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Non-Review Review: Crazy Rich Asians

The romantic comedy is, by its nature, an aspirational genre.

At its core, the romantic comedy is built around the idea that love conquers all, that soul mates exist, that there is one person in a million for every other person and that they are destined to find one another. The romantic comedy is aspirational in its presentation of love: the idea that everybody lives happily ever after, that every obstacle can be navigated if two people love one another. Of course, reality doesn’t always work out like that. This is just one reason why we tell stories; not just to tell us how the world is, but to insist how it should be.

Crazy, stupid, rich love.

This is perhaps why the romantic comedy is so often wedded to other fantasies; consider the ostentatious wealth depicted in most romantic comedies, but especially in Nancy Meyers films like It’s Complicated or Home Again. Romantic comedies present an idealised depiction of family life, where all differences can be reconciled and where practical concerns need never even be articulated. Even romantic comedies that aren’t explicitly about wealthy families luxuriate in a fantasy of wealth; very few families could realistically afford even the starter pack romantic comedy wedding.

There is nothing inherently wrong with aspiration, to be clear. Action movies and superhero films tend to indulge in a similarly idealised fantasy of heroism and strength of will, imagining worlds where many of the complications of everyday life can be shuffled into the background or wrestled into submission. However, the aspirations baked into romantic comedies are more tangible and more immediate, more recognisable even in their outlandishness.

“I mean, I’m rich. But I’m not crazy rich.”

Very few people will find themselves liberating a soccer stadium from terrorism, but most audience members have romantic relationships and many have weddings and even families. Even those audience members who don’t have their own spouses and children would have grown up within something resembling a familial structure. As a result, even the most outlandish romantic comedy offers something that more closely approximates lived experience.

Crazy Rich Asians fundamentally understands this aspirational nature of romantic comedies, and takes a great deal of pleasure in its display (and even celebration) of absurd wealth. The film’s title is a bold statement of purpose. There is something exhilarating in that.

Love don’t rom (com).

The last mainstream Hollywood studio film to be dominated by Asian actors was The Joy Luck Club in 1993. To provide a sense of context, that predates the flashback teaser that opens Crazy Rich Asians. In the years since, Asian actors have been largely marginalised, even in high-profile adaptations of Asian- and Asian-American-centric stories; in true stories like 21 or adaptations like Dragonball: Evolution or Ghost in the Shell. As such, Crazy Rich Asians understands that its mere existence as a romantic comedy with a predominantly Asian cast makes it noteworthy of itself.

Crazy Rich Asians hits all its rom-com marks with a practiced ease, recalling Set It Up as one of those “kind of movies that you don’t really see very often anymore.” Indeed, even ignoring the idea of diversity as something that has value of itself, or as something important to children (and even adults) seeing themselves reflected on film, part of the appeal of diversity is the way that a unique perspective or vantage point brings a vibrancy to even tired and familiar genres.

A romantic ideal.

The mainstream romantic comedy is something of an endangered species in American contemporary cinema, squeezed out of the multiplex by the blockbuster arms race and largely reinvented as the quirky indie rom-com like Enough Said or Obvious Child or as the R-rated raunch-fest with the heart of gold like Trainwreck. The old pure breed is surprisingly rare, especially as a major studio release. Crazy Rich Asians is an example of that rare breed, filtered through a unique cultural prism that enriched the familiar beats and rhythms.

Crazy Rich Asians has more in common with classic nineties romantic comedies (themselves tethered to forties screwball comedies), evoking films like You’ve Got Mail or Runaway Bride or My Best Friend’s Wedding. The film understands everything that the audience expects from a romantic film like this; tension between the new romantic interest and the existing family, the presence of an old flame, the betrayal of a seeming ally, the massive third act twist.

There is also, no kidding, a “trying on dresses” montage set to Material Girl.
It is also, no kidding, fantastic.

