Rachel Chu and Nick Young are like most millennial couples in New York City—at least millennial couples in which one is a brilliant economics professor and the other is heir to a real estate empire in Singapore. There’s a problem, though: Nick (Henry Golding) has kept Rachel (Constance Wu) in the dark about his circumstances back home. His plan to invite her to Singapore for the wedding of his best friend and to meet his family, he hopes, will remedy this. So begins director Jon M. Chu’s posh extravaganza, Crazy Rich Asians, a movie of necessary firsts and communal heart.
What Rachel doesn’t realize when she accepts Nick’s invitation is that he isn’t just from any family, but Singapore’s wealthiest and most influential (a fact that has lended him celebrity-bachelor status among locals). It doesn’t take long for the drama of home to reveal its sneer. Rachel—who is Chinese-American and thus considered an outsider—finds herself in an obstacle course for acceptance. The first series of hurdles are relatively painless. Nick’s cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan) is harboring secrets of her own; she’s discovered her husband is cheating and finds an unlikely confidant in Rachel. Next are Nick’s aunties and a former flame. With help from her college BFF Peik Lin (a rowdy and riotous Awkwafina) and cousin Oliver (Nico Santos), Rachel proves a resilient spark against their torrent of social exile.
The final hurdle turns out to be Nick’s mother, the matriarch of the clan. Deeply protective, Eleanor Sung-Young (a steely Michelle Yeoh) is a woman of familial duty and respect, and believes Rachel is the wrong woman for Nick. And so the women come to represent dueling ideals of tradition and freedom. Eleanor wants Nick to take control of the family business, but he’s become enthralled with the idea of carving out a life with Rachel, even if that happens to be in America. A mother’s wrath, though, is unforgiving and its reach endless. Eleanor’s last-ditch effort to torpedo the couple’s relationship—by exposing a long-buried secret about Rachel’s father—triggers the film’s most high-stakes moment.
Crazy Rich Asians culminates like a Singaporean Cinderella, illustrating the extent each character will go to for the people they love. It’s a film of big ambitions that doesn’t entirely upend the rom-com format, but instead infuses the genre with a tint of hope. And so, we are left with a movie about sprawl—and the lengths people travel to connect with others, to greet them where they are, to find peace on common ground. Between mother and son. Between partners and friends. Between America and Singapore. Between the known and the unknown. Between truth and fiction.
Based on the 2013 novel by Kevin Kwan, the film does vital work in demolishing certain Asian stereotypes that have found an unlikely lifeforce in American pop culture. Early on, Peik Lin’s father (a predictably bonkers Ken Jeong) instructs his two youngest children to finish their dinner; “Think of all the starving children in America,” he says. Other chasms the film attempts to cross prove less fruitful. Unfolding at a blistering pace, it never quite comes up for air to allow for enough nuance around characters that demand it. Astrid and Eleanor’s backstories, while convenient, feel microwaved and could have ultimately benefited from more substance and time.
The marrow of the film, and its most crucial lesson, deals with the politics of comfort: how those on screen navigate the trappings of high society, and how we, the viewers, are cushioned into a specific characterization of Asian identity. The movie is full of humor and pluck, but nothing emotionally gut-wrenching. And deservedly so. It is a rom-com after all. But one gets the impression that Hollywood would have been less eager to greenlight a $30 million film that more closely resembled 1993’s The Joy Luck Club, which chronicled four struggling immigrant families in San Francisco. It was the last studio-backed feature to enlist a majority Asian and Asian-American cast until Crazy Rich Asians (which includes actors that span the diaspora—China, South Korea, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines).
The comfort nourishes us, but is it what we need? We only ever witness the splendor of Singapore, touring its most elite enclaves and never once getting a peek into its other, less affluent regions. Not that the film, its writers or director, have that particular obligation. But it does raise the question—who is this movie speaking for and speaking to? That is not to take away from its historic achievements. But a movie of such cultural immensity is bound to be viewed as representing for the whole, whether it intends to or not—a weight shouldered earlier this year by Black Panther.
These are important stories to tell. And we need to witness them on screen. But danger lurks in the collective narrative. It’s an onus routinely projected onto major films (or books, or TV shows, or even politicians): The first Asian this. The first black that. But no one movie can speak for the whole. Not entirely. The fault is ours, really. We are a culture that, in 2018, still revels in “firsts.” A culture that happily celebrates victories we so desperately need, but rarely investigates why it took us so long to get here.