Crazy Rich Asians
Bruce Steele: I haven't read Kevin Kwan's novel Crazy Rich Asians, but it sold more than 1 million copies, so a movie was inevitable. It gets the glossy, big-budget treatment from Warner Bros. and its international partners, and Wednesday's preview screening was packed. Are you ready to join CRA fandom?
Edwin Arnaudin: Yes — at least the subsector centering on the hilarious Goh family, led by Americanized eldest daughter Peik Lin (Awkwafina, Ocean’s 8), her father Wye Mun (Ken Jeong, Knocked Up) and socially awkward brother P.T. (Calvin Wong). The main storyline, in which NYU professor Rachel (Constance Wu, ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat) visits Singapore with her boyfriend Nick (Henry Golding, BBC’s The Travel Show) for a wedding and meets his wealthy family, inspires a good deal less enthusiasm. Did you have a similar experience?
Bruce: Close to it. There's a reason they call it "comic relief," since Peik Lin and family — along with Nick's Queer Eye-ready cousin Oliver (Nico Santos, NBC's Superstore) — make us laugh a lot, relieving us from the mild melodrama of the main plot line, which is the low-key battle between Rachel and Nick's mom Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) for Nick's loyalty. There's nothing wrong with the central romantic narrative, as Wu and Golding make a credible couple you'd like to see live happily ever after. I just found it all a bit low-key. There's nothing like the high drama of, say, HBO's terrific dysfunctional family drama Succession.
Edwin: I think the primary goal for director John M. Chu (Now You See Me 2) and screenwriters Adele Lim (TV’s Private Practice) and Peter Chiarelli (The Proposal) is cast-wide minority representation in a professional-looking, major studio film, plus what I hope is a relatively respectful depiction of modern Asian culture. Much like the gay teen romance of Love, Simon, risk-taking — and perhaps realism — is not high on the agenda here, but you have to start somewhere.
Bruce: I thought of Love, Simon too, so of course I agree with you! It would have been easy (and maybe a little more fun) to make Eleanor into a real tiger lady and to amp up her confrontations with Rachel, but I understand the agenda to keep her more sympathetic. No spoilers, but the conclusion of their battle is nicely handled and evidently invented for the movie, which apparently digresses considerably from the book towards the end. Less successful is the marital discord story line with Astrid (Gemma Chan, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them), Nick's cousin in the book and his sister in the film.
Edwin: An aggressively ferocious Eleanor very well might have helped spice things up, but I found her arguably more dangerous and unpredictable (at least within these contrived narrative confines) in her chosen reserved form. And yes, I often wondered why Astrid was present at all. She’s a rock for Rachel in tough times, but her relationship with husband Michael (Pierre Png, the original The Eye) doesn’t otherwise intersect with her family’s doings. And where’s Eleanor’s mover-shaker husband, who’s conveniently off on an important work assignment? I kept expecting Jackie Chan to show up late in the film and unite Asian martial arts royalty, but no dice.
Bruce: The movie was full of ellipses. Dinner is called at one party, but then it's suddenly after dinner. Nick asks Rachel what she wants to do in a car scene, then suddenly he's gone and she's with Peik Lin, eating ice cream. I'd bet there's a good half-hour of deleted scenes. The Astrid thread, and those of some other peripheral relatives, may have suffered from condensing the movie to 120 minutes. Even the bride and groom, whose wedding is the excuse for Nick to finally bring Rachel to Singapore, are barely sketched. But lots of time is spent showing off Singapore and the grand locations, sets and parties, which I rather shamelessly enjoyed.
Edwin: It certainly bumped the city up my list of places to visit. Not that I’d be invited to any of the luxurious galas or even the site of the elaborate bachelor party thrown by frenemy Bernard (Jimmy O. Yang, HBO’s Silicon Valley), but it’s fun to vicariously revel in the extravagance of it all. And while the writers apparently aren’t capable of developing more than a handful of characters, I do think they successfully convey some important cultural details within the otherwise fluffy story. Did any of these aspects stand out to you?
Bruce: I'm hesitant to assess the cultural accuracy of the film, since I don't know enough about Chinese culture, but it seems respectful. In narrative terms, it comes down to family loyalty (the Chinese way) versus personal fulfillment (the American way), which at least makes for dramatic tension. Since this is the first principally Asian big-budget film produced in Hollywood in about 25 years (since The Joy Luck Club), I think the next question is: Does it do justice to all the otherwise untapped Asian-American talent it showcases?
Edwin: I also can’t speak to the truthfulness of certain customs, but regularly felt like we were given a glimpse at how longstanding traditions and outside influences are mingling in today’s Asia. (I was also relieved to see a straightforward dumpling-making scene after the unintentional psychological horror of the recent Pixar short Bao.) Not being familiar with much of the cast prior to the film, I also can’t accurately assess Crazy Rich Asians’ use of its talent, but think everyone comes off pretty well. It’s a nice, safe step and will hopefully encourage more prominent work for Asian-American actors and filmmakers.
Bruce: Which is something that sets Crazy Rich Asians apart from Love, Simon. While both are modestly charming efforts at "mainstreaming" for neglected U.S. subcultures, all the actors in Crazy actually had to be Asian, while the main gay roles in Simon were played by presumably straight actors (despite a gay director). I think it definitely demonstrates a rich (so to speak) pool of talent and hope its anticipated success can get other Asian-American projects made. Before we finish, we have to talk about the music, which was largely Asian pop (as in, from Asia) but includes cover versions of Madonna and Coldplay. I chuckled at the use of a foreign language "Yellow" near the end. Did you as well?
Edwin: I was too baffled to chuckle, thinking it was either an unfortunate oversight or an intentional effort to revise the word’s cruel connotations through a beautiful interpretation. Chu has said in interviews that it’s the latter and notes Chris Martin’s hesitancy to approve of his song’s use, but I honestly didn’t know how to react. The other selections are slightly easier to interpret.
Bruce: Well, it was one of the film's riskier choices, along with the super-cheesy animation over the final credits. Look, this is a movie that aspires to be a PG-13-rated "Sex and the City" for Asian-Americans (and Asians-in-Asia), and it hits that mark. The set pieces look amazing, especially the wedding, and the cast is charming. The revisions to the novel seem to be smart changes to appeal to newbies. All in all, I wish it well. And so I'll end my lukewarm musings with a B grade.
Edwin: I’ll go with a B-minus, will look forward to the inevitable sequel and note that Asian film talent is all over the place this week. Indonesian actor Iko Uwais (The Raid films) kicks major butt and perhaps makes his mainstream breakthrough alongside Mark Wahlberg in Mile 22; the excellent The Third Murder, the second-newest drama from Japanese master Hirokazu Kore-eda, opens at Asheville’s Grail Moviehouse; and the teen romantic drama To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, adapted from Asian-American author Jenny Han’s YA novel and starring Lana Condor (X-Men: Apocalypse), debuts on Netflix. Hopefully this convergence of minority talent is no mere coincidence.
Grade: B. Rated PG-13. Now playing at AMC Classic, Biltmore Grande and Carolina Cinemark
(Photos: Sanja Bucko/Warner Bros.)