2/10 In the late August dead zone, which this year was filled with some fairly interesting releases, Crazy Rich Asians spent three weeks at the top of the box office, including Labor Day weekend, a run that included an astonishingly low drop of 6 percent in its second weekend. It’s been met with critical acclaim, and a sequel is on the way.
Also, it’s absolutely insufferable.
In 1995, Eleanor Sung-Young (Michelle Leoh) arrives in London and is condescendingly turned away from her hotel, with the receptionist claiming they are fully booked and sending Sung-Young back out in the rain. After a phone call, Sung-Young is revealed to have reserved the largest suite after having purchased the entire hotel.
In the present day, NYU economics professor Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) goes to Singapore with her boyfriend of about a year, Nick Young (Henry Golding), to attend his best friend’s wedding and meet his family. Once there, Chu discovers that the Young family was one of the first to develop Singapore, and Young personally is the heir to a global real estate empire and the city-state’s most sought after bachelor. Chu revels in the upper-class wonders of the island, but finds that she is already deeply trapped in the hornet’s nest of Singapore’s ruling families.
Crazy Rich Asians is horrible. It’s a basic romantic comedy/drama with a massively over-bloated cast, which becomes the source of most of its problems.
The side characters are just terrible. There’s Chu’s college best friend, Goh Peik Lin (Awkwafina), an astonishingly irritating character who sounds for the entire movie like she’s got something stuck in her throat. Young’s friend Bernard Tai (Jimmy O. Yang) is equally insufferable, though he’s at least supposed to be. The movie also spends a significant amount of time on the collapse of the marriage between Astrid Leong-Teo (Gemma Chan) and Michael Teo (Pierre Png), which serves as a loose foil to Chu’s and Young’s relationship but isn’t sharp enough to add much to the movie.
There’s no tension between the leads. Chu and Young are already together when we meet them, and they split up between the bachelor and bachelorette parties almost as soon as they arrive in Singapore, so we never get to know them either in courtship or as a couple. If you don’t know or care about the main characters, you’ve got no story. Crazy Rich Asians does generate sympathy for them, but it’s mostly because they’re trapped with the awful side characters that I’d rather just not have to deal with.
There’s a very good story hidden in here about the generational expectations put on Young and the perils of both being born rich and marrying rich. Young’s mother goes out of her way to make sure Chu knows she isn’t welcome and never would have been, and I can’t help but notice the parallels between her disdain for the lower-middle class Asian American and the receptionist’s hatred of her in the first scene. Sung-Young’s snooty disregard for Chu is also paralleled by her own mother’s disregard for her.
This is the movie’s primary conflict and by far its most interesting plotline — Chu being blindsided by two generations of rather sinister mothers who push away their sons’ girlfriends — but it only gets about 30 percent of the runtime. Most of Crazy Rich Asians is dedicated to lavish parties and introductions to the book’s expansive list of characters, very few of whom have a meaningful impact on the main or side plots.
But Crazy Rich Asians isn’t about story. It’s about Asian culture and bringing an underrepresented demographic to the big screen, something author Kevin Kwan and the eventual production team left a significant amount of money on the table to do at several parts of the process. After talks of a movie adaptation almost immediately turned to making Chu’s character white, Kwan sold the adaptation rights for just $1 in exchange for a continuing stake in the filmmaking process so he could ensure that didn’t happen. After signing with minority-oriented production team Color Force and signing Chinese-American director Jon M. Chu, the group turned down money again, this time from Netflix so that they could get a theatrical distribution through Warner Bros.
“It reflects … that we are worth your time, your $15 to drive and park and struggle with buying tickets and crowds, to sit down in a dark room and say, ‘Tell me a story.’ We are worth that,” Chu told Vulture.com. “Something in the museum trickles down to everything in the world. The cinema is the museum. It puts it in a glass box. ‘This is special. You are special.’ So we had a very big decision to make sure we pursued it the cinematic way.”
But despite being praised in America and hailed as one of the first movies with an all-Asian main cast in 25 years, the casting lead to several racial controversies in the actual countries being depicted. A massively diverse cast of people with Asian descent from around the world was criticized for not having enough specifically Chinese ancestry, and also for having far too few people descended from Singapore itself or other nations in the Southeast Asian archipelago.
While there’s an element of racial purity to these arguments — “Golding was raised in England, so he’s not Asian enough” — and those ideas should be discounted, it speaks to a larger problem with Crazy Rich Asians, which is that I come out of it feeling like I haven’t learned much about Singapore. There’s an early scene at a hawker center and an intense game of Mahjong later on between Chu and Sung-Young, but for the most part the film’s aesthetics aren’t Singaporean as much as they are generically upper-class — the Asians is much less important than the Crazy Rich.
It’s not really my place to say that this isn’t an accurate representation of Singapore, but I can say that if there are more cultural elements than I noticed, well, they should have been more noticeable, and for a movie sold on the strength of representing an underrepresented culture, I would have liked to see that culture play a more central role in the plot.
On the other hand, using an exclusively non-white cast to tell a generic story, and making oodles of money while doing it, is arguably a much stiffer challenge to the status quo of white as the default race.
Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate and managing editor of The Lewisville Texan Journal. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter and Instagram and support it on Patreon. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.