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Crazy Rich Asians: Kevin Kwan adaptation delivers Hollywood a blockbuster moment for representation on screen

Crazy Rich Asians: Kevin Kwan adaptation delivers Hollywood a blockbuster moment for representation on screen
25 Aug
1:13

Posted August 25, 2018 05:07:21

In the opening sequence of John Chu’s keenly anticipated screen adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s bestseller, Crazy Rich Asians, we find our heroine, a feisty economics academic named Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), in an upscale diner, sharing dessert with her bland but good-looking boyfriend, Nick Young (Henry Golding).

Rachel seems oblivious to it, but Nick has an aura of wealth. They’re watched from across the room by a smartly dressed young Asian woman who, after surreptitiously snapping them on her phone, sets in motion a chain of instant messaging that zips around the globe and tumbles down the screen in a cascade of brightly coloured multilingual shock. In a sequence that nods to the split-screen telephone montages of 1960s romantic capers in its design, the dazzling surface of Nick’s rarefied world is established.

Nick invites Rachel to his mate’s wedding in Singapore. Rachel, who has never visited an Asian country and is keen to experience a region that is part of her mythology, decides to go. But she soon discovers Nick belongs to one of Singapore’s old Peranakan families and is crazy rich. Alamak!

With money comes drama, and there are tests in store. Nick’s mother Eleanor, played with heart-breaking restraint by Michelle Yeoh, doesn’t think an American girl will have the wits to steer the next generation of the Young empire. There’s a minefield of unfamiliar social niceties to navigate, and Nick’s jealous ex, initially solicitous, is prepared to go to gruesome lengths to scare Rachel off.

It’s a familiar set-up for a cross-class romance, but screenwriters Adele Lim and Peter Chiarelli give the genre’s conventions nuance by digging into the differences between Rachel’s Chinese-American identity and Nick’s Chinese-Singaporean roots, and by ultimately making Rachel’s dual identity a strength.

This is gracefully done in the scene where Rachel meets Eleanor for the first time. Set amid a lavish party — which has at its crazy-rich pinnacle the unfurling of a rare night-blooming flower from South America — the meeting takes place in the bustling kitchen of Nick’s family mansion. As waiters prepare trays of Nyonya sweets — Klepon! Kuih Lapis! Seri Muka! — Nick introduces Rachel to Eleanor, hoping for her approval.

But the cultural differences between the two women quickly become clear. Rachel tries to impress, speaking eagerly about her academic accomplishments and independence, not realising Eleanor, also academically accomplished, chose to give up her career as a responsibility to her family. “Pursuing one’s passion,” Eleanor responds, “How American.”

The way the film explores the in-between position Rachel and many of the other young diasporic Asians in the film occupy — Asian-American, Anglo-Asian, Asian-Australian — is unique.

There’s been some criticism about the way the film focuses on a particular class of wealthy Singaporeans; there have also been comments about the fact there are many Chinese films that are full of Chinese actors.

But this film isn’t really about Singapore (the film’s version of the city-state is a fantasy world) or being Chinese; it’s about how it feels to be a Western person of Asian descent — and there is an enormous audience of people who are dying to see that explored in a Hollywood production.

When Nick and Rachel first arrive in Singapore, there’s a sequence that plays like an ad for a food travel show, but which accurately captures the weirdness of arriving somewhere you imagine you might belong, only to find it utterly and magically foreign.

It is thrilling to see a film with characters who look Asian but grew up in Western countries, who speak English with native-English accents, and whose pleasures and cultural touchstones come from their experience of being global citizens.

In an intimate scene between Nick and his friend Colin (played by Australian actor Chris Pang) Colin watches rugby on his iPad as they float in an idyllic cove. Educated at British boarding schools, the boys’ hobbies and passions are as British as they are Singaporean, and the film respects the authenticity of their chaotic cultural makeup.

Rachel’s narrative arc suggests holding a mixture of cultures within you is something that can make you wiser. At the film’s climax, neither cultural attitude wins. Rachel achieves her romantic-comedy goal of snagging the man through combining her Western independence with Chinese collectivist values — trusting she can be whole without Nick while showing she is capable of sacrificing her own desires for the good of those she loves.

Rachel is a quietly subversive, romantic-comedy heroine. Nick does not rescue her and it is her actions, not his, that ultimately lead to a union supported by Eleanor.

It felt important to me to see an Asian-American woman lead a conventionally structured Hollywood rom-com and I’m sure it will feel important for many young Asian-Western women.

With a string of funny, colourful (and sometimes scathing) set pieces — shout out to the moment when Ken Jeong crushes all the ridiculous accents he’s had to perform in his career — and a wedding that has to be seen to be believed, Crazy Rich Asians is a truly fun cinematic experience. There are great performances across the cast, and the lavish production design and costumes are both glamourous and outrageously over the top.

If you’re Asian-Australian, go and see this film — you will cry (I quite literally cried) with relief at seeing complex, sometimes unlikeable diasporic Asian characters that speak like you. If you’re not Asian-Australian? Go see it anyway, you might just have a good time.

Crazy Rich Asians screens nationally from August 30; previews at select cinemas from Aug 24-26.

Topics: arts-and-entertainment, film-movies, comedy-film, romance-films, film, popular-culture, community-and-society, singapore, united-states

Source: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-08-25/crazy-rich-asians-review-hollywood-blockbuster-representation/10155768

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