seems like your standard romantic comedy. Boy and girl are in love, family interferes, drama ensues, boy and girl overcome, live happily ever after. But there is a lot riding on this particular rom-com.
If, like me, you’ve been following the hype about Crazy Rich Asians for the past few months, you’ll know it’s the first Hollywood studio movie to feature an all-Asian cast since The Joy Luck Club, which came out in 1993. That’s 25 years ago.
You’ll know that Kevin Kwan, the author of the book the movie’s based on, and Jon M. Chu, the director, reportedly turned down a crazy rich offer from Netflix to make sure the movie was shown on the big screen. “To be on the biggest stage with the biggest stakes, that’s what we asked for,” Chu said in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter.
You’ll know that the casting call for the movie was sent out around the world and that the film features actors from the US, the UK, Singapore, Malaysia, Australia (yay!), and more. And you’ll know that there’s been a lot of talk about representation and what this movie means to Asians, particularly to those of us who’ve grown up in Western countries.
I’ve been caught up in the hype. For months I’ve been reading news articles and blog posts, stalking the cast and director on Instagram, watching interviews with them on YouTube and Facebook. So when it was time for me to finally see the movie, I was worried. I was always going to watch it, to support my fellow Asians, but I was worried that my expectations would be too high and I’d be disappointed. I’m pleased to report that my fears were unfounded.
There is genuinely so much to love about this movie, and that makes me crazy happy. Let’s start with the cast. I’m a big fan of Constance Wu from her performance in Fresh off the Boat. In Crazy Rich Asians she shines as Rachel Chu, the female romantic lead—you become fully invested in her success, feeling her frustration and cheering for her when she stands her ground.
Henry Golding as Nick Young, Rachel’s ‘prince’ (if you’ve seen the trailer you’ll know what I mean), is pure old-school Hollywood charm, and it’s hard to believe this is his first acting gig (he was previously a hairdresser and a TV travel show host). Michelle Yeoh is a queen. So elegant, poised, and powerful—the perfect person to play Nick’s mother, Eleanor Young. Lisa Lu, as Shang Su Yi, the matriarch of the family, is cut from the same cloth.
The supporting cast holds their own, too. Awkwafina and Nico Santos, in particular, are hilarious as Peik Lin and Oliver, and I really hope that there are outtakes of their ad-libs somewhere (though credit for the brilliant line ‘bok bok bitch’ goes to Constance Wu). Gemma Chan as Astrid was an absolute standout for me. I read a blog post that said that everyone who’d seen the movie came out of it obsessed with her. When you see it, you’ll see why. Not only is she ridiculously gorgeous, but her performance was so moving it had me and my friends in tears.
One of my friends commented that she feels for the way that Western media usually represents Asian men. You know what she means: geeky, scrawny or chubby, never gets the girl. Well, I’m pleased to say that Crazy Rich Asians does very well to counter those stereotypes, particularly in the form of Pierre Png and Aussies Chris Pang and Remy Hii. (Side note: Chris Pang’s been quoted as saying he moved to the US because he couldn’t get work in Australia. Someone, please cast this man back home so we can see more of him on our screens!) I could go on and on about the rest of the cast but that would make this review way too long, so I’ll just have to say they are all amazing and keep going.
The clothing and jewellery are fabulous. The settings are spectacular and as lavish as you’d expect, ranging from huge beautiful houses (and a very ostentatious one) to a luxury resort and hotels, to an ‘OMG what?!’ bachelor party location and a completely over-the-top wedding. But one of my favourite scenes was of Rachel, Nick, Colin, and Araminta getting a Singapore street food fix at Newton Food Centre. You could practically smell the satay sizzling. And being a movie with Asians, you can be assured that that’s not the only scene involving food. This movie will make you hungry. You have been warned.
Crazy Rich Asians has also been a test of whether rom-coms can still draw crowds. The answer is yes. And boy does it bring on the feels. My friends and I were all actively wiping away tears during certain parts of it, and felt such happy relief when things worked out (that’s not a spoiler, the movie’s a romcom—there’s always a happy ending!).
On a personal note, this movie has generated a lot of discussion for me and my friends about our experiences growing up as Asian-Australians. We’ve read about and heard people asking why can’t we just watch and be satisfied with movies made in Asian countries? Don’t those count? Why do we care about or need a movie like Crazy Rich Asians?
I hadn’t really thought about the why (apart from it being nice to see more Asians on screen) until I read an excellent piece by Michelle Law. In it, she writes about how she cried during the movie.
“I cried because didn’t have to undertake the automatic and unconscious process of having to project myself onto white characters. But mostly I cried because I felt my world and my future open up to me: as a westernised person from the East Asian diaspora, I finally, profoundly understood that I could have dreams and flaws and relationships and families that are real and not just punch lines.”
And that’s the crux of it for those of us who’ve grown up Asian in Western countries. Our experience is different from Asians whose experience is life in an Asian country. We rarely see ourselves portrayed in Western media.
My friend’s sister is an actor, and a lot of the roles she gets called to audition for are for a generic Asian. Often an Asian who has an accent or is a token diverse character or the villain. Not one who is just a person who happens to have an Asian background who lives in a Western country (and has an Australian accent).
That’s why I really appreciate those TV shows and movies that cast Asian actors in roles where their ‘Asian-ness’ isn’t the main focus of their character. That said, it’s also nice to see our stories told with the perspective of straddling the two (or more) cultures, because that again is itself an experience unique to immigrants or children of immigrants.
We need movies that show westernised Asians just as people; we also need movies that show stories about how our Asian background influences our lives in our Western countries. Crazy Rich Asians manages to do both, and really it’s just a fun, feel-good film that will make you smile. Bring on China Rich Girlfriend!