Monday, November 12, 2018

"Crazy Rich Asians": review

I'm half-Korean. My mother was Korean—born in Seoul and coming to the US in the 1960s. She gradually became part of a thriving community of Korean-Americans (a.k.a. "Komericans") in northern Virginia (NoVA). Over the final two decades of Mom's life, she served twice as president of the NoVA-based Korean-American Women's Society (KAWS), despite being terrified of public speaking; there were times when I would help her out by emceeing her society's Christmas parties in an awkward mixture of English and Korean. The other Komerican ladies in that community came in all shapes and sizes, characters and temperaments. Among those ladies were many—far too many—who struck me as rich and over-privileged. I'm talking about the wives of high-ranking military officers and diplomats—the sort of people with incomes that placed them in a lofty tax bracket. These wives had done little to nothing to gain their social status; they had, for the most part, ridden onto the scene upon the coattails of their husbands, but they still conducted themselves with the haughty arrogance of people who felt their station in life was some sort of birthright. I could never understand what my mother saw in such a crowd; our family was "middle middle class," as they say; we were far from poor, but we also didn't live in a McMansion or anything bigger.

For years, and even to this day, I've had trouble relating to that rich crowd, and if I'm honest with myself, I think I'm actively prejudiced against them. Whenever I hear stories of young, twenty-something L.A. gyopos living it up on their parents' money—skating through school and having everything handed to them in life (even their sharp intellects come as a genetic gift, utterly unearned)—I snarl in disgust. These rich idiots follow a life-pattern laid out for them by their parents and their parents' culture. They aren't self-aware enough to see how little say they have in their own lives, how inauthentic their existences are.

So how on earth am I supposed to relate to a romantic comedy like "Crazy Rich Asians," directed by Jon Chu and starring the talented Constance Wu and Henry Golding? This movie is about a demographic that I actively despise, although the movie's protagonist is Rachel Chu, a young, self-made economics professor from a relatively modest background (Wu). How can I relate to palatial, labyrinthine mansions and vast, manicured properties worth over $200 million, and high-society global movers and shakers who are basically born into (and trapped by) their dynasties and destinies?

And yet... the movie did kind of grow on me as I became more involved with the story. This was helped along by hilarious performances—the funniest coming from two actors with Korean backgrounds: singer Awkwafina (watch her SNL monologue here; she's actually of Chinese/Korean stock) and comic thesp Ken Jeong (actually, it's Doctor Ken Jeong, if you please: he has an MD in internal medicine, but he no longer practices).

The story begins in the 1990s. Eleanor Young (Michelle Yeoh) has come to England with her family to stay at a hotel. The stiff English hotel staff see the Asian family and attempt to shoo the Youngs away by claiming the hotel is booked. It turns out that Eleanor Young is the wife of Singaporean tycoon Philip Young, who has just bought that very hotel, thus making Mrs. Young "the lady of the house."

Flash-forward to 2018, and Rachel Chu is the youngest new faculty member at NYU, an economics professor with an interest in the psychological side of game theory (this will prove important later as Rachel navigates the treacherous waters of Chinese-Singaporean family politics). Rachel has been dating the handsome, British-accented Nick Young (Golding) for over a year, and Nick suddenly wants to take Rachel to Singapore to meet his family; he's also to be the best man at his best friend Colin's wedding. Rachel, hesitant at first, says yes, but when she peppers Nick with questions about his family, he becomes suspiciously reticent.

The flight to Singapore proves to be the first in a series of shocks for Rachel: she and Nick fly in a super-luxurious first-class cabin, and Rachel deduces that Nick comes from money. Arriving at the airport, Nick and Rachel are met by Nick's bestie Colin (Chris Pang) and his fiancée Araminta (Sonoya Mizuno), who greet Nick and Rachel warmly, then take them out to an enviable dinner of seafood and satay in a popular street-food district. Rachel eventually meets up with her quirky college friend Peik Lin (Awkwafina) and Peik Lin's equally quirky family, including Peik Lin's father Goh Wye Mun (Jeong), who is a bit of an asshole, but in a way that lacks malice. When Peik Lin and family find out that Rachel is essentially dating Singaporean royalty, they flip out, and Peik Lin insists on accompanying Rachel to one of the Youngs' parties. Peik Lin also warns Rachel that they will be entering a high-society shark tank where Rachel will not be welcomed by everyone.

The time comes for Rachel to meet Nick's mother, none other than the intimidating, dignified, and haughty Eleanor Young, whom we met in the film's opening scene at the hotel. Eleanor takes an immediate dislike to Rachel, and for the rest of the movie, it's game on (see? I told you game theory would be relevant) between two women of strong will. This is a romantic comedy, so there are hijinks and shenanigans along the way, but the movie also dips its toes into some serious issues, both cultural and intercultural. We meet Nick's cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan), a famous fashion designer who is also known for her heart of gold, but whose insecure husband (Pierre Png), a man of lower economic standing, has been cheating on her. We meet some of Nick's other friends and relations, including Amanda (Jing Lusi), Nick's ex-girlfriend, who isn't against slipping a verbal dagger between the ribs as a way of sowing chaos between Nick and Rachel, whom some of the Singaporean elite view as a gold-digger.

Because "Asians" is a rom-com, it does, of course, follow the standard beats of boy-has-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-regains-girl—but it does so without the focus being primarily on the male half of the couple. The ending is about as boilerplate as you can imagine, making it utterly predictable. Romantic comedies tend to be so formulaic, in fact, that judging them often requires looking at factors other than story structure, e.g., the quality of the acting and the nature of the humor, which can vary from dark to Disney. All in all, I came away with some grudgingly positive feelings for a movie that focuses on the lives of a demographic that I passionately hate. The script manages to slip in a joke about K-pop girls being too skinny, underfed, and fake-looking; I appreciated that. Constance Wu does a fine job as our protagonist, and Michelle Yeoh is positively daunting as the imposing matriarch who nevertheless feels genuine love for her son. "Crazy Rich Asians" provides us with plenty of major and minor conflicts, but no character in the film is truly evil; at worst, some people are simply assholes, and the script is smart enough—in some if not all cases—to give us reasons for why they are the way they are. Watch "Crazy Rich Asians" with my blessing; you'll find it entertaining if not particularly deep—an Eastern version of a Tyler Perry dramedy.


  1. Have you seen "Searching"? It's a real shame that this great film that got lost in the "Crazy" wake because John Cho is deserving of an Oscar nod in this current-day thriller.

  2. I think it's already left Korean theaters. I've been wanting to see it because it got rave reviews from two reviewers I respect, but I think I'm going to have to wait for it to come out on video.



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