“Crazy Rich Asians” is more than a movie. It’s a book of the same name, and it’s also a social movement, one you might want to hop on despite personal tastes in romantic comedies. The book, written by Kevin Kwan, and the film, co-written for the screen by Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim, begin with a prologue on a bone-drenching day in England. A sopping wet group of women with young kids enter an exclusive hotel. Assessing them by race, the manager pretends the women do not have a reservation. Eleanor Young (Michelle Yeoh) calls her husband who resolves the issue — by buying the hotel.
The audience at the premiere at the TCL Chinese Theatre cheered, although Eleanor, we’ll soon learn, is the main “villain” of the story. What’s really prompting cheers from the audience is something else — recognition.
But if you’re thinking this is a flick with social justice fomenting from an angry place, relax. From there “Crazy Rich Asians” becomes a fish-out-of-water rom-com, one that will stir shopaholic and foodie fantasies more than social consciences.
Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) is an ABC (American Born Chinese) of the mainland Chinese sort who speaks Mandarin (not Cantonese) and is a professor of economics at NYU. For almost two years Rachel has been exclusively dating history professor and Asian hunk with an English accent Nicholas Young (Henry Golding) from Singapore.
Nicholas’ best friend, Colin Khoo (Chris Pang), is getting married to Araminta (Sonoya Mizuno) and Nicholas asks Rachel to spend a few weeks of their summer break in Singapore to meet his family and, at the same time, reconnect with her college best friend, Goh Peik Lin (Awkwafina).
Before Rachel even sets foot on the airplane, Nick’s mother Eleanor and her snippy social set know about Rachel after another Singaporean eavesdrops on the couple, snaps a photo of them and begins the gossip chain. At 278.6 square miles, Singapore is smaller than San Diego, and the Young family isn’t just part of the country’s upper class, but members of the elite “crazy rich.” Nicholas doesn’t properly prepare Rachel for rubbing elbows with the snobs of Singapore. Luckily, her friend Peik Lin acts as a fairy godmother of sorts while selfie-snapping during her time with the ultra-rich.
The script has dulled the claws of vicious girls who have grown up but not out of their cruel ways, as found in the book. The class system remains, but the catty details of how the Chinese rate the different Chinese ethnic and nationality groups, as well as other Asians, has been diluted. East Asians don’t see themselves as one race, and even the Chinese divide themselves up into different races and ethnicities.
The prologue in England takes place at a time of heightened focus on the Hong Kong Chinese — should the UK take in more immigrants or would the British feel too “swamped,” as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once infamously put it. Singapore, unlike Hong Kong, was never threatened with reversion. Instead, Great Britain gave it independence and that made it a more secure place for the wealthy Chinese to invest. The aftereffects of colonialism loom in the distant background of the movie, but just remember that the fusion of Western and Eastern styles has been going on for centuries. Don’t confuse modernization and Westernization, or at least consider how Asian cultures have contributed to modern Western culture in such areas as art, fashion and fine cuisine.
“Crazy Rich Asians” has exploded onto the cinematic scene not only for its celebration of materialism and opulence, but also because it challenges a film and TV casting system that for too long has denied Asians and Asian Americans lead roles in shows like “Hawaii Five-0” and “Magnum P.I.” and whitewashed them out of true stories like “21.” Like San Francisco-born Bruce Lee’s 1960s Kato character in “The Green Hornet” series, Asian Americans are still sidekicks and exotic background, even though they’ve been in America for centuries.
Director Jon M. Chu shows some Asian male hunkiness rather than pandering to white male yellow fever in a few brief but tasteful scenes, preferring instead to create a visual orgy of spectacular wealth and fabulous fashion. But sadly, this, even in 2018, is a social statement.
If you like predictably happy rom-coms filled with unaffordable fashions worn by attractive people surrounded by zany friends (Awkwafina with Ken Jeong as her father and Koh Chieng Mun as her mother are hilarious), this is for you.
From the reaction at the opening to the takedown of the racist hotel manager, the vibe I got was Asians still face racism in the US and the scene was welcome fantasy revenge. While I wish Wu’s Rachel had more fire, “Crazy Rich Asians” is frivolous fun that challenges non-Asians — white, black, Latino and Native American — to empathize with Asians and Asian-American characters.