Once Upon a Time in Singapore | Crazy Rich Asians (2018) Review

Directed by Jon M. Chu
Starring Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh

Despite my best efforts, I was moved by this film. Granted, if you’ve read any of my coverage of Korean dramas, you know I’m a pretty easy mark. Crazy Rich Asians has a rocky start, pitched more toward comedy as we’re guided by a too-cute film language bordering on fourth wall breaks. Like, at any moment, Constance Wu is gonna look into the camera with an ironic “You’re probably wondering how I got here.” I suppose what I’m really thinking of is characters introduced with loud title cards, because they are introduced with voiceover and cutaways, and it’s a toss-up whether it’s an Asian or Asian-American celebrity who’s great or who totally sucks.

That’s my experience with having seen Crazy Rich Asians for the first time now five years later. Its own internal politics are irrevocably scratched by the external drama of Constance Wu’s implosion*, her alleged conflict with Gemma Chan, Awkwafina’s Black voice, and everyone else’s return to the general anonymity of being Asian in Hollywood. Except, of course, for Michelle Yeoh, whose star only burned brighter. All that said, it is cool to watch a movie where these stars share a number of ensemble scenes (I didn’t even know Sonoya Mizuno was in this), but in many cases, this movie is why they’re stars.

The resurgence of Asians in Hollywood has partially been about finding new contexts. Ke Huy Quan has his remarkable comeback story that would feel like more of an indictment of the audience if he weren’t so damn lovable. It’s something I could totally see for Gedde Watanabe, though the substance of that comeback would invite a different conversation. Crazy Rich Asians fashions Michelle Yeoh into a villainous matriarch while elevating relative newcomers like Wu, Chan, and Henry Golding (far better here than with a dreadful accent in Snake Eyes). The third part of the representation triangle, then, is tapping into existing, mostly comedic talent, like Ken Jeong, Jimmy O. Yang, and Ronny Chieng (“comedic” being the intent, anyway).

So, it’s kind of up and down. Yeoh is reliable as always, though Gemma Chan’s playing the more complex wealthy character. And right there, that’s the heart of the problem. One might come for the “Asians” part of the title, but have to contend with the “Rich,” and while 2018 was ages ago, it was also two years into the Trump presidency (guy gets a shoutout in the film). While “eat the rich” has gone fully mainstream today – enough that, say, Seth Meyers talks about it on a late night talk show – I have to believe that people were mixed on this sort of thing back then. I mean, that’s when “rich” meant Kardashians more than Elon Musk: people who were comical and terrible, not people who were comical and the most terrible.

A lot of the movie is taken up by honestly impressive depictions of crazy rich Asians indeed, whether they’re flying to exotic island locations or touring massive hotels. And, well, I know that this is something moviegoers enjoy, the escapism to impossible luxury and the self-affirmation of witnessing terrible rich people that comes with it, but I need the third part of that, granted so long ago by the ABC show Revenge. With that absolutely chaotic soap opera, replete with ninjas and super-hackers, the terrible rich people were always framed by a specter of their downfall in the vengeful heroine. In Crazy Rich Asians, the rich people are always over the top, but their excess is only ever criticized when the main character feels out of place. Elsewhere, we have the subplot with Gemma Chan’s character, whose wealth is emasculating her husband, and she learns to stand up for herself. Driven by a pair of very human performances, it totally works when it really shouldn’t.

It’s a fairytale vision of the 1%, where everyone is beautiful inside and out, apart from some high school-level bullying, and there’s nary a lecherous old man – or any old men whatsoever? I mean, come on, guys, what do people with a lot of money do? Certainly nothing illegal or immoral or downright terrifying. It’s a testament to the filmmaking that I even have to remind myself it isn’t meant to be realistic, because it’s taken to with sensitive performances and convincing world-building. Director John M. Chu might be a little hyperactive, but he’s got a strong foundation. He knows how to lens an epic scene, and his sense for lighting and color animate the costumes and, of course, the food.

Crazy Rich Asians may be full of romcom cliches, right down to the gay best friend who helps the protagonist try on dresses with a judgmental finger ever aloft, but the more it commits to the well-worn template, the further it gets from the winking style and bad comedy. And I hope it’s well taken by this point that I did not want to like this movie. That’s always been important to me, for deeply unexamined reasons. Perhaps I was offended, as everyone eventually is, that this was “a movie for me,” with the presumption that Asian-America is my foremost concern or a concern at all. Hey, I don’t share into a universal experience, because my life is my own – a magnificent universe of untold depths. And yet, when male and female leads inevitably split and find their way back to one another as they have in thousands of past incarnations, I get that little twinge. Even a hapless, hateful movie critic like me appreciates a good love story, and that’s what this is – but no more! You know, thankfully.

*It’s the stance here at With Eyes East that Constance Wu was unfairly maligned for tweeting her discontent over her show’s renewal. No matter how famous or rich, she’s still an Asian woman in America, making her sharply vulnerable to the systems that emerge out of our collective complicity. I don’t ever want to hear that “it was a bad tweet, actually” or about how you don’t believe her for whatever it may be, or that she’s somehow problematic. Keep your receipts and move on.


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