This is a movie based on a novel with the same name by Kevin Kwan. It is about cultural transitions in the Chinese diaspora, which, like our own Sub-continental one, is scattered across the globe, and generates enormous revenue and entertainment value, both for the ex-pats and for the home grown traditional people.
A boy with roots in an old and wealthy family from Singapore, falls in love in New York with an American born Chinese girl from a working class background. He decides to take her home, ostensibly to attend his best friend’s wedding, but actually to meet his difficult family, hoping to gain their acceptance of his new found love.
As a matter of fact, real billionaires in Singapore are low key families, who largely shun ostentation. In ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ they are shown as totally wild; at least the younger generation, partying till the end of their senses, and with every day treated as a holiday. This is part of the reason why the protagonist of the film, Nick Young (Henry Golding), is so embarrassed about his peers that he deliberately plays down the extent of his wealth to his NYU Economics Professor girlfriend, Rachel Chu (Constance Wu). When they get on the plane in New York and she discovers that they have a First Class suite booked for their long flight to Singapore, she is shocked. Even then, Nick mumbles something about his family being ‘comfortable’, and having business in real estate and the like.
In reality, the Youngs are one of the richest people in South East Asia, and Nick is the heir to a fortune. How does an Economics Professor who specialises in game theory, not have access to this important information about her own boyfriend?
But then, if she did, the film wouldn’t be the rom-com it is. ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ is a wildly extravagant film in its genre, with the Singapore party and wedding scene described like in a Baz Luhrmann movie, a multi-coloured extravaganza and display of eye popping wealth, with everyone on bling mode. This is odd when the overwhelming impression of the city state is of a people living in restraint and modesty, even though provided with every modern convenience.
At any rate, Rachel finds herself being described by the jet set as a ‘gold digger’, out to snare the billionaire. They hurt her, but they don’t really matter in her equation with Nick, who doesn’t think much of them anyway. But her struggle with the Young family, to be part of Nick’s life, does matter. She fights to find acceptance as a decent human being, a companion to their son and grandson, and an intellectual in her own right.
This lost battle is at the heart of the movie, and some of it is moving. Particularly interesting are the conversations in Mandarin, which cut through the veneer of English speaking American conformity, to get to the heart of the matter. From the Singaporean perspective, Rachel has no class, she is not one of them, and she does not belong. That sense of social and cultural affiliation seems to be proscribed arbitrarily by the Young family, particularly by Nick’s possessive mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), and his elegant grand-mother, Shang Su-Yi (Lisa Lu).
In this lost cause, Rachel, the scholar of game theory in Economics, invites Eleanor to a Mahjong parlour, to discuss her son. It is the most intricate scene in the film. While talking, they play a game of Mahjong, and each part of their conversation is synchronised to a symbolic and important part of the game. In the end, Rachel deliberately loses, saying, in effect, that she has sacrificed her lover and given him back to his family, because she believes in the institution of the Chinese family, and does not want to break it with her love.
But this is a rom-com and so it can’t have a loser in love, and it can’t even attempt to genuinely resolve social conflicts. Nevertheless, ‘Crazy Rich Asians’, in large parts, is enjoyable.