Crazy Rich Asians doesn’t subvert or deconstruct or even interrogate the genre. It ably exemplifies it with a charming cast and confident director. It commits to its familiar elements. The third act twist is impressive in terms of sheer heightened spectacle; the big reveal is both a huge reveal to the characters and amply positioned within the narrative context of the film for massive effect. Third act twists in romantic comedies hinge on misunderstandings at the worst possible moment, and Crazy Rich Asians positions that beat as if it is dropping the bass.

There is something endearing in the skill with which director John M. Chu embraces the rhythms and structures of the romantic comedy. Chu trusts both his cast and his premise. Many of the best beats in Crazy Rich Asians unfold in the background of shots, slightly out of focus, and are enhanced by the fact that the movie doesn’t feel the need to foreground them. There is a confidence in Crazy Rich Asians that demonstrates an understanding of both the robustness of the genre and the talent of the cast.

Giving her friend a dressing up.

At one point, Chu foregrounds the set-up of a joke about a rocket launcher before letting it pay-off in the background. Chu repeatedly makes a conscious choice not to cut away from his lead performers and undercut an important character beat to get stock reaction shots from supporting cast members, instead placing these reactions in the background of the frame with the lead performers. Awkwafina is a fantastic supporting performer in Crazy Rich Asians, ably filling the “quirky best friend” role, but she’s a joy to watch even in the background of scenes.

Of course, the eagerness with which Crazy Rich Asians embraces the trappings of wealth creates its own problems and tonally awkwardness, as it can do in romantic comedies. Gemma Chan plays the character of Astrid, a member of the wealthy family at the centre of the story who has married a social striver from a lower socioeconomic background. Astrid’s arc largely consists of the character learning that it is perfect okay to flaunt the massive wealth into which one has been born without consideration for those without such security. It is a somewhat warped moral.

“Never be ashamed of who you are. Even if you are impossibly wealthy due to nothing to do with your own innate skills or gifts… Speaking of, have you seen Cars 2?”

However, despite occasionally tonal missteps like that, Crazy Rich Asians largely works. In fact, it feels like something of a companion piece to Black Panther from earlier in the year. Ignoring the cliché idea of a traditional gender divide between the aspirational fantasies of the superhero and the romantic comedy, or even just the importance of two major studio releases (and successes) with casts drawn primarily from minority groups, Crazy Rich Asians and Black Panther feel rooted in similar thematic ideas.

Both Crazy Rich Asians and Black Panther are essentially stories of the diaspora. Although Crazy Rich Asians unfolds primarily in Singapore and Black Panther is set largely in the fictional kingdom of Wakanda, both narratives are told through the eyes of an American protagonist who is journeying to a foreign land for the first time – a part of the world with obvious deep significance to them, and a strong connection to their ancestral homeland. (Yes, Kilmonger is very much the protagonist of Black Panther; certainly, the film unfolds more from his perspective than T’Challa’s.)

Hitting a couple of snags along the way.

Crazy Rich Asians might unfold primarily in Singapore, but its frame of reference is consciously American. The soundtrack is saturated with Chinese covers of Material Girl or Yellow. On arriving at the palatial Young mansion, as Nick strides out to greet his beloved, Chu’s best friend describes the scene as something from “the Asian Bachelor.” One family have modeled their home on “Donald Trump’s bathroom.” One supporting cast member laments the fact that his family portrait won’t end up in “American Vogue.”

Indeed, the moment in which Crazy Rich Asians most explicitly embraces Asian culture without the comfort of the trappings of an American perspective is at the climax, when Chu challenges her boyfriend’s mother, Eleanor Sung-Young, to a game of mahjong. The game is never explicitly explained to the audience, although director Jon M. Chu skilfully ensures that the audience understands the rhythms and structure of the game. It is simply presented as something that both Eleanor and Chu know how to play.

The mother of all problems.

However, this is the exception that exists to prove the rule. It is a way for Chu to assert her rightful place in Singapore, to demonstrate that she is not – as her friend suggests – “a banana” who is “yellow on the outside and white on the inside.” The mahjong scene is its own aspiration beat, a way for Chu to prove that this world is hers as well. Allowing for this clever (and very effective) narrative conceit, Crazy Rich Asians is not the story of a wealthy Singapore family, but instead the story of an Asian American navigating her first encounters with a wealthy Singapore family.

