Satire, Soap Opera, Duty, Devotion: 'Crazy Rich Asians' Is A Movie Milestone

Aug 15, 2018
Originally published on August 23, 2018 10:22 am
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The romantic comedy "Crazy Rich Asians" has generated a lot of anticipation as the first major Hollywood studio film in years to focus on contemporary Asian and Asian-American characters. Adapted from Kevin Kwan's 2013 best-seller, the movie stars Constance Wu as a New Yorker who travels to Singapore to meet her boyfriend's wealthy family. Film critic Justin Chang has this review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: "Crazy Rich Asians" is being hailed as a milestone for Asian representation in Hollywood, which means it's being saddled with more cultural and commercial expectations than any movie should have to bear. Happily, it doesn't collapse under that weight. More milestones should be this light on their feet. Drawing us into the privileged world of Singapore's billionaire Chinese families, the movie is a satire and a soap opera, a "Meet The Parents" comedy and a "Cinderella" romance all wrapped up in the swankiest of lifestyle fantasies.

Our guide to all this over-the-top luxury is an outsider named Rachel Chu, an NYU economics professor played by Constance Wu from the sitcom "Fresh Off The Boat." Rachel is dating a fellow academic named Nick Young, played by a dreamy British-Malaysian newcomer named Henry Golding. Nick is serious enough about Rachel that he invites her to fly home with him to Singapore so that she can meet his family for the first time.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CRAZY RICH ASIANS")

HENRY GOLDING: (As Nick Young) Singapore for Spring Break, Colin's wedding. We've been dating for over a year now, and I think it's about time people met my beautiful girlfriend. Come on, I'm Colin's best man. Don't you want to see where I grew up, meet my family, my Ah Ma and meet up with that strange college roommate of yours?

CONSTANCE WU: (As Rachel Chu) Peik Lin.

GOLDING: (As Nick Young) Mmm hmm.

WU: (As Rachel Chu) She has been begging me to come visit her, you know.

GOLDING: (As Nick Young) The universe has spoken. It wants you over there. Come to Singapore. I want the whole island to meet the brilliant Rachel Chu.

WU: (As Rachel Chu) Aw.

CHANG: The two leads slip effortlessly into the kind of on-screen chemistry you've seen in any number of glossy studio romantic comedies, and "Crazy Rich Asians" gives them their own unique set of emotional complications. There are a few things Nick hasn't told Rachel. And it's not until she finds herself flying first class that she begins to understand what she's getting herself into. It falls to her old college buddy Peik Lin, hilariously played by the actress and rapper Awkwafina, to inform Rachel that Nick is basically Singaporean royalty, putting her under enormous pressure as she prepares to meet his friends and family.

The large ensemble cast includes Nick's iron-willed grandmother, played by the veteran Chinese-American actress Lisa Lu from the 1993 drama "The Joy Luck Club," the last major American studio film to feature such a dizzying array of pan-Asian acting talent. The British-Chinese actress Gemma Chan plays a glamorous style icon named Astrid Leong, one of the few Nick's inner circle to give Rachel a warm welcome. The others, including two obnoxiously spoiled types played by Ronny Chieng from "The Daily Show" and Jimmy O. Yang of the HBO series "Silicon Valley," regard her as a fish out of water at best, a gold digger at worst. And Michelle Yeoh is mesmerizing as Nick's quietly formidable mother, Eleanor, who's dead set against letting her son marry someone so apparently unworthy of the Young dynasty.

Although significantly watered down from Kevin Kwan's sprawling original novel, Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim's screenplay has a rich vein of cross-cultural humor that I expect will draw rare laughs of recognition from Asians and Asian-Americans in the audience. It also has an exaggerated eager-to-please quality that doesn't always serve the comedy, as if it were a little desperate to ensure that everyone gets the joke.

But "Crazy Rich Asians" soon finds its footing. The Chinese-American filmmaker Jon M. Chu, who established himself by cranking out sequels like "G.I. Joe: Retaliation," directs with a sharp eye and an exuberantly personal touch. With its dazzling costumes and gaudy production design, the movie nails both the elegance and the vulgarity that can define the lifestyles of the obscenely rich. Chu smartly dramatizes the mindset of old money aristocrats like the Youngs and their unique contempt for Asian-Americans like Rachel, whom they believe pursue individual happiness at the expense of family and tradition.

As an American-born Chinese myself, I'd be disingenuous not to admit how personally stirred I was by "Crazy Rich Asians," and not always for the reasons I expected. There's something curiously validating about a Hollywood romantic comedy that pauses for a mouthwatering tour of a Singapore open-air market or a makeover montage set to a Cantonese rendition of Madonna's "Material Girl."

But what cuts the deepest here is Michelle Yeoh's performance as Nick's mother, who movingly articulates the complicated, often wrenching sense of duty and devotion that binds Asian families together across countries and generations. It's a tension that some of us have spent years grappling with, but seeing and hearing it in an American movie feels close to revelatory.

GROSS: Justin Chang is a film critic for the LA Times. Tomorrow, we'll hear from Kevin Kwan, who wrote the novel "Crazy Rich Asians."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MATERIAL GIRL (200 DU)")

SALLY YEH: (Singing in Cantonese).

GROSS: After we take a short break, Ken Tucker will review the first album by British singer-songwriter SOPHIE, who produced music by Madonna and Lady Gaga. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANTIBALAS' "HYPOCRITE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.