Crazy Rich Asians has been breaking boundaries and records simultaneously as it smashed through the US box office, taking back the hold from box office giant Marvel. The story follows Rachel Wu, an NYU Economics Professor who goes to Singapore to visit her boyfriend’s family without realising the wealth that he is descended from. Once she arrives, she is caught up in the opulent and exclusive world that he grew up in, which is so far from her modest upbringing. Playing the role of the antagonist is Michelle Yeoh, giving a captivating and layered performance as Nick’s mother. She disapproves of their relationship and this leads to much of the tension within the film. There is a smattering of supporting performances by scene-stealers Awkwafina and Ken Jeong, as well as a tragic yet majestic turn from Gemma Chan.
A large part of the film’s praise has come from its all-Asian cast, which showcases that these actors can exist outside of the stereotypical roles we often see them in. Constance Wu, playing Rachel, is the emotional core of the film; her performance is revelatory in her ability to act vulnerable and strong in the face of a culture that makes her feel like such an outsider. She does not embody any of the usual rom-com heroine tropes – she is not ‘quirky,’ she is smart, independent and has a respectful and loving relationship with Nick. Her life also exists outside of her relationship with Nick. Her career, her upbringing and her complex cultural background as a Chinese-American are all explored with nuance and care by director John M. Chu. It is not only Rachel whose character is fleshed out in this sense. Despite criticism that the film does not reflect the Malay and Indian populations of Singapore, it shows more knowledge of the Chinese diaspora than any film before its time. There are small parts of the film that remind us of the heritage of the characters, such as the dumpling scene, but otherwise the film portrays a universal story. Most importantly, anyone of any gender, race or sexuality can enjoy this film because of its universality.
Outside of its revelatory representation of South East Asian culture, the film is also reflective of the era that it is made in. All the women in this film are given agency, which is so rare in a rom-com. This shows the influence of feminism and the politics of the #MeToo era in the making of the film. Although there are some characters who are not as fleshed out as others, or some who are merely used for comedy, such as Awkwafina and Ken Jeong, the main characters are all shown to be more complex than would be expected from a rom-com. As I mentioned earlier, Wu’s character is at once a professor, a daughter of a single mother, an immigrant, a girlfriend and a strong yet vulnerable woman. She is, in other words, normal. Her job is not at a magazine where she finally gets her big break when she is inspired to write by the man she falls in love with. Rachel is successful in her own right and Nick is a part of her life, as opposed to being her whole life. Nick’s mother, as showcased in a wonderful opening scene, is not to be messed with but rather than exemplify the ‘dragon-mother’ persona, she injects her performance with layers so that we come to sympathise with the supposed ‘antagonist.’
Crazy Rich Asians is a rom-com for the #MeToo era but it manages to be an entertaining as well as weave a story that is appropriate to our contemporary politics. The film has made stars of its two leads, Henry Golding and Constance Wu, whilst also shedding light on emerging talent. In addition to this, it serves as a reminder of the tour de force that is Michelle Yeoh. Since the 2000s the reputation of the rom-com has been deteriorating due to formulaic films that lacked in creativity. Hopefully, films like Crazy Rich Asians and the surprise Netflix hit To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before are the beginnings of a comeback for a much-missed genre.
by Aleena Augustine
Aleena is a Classics graduate who splits her time between High Wycombe (just outside of London) and wherever the latest film or TV show she is bingeing is set. She enjoys watching rom-coms (they are not just a guilty pleasure), coming of age films (from John Hughes to Greta Gerwig), animated films (cries at every single one), comedies featuring a strong female ensemble (thank you, Bridesmaids) and psychological thrillers (BONUS if they’re directed by David Fincher). Her favourite films are Before Sunrise, Inside Out, Zodiac and When Harry Met Sally. You can also find her on her blog, That’s What She Said and as a contributor for the music blog, Music Bloggery.