Review: Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

An important moment in representation in American film – and a genuinely good Rom-Com.

Michelle Yeoh is divine. End review.

… there’s actually a lot more worth discussing about Crazy Rich Asians, which manages to be both an important moment in representation in American film, and an Above-Average Rom-Com*.

*by that I mean: while it does the frothy work a Rom-Com is expected to, with occasionally cheesy dialogue and nonsensical setpieces, its romantic leads never resort to sociopathic or misogynistic behaviour, don’t court eachother by lying to one another, or have their love story framed or catalysed by an incredible, outlandish or flat-out ridiculous premise. Instead: this film’s distinguishing characteristic – its Asian-ness – both offers exotic settings for familiar tropes, and informs the central conflict of the story.

Everyone and everything in this film is beautiful, framed within a particularly female gaze. The camera lingers on sculpted male torsos, delicious dishes, high fashion and extravagant locations. there’s even a “pretty woman” trying-on-outfits montage, soundtracked by one of the many asian-language versions of english-language pop songs – all of which help to locate this all-Asian-cast film squarely and conservatively within the American rom-com genre.

while the rom-com-ness of the film demands a final scene between the lovers, I’d rather have seen another, final scene between Eleanor and Rachel

Within this generic framework, director Jon M. Chu finds plenty of opportunities for understatedly sophisticated visual storytelling. There are two in particular I really want to highlight.

The “Radio One Asia” montage

The motion design in this scene elegantly conveys how the gossip network particular to certain cultures functions: how certain news spreads like wildfire, and the class system that this supports and reinforces. In a matter of seconds, we are introduced to a world that protagonist Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) herself is yet to fathom.

The Mahjong scene

A beautifully inside gag for the culture, and yet from context clear enough to an outsider (like myself) to understand that Rachel has given Eleanor the winning block, then revealing she held the winning hand all along. It’s a character moment that’s both culturally-specific and universal. Rachel has grown, Eleanor has learned something about her, and the two women have been affected fundamentally. It’s a powerfully cinematic scene.

Jon M. Chu has reportedly said that scene could be the end of movie. and while the rom-com-ness of the film demands a final scene between the lovers, I’d rather have seen another, final scene between Eleanor and Rachel – one where Eleanor agrees to try, and where Rachel agrees to let her. That sort of arc for Eleanor is huge, and may take a lifetime to complete – and that’s a story far more interesting to watch, but which ends up as it is in this movie truncated at the point of exchanged glances at the final engagement party. I understand that, in its way, this may be a more elegant and eloquent way of saying exactly what I suggested they say more literally, but somehow I just wanted… more.

While hopefully the massive commercial success of Crazy Rich Asians ultimately kicks open the door for more Asian representation in Hollywood, it is, most immediately and perhaps importantly, a good time.

Further Viewing

Vanity Fair’s ‘Notes on a Scene’ series usually offers unique insights and commentary on production details in films. Crazy Rich Asians director Jon M. Chu is as entertaining as his film, primarily because his diagramming is less about the production itself, and more Pictionary to his anecdotes.