Both Crazy Rich Asians and Black Panther are about Americans who make a journey to another part of the world to which they have a spiritual bond. Kilmonger has lived his life as an African American, and so experienced racial oppression and brutality at the hands of the state. To Kilmonger, Wakanda represents an ideal homeland, a fantasy of an Africa that was untouched by colonialism, a country that never lost a generation to slavery and was never ravaged by imperialism. Wakanda is a home beyond the emotion, imagined by an African American child.

Tourist.

Crazy Rich Asians touches on a similar theme with the character of Rachel Chu, who journeys to Singapore to meet her boyfriend’s extended family. Chu was born in America and raised by a single mother who had emigrated from China. In some ways, Chu represents the ideal of the American Dream, a second-generation immigrant who has managed to find a reasonable amount of success in her adopted homeland, but who is still curious about where her family came from.

Her mother suggests that Chu always wanted to make the journey back to Asia, but never found the time; perhaps acknowledging that she would always prefer the fantasy over the reality. For her part, Chu is curious about how her mother thinks about China, and the father who never made the journey. “Do you think about him?” Chu asks at one point. “All the time,” her mother responds. Like Kilmonger, these Americans allow their minds to wonder, and ponder whether what they left behind was better than what they found in the United States.

Wouldn’t it be gran(d)?

Indeed, Chu’s visit to Singapore is very much the stuff of idealised fantasy. From the moment she arrives at the airport, she finds herself secreted into a life of glorious decadent luxury. “These pyjamas are nicer than any of my regular clothes,” she confesses. Her best friend explains that Chu’s boyfriend is from “old money”, rooted in the ancient history of Singapore. The family arrived in the region when it was “nothing but jungle” and never moved. They never emigrated. They never left home. Instead, they settled and they thrived.

It isn’t just the wealth that appeals to Chu. It is the sense of belonging. One of her most engaging conversations with her boyfriend’s family comes while making dumplings, revealing what the Young family really represents to Chu as an aspirational idea. “Growing up it was just me and my mom,” she explains. She is quick to add that she loves her mother dearly, but also that she felt like she missed out on these big family dinners. The act of immigration to the United States represents an act that shattered some unspoken bond and connection.

A familiar song.

Much like Kilmonger in Black Panther, Chu is repeatedly confronted with fact that she is not of this world, that she is an outside looking in. At one point, her boyfriend’s mother identifies her as “not one of our kind.” When Chu asks if that is because she is poor or because her family comes from China, Eleanor makes it more explicit, “You are a foreigner. You are an American.” Indeed, when snap-happy social networkers first take a picture of Chu as Young’s mysterious girlfriend, the immediate speculation is that she “looks ABC.” American-Born Chinese. An other.

It is interesting that Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians should arrive in such quick succession. They offer a very pointed and very timely reflection of contemporary American anxieties. Historically, America has defined itself as a nation of immigrants, as a melting pot that welcomes and embraces other cultures. Even in cynical films like The Godfather trilogy or Once Upon a Time in America, there was always a sense that the protagonists had an identity that was as much American as it was anything else.

Aisle be there for you.

Released in quick succession, Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians suggest a rejection of this ideal. America is no longer a place that takes the dispossessed and makes itself their home, forging a unique identity and affording ample opportunity. Instead, America is presented as a place of exile for these migrants, a space in which they exist apart from their idylised homeland rather than making it their homeland. Neither Kilmonger in Black Panther nor Chu in Crazy Rich Asians chose to emigrate to the United States, they went there because there was no other choice.

Perhaps this reflects the contemporary mood, a simmering racial and cultural anxiety within the United States, in which marginalised groups are increasing made to feel alienated and isolated. Contemporary America is no longer the land of limitless opportunity and potential, but instead a grim reality where the children of immigrants dream of idealised homelands. In old American stories, immigrants used to dream of what they might become in the United States. Now, they idly wonder what they could have been if they stayed at home.

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