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Crazy Rich Asians movie review: Represention Matters but Charisma Sells

Coming to theaters is the much anticipated movie Crazy Rich Asians, the first all-Asian cast film sent into wide release since 1993’s Joy Luck Club has taken over the entertainment news, which may mean impressive box office numbers.  Great. It deserves them. Based on the best-selling Kevin Kwan novel, this Cinderella tale is filled with frothy luxury porn and brandishes its classic rom-com aesthetic like a badge of honor. It also has a cast that so overflows with charisma, each and every one of them would alone be the price of admission.

New York University economics professor Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) accompanies her longtime boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding) to his best friend’s wedding in Singapore. From the moment she steps on the airplane, it becomes clear that Nick is not just well-off, but possibly rich beyond her imagination.  In fact, he is heir to the biggest real-estate fortune in Singapore and one of its most sought-after bachelors. Rachel has to navigate this new environment, which is filled with catty exes, gold diggers, and family members that don’t think she is worthy of the man she loves.  Most disapproving is Nick’s mother, Eleanor Young (Michelle Yeoh).  Most on Rachel’s team are her friends old and new, including her college roommate Peik Lin Goh (Awkwafina), and her parents Neena and Wye Mun Goh (Cheing Muh Koh and Ken Jeong), and Nick’s cousins Astrid (Gemma Chan) and Oliver T’sien (Nico Santos).  Rachel knows though, that the most important members of the family to impress and get on her side are his mom and his grandmother, Ah Ma, the family matriarch.

What is clear from this collection of performers, is that when you have the first film with an Asian cast in over 20 years, the very best in the whole world is at the production’s disposal.  There is so much star wattage onscreen it’s nearly impossible to look away.  Constance Wu makes a great leading lady and everywoman, and Henry Golding is so hot it’s a wonder the theater seats weren’t bursting into flames. British actress Gemma Chan, who is known for her work on Sherlock, Doctor Who, and Humans, brings a balance of otherworldly grace and down to earth compassion to her role, making her entirely believable as Astrid. Awkwafina and Nico Santos steal every scene they’re in, which is as it should be for such flamboyant characters.  They both act as archetypal truth-sayers in an otherwise duplicitous environment. The most compelling performance, even in such impressive company, is Michelle Yeoh as the lioness of a protective mother. Her every word and look is terrifying, but also complicated in such a way as to elicit curiosity for her back story.  No one could have played her character as well or with as much nuance, and she keeps an otherwise unsympathetic character from devolving into caricature.

Lisa Lu, who plays Nick’s grandmother Ah Ma, is in part responsible for opening up American film and television to Chinese performers. She has been on TV since the 50s in the US, with roles on Have Gun Will Travel, The Big Valley, Mission Impossible, but is most known for the films The Joy Luck Club and The Last Emperor.

This is what happens when the tiny number of roles for Asian actors, way tinier than is usual in Hollywood, are distributed among the very best of the best.  Even given that, there are so many other exceptional Asian actors who are yet to have been given a chance to shine.   

What is clear from Crazy Rich Asians is there are several huge holes needing to be filled in the multiplex.  Whoever said (ahem, white boys in charge of Hollywood pursestrings, we’re looking at you) that diverse stories aren’t of interest or that a good rom-com can’t and doesn’t deserve to make money hasn’t seen Crazy Rich Asians.  True, there are tropes being leveraged in the story, but there’s a whole races of people who haven’t had their Prince Charming or Cinderella trotted out as the hundreds of white ones have been in the history of film.  There are a number of expected scenes recreated in this new release, but they should be welcomed by anyone who believes there are diverse versions of happily ever after, and they should be shown.  Makeover montage? Check. Race to the airport? Check.  Teary-eyed bride? Check. The list goes on and on.  Who cares? Even with the relative small budget of 20 million, audiences are treated to enough flamboyance and over-the-top glamor to keep them occupied.  There are also scenes that show some of the unique aspects of Singaporean culture, which is fascinating and fun to see.

Guess what? None of the white folks who sat through several hours watching an all Asian cast burst into flames or ran out of the theater screaming.  In fact, regardless of the race of the viewers, everyone walked out at the end with a smile on their face.  It’s time the major studios trust that a wider diversity, and better representation is not only good for society, it can also be good for their bottom line.  See Crazy Rich Asians this weekend and prove it to them.

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