Jon M. Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians, the film, is sufficiently unastonishing; a meandering though nevertheless engrossing romantic comedy that, despite its cast of Asian actors and Singaporean milieu, remains tethered to American values and principles, both culturally and cinematically. Crazy Rich Asians, the commercial product, is perhaps a little more interesting and certainly sheds light on the troubling innocuousness of the film. Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures and, more importantly, financed by SK Global (a relatively new conglomerate formed from American distributor Sidney Kimmel Entertainment and the Hong Kong-based Ivanhoe Pictures), the synergistic opportunities in adapting Kevin Kwan’s worldwide bestseller are impossible to overlook. Subsequently, to find Kwan’s text navigate a series of obfuscated, impossible to distinguish conglomerates, fashioned and engineered to placate audiences throughout planet Earth is, at the very least, head-clutchingly impressive. Which, with the Academy Awards now singling out achievements in “Popular Film”, probably makes Crazy Rich Asians a shoe-in for a gold statue.
The film involves Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), a Chinese-American NYU Economics professor, who goes along with her boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding) to Singapore for a wedding. Rachel doesn’t know much about Nick’s family or means, with Nick typically underplaying his vast wealth. This lends itself to a peculiar series of simplistic narrative devices, typically employed to inspire humor or awe, wherein Nick’s wealth baffles Rachel; whether it be an upgrade to first class or her introduction to the Young’s Versailles-inspired mansion, these affectations are intended to charm but read as ugly navel-gazing stratagems. None of which are more troubling than the film’s final act, where the numerous dreamlike visages of excess, wealth, and debauchery are rendered into a hedonistic nightmare when deemed dramatically convenient.
The crux of Crazy Rich Asians’ narrative drama involves Rachel’s pursuit of Eleanor’s (Michelle Yeoh), Nick’s mom, approval. The dynamic is a familiar one: old-world tradition versus American self-fulfillment. It’s the most appealing aspect to Crazy Rich Asians, mostly because Yeoh is such a distinct and tactile presence throughout the film, with Wu proving to be a worthy and capable partner. But the film’s fragmented narratives, which include a litany of side-characters that range in their effectiveness, muddle and hinder the film’s momentum (Awkwafina and Nico Santos are notable presences, while Gemma Chan and Pierre Png’s story of adultery leaves no impression). It’s a messy, fractured picture that isn’t done any favors by Chu’s uneven direction, which ranges from inspired to profoundly dull.
Briefly consider the film’s wedding scene, an effective Hallmark Card of a sequence, edited to oblivion and shot in soft hues, all set to an acoustic, English (!) rendition of, get this, Fools Rush In. The gentle elegance of the scene is undercut by such a kitschy, culturally diluting, song choice of Americana. It’s not the only example of heavy-handed Western influence, but it’s certainly the most discomforting. The film is at its best during two specific scenes: one where Rachel and Nick dine with the couple to be, early in the film, in a montage that finds them raid an outdoor food court. The other involves dumpling making, where Nick’s family and Rachel share an exchange that’s underscored by Eleanor’s prevailing antagonism. Both scenes advocate for a communal experience and imply a kind of cultural specificity that’s terribly lacking in the film.
But these are generous moments in a film that remains entrenched in Western ideals, in what’s fundamentally a film designed to placate and affirm unobtainable standards. It’s a media spectacle of a film, a packaged, sold, and consumed bill of goods that presents the Asian experience as an unencumbered, anodyne experience. I understand why the images here are vital, but there’s something fundamentally disingenuous about what we’re getting here, where the only Asian experience found fit to receive global distribution and a wide American release is one that involves the 1%.