Singapore’s back in the limelight. The stars, however, have changed. Move over President Trump and Chairman Kim Jong-Un. The movie Crazy Rich Asians may have more staying power than a dictator’s promises or U.S. sanctions.
It’s still summer and it’s still sizzling, at least where I live. Who wouldn’t want to sit in front of a big screen and see a gorgeous-looking, fast-paced romantic comedy with two irresistible leads?
Rachel Chu is an economics professor at NYU, and she and boyfriend Nick Young have been happily together for a year. With Spring Break approaching, he asks her to come with him to Singapore for his best friend’s wedding. He’d also like to introduce her to his family. Why wouldn’t she say yes. She has no idea how rich he is, but she’ll soon find out. And although she’s a Chinese-American, she was raised by a single mother in Queens and has never set foot in Asia, the sprawling continent that includes the small island-nation of Singapore. Her first glimpse of the Changi Airport astonishes: “Changi has a butterfly garden and a movie theater? JFK just has salmonella and despair.” The future groom and bride seem like regular people in their jeans and t-shirts, and the two couples spend their first evening together dining on mouth-watering Asian offerings at an open air food hall. Turns out this same laid-back Singapore couple will marry in a $40 million extravaganza later in the week. But first up for Rachel is reconnecting with her college roommate, who’s been begging her to visit. Peik Lin still lives at home, but, oh my, what a place! Her family isn’t crazy rich–at least not by Singapore standards. It’s Peik Lin who breaks the news to Rachel that Nick is the treasured son of one of Singapore’s oldest and most prominent families. Which also makes him the most eligible bachelor in the country. Rachel will soon be dealing with a jealous ex-girlfriend, snarky Singaporeans, and most importantly, Nick’s disapproving mother. Or is it Nick’s grandmother who’s calling the shots?
Crazy Rich Asians was #1 at the box office last weekend, when it was released in the United States. That’s an especially big deal for a Hollywood film with an all-Asian cast that’s set in the present day. The first and last time Hollywood made a film like that was twenty-five years ago, when Amy Tan’s novel The Joy Luck Club made the big leap to the big screen. The Joy Luck Club explores the relationships of four Chinese women and their Chinese-American daughters, stories told over games of mahjong. It’s a very different plot than the one that drives Crazy Rich Asians, which is based on Kevin Kwan’s 2013 best-selling novel, followed by two more books that made it a trilogy. To be honest, before seeing the film, I’d never been tempted to read the novel. My best-guess about the book was that it involved over-the-top displays of wealth and a soap opera-plot. There were many other books I’d prefer to read–and not enough time to fit them all in. But that’s not a diss against the novel I never read. Without that novel there wouldn’t be this movie, and here’s what I love most about it:
Rachel and Nick are great characters. They’re funny and smart; they’re also charming and adorable together. It would be a pity if their different backgrounds destroyed their shot at a long-term relationship, a potentially very happy marriage. At the same time, Nick loves and appreciates his family and would prefer not to alienate them. Working all this out is a clever piece of writing–and filmmaking–and it made me love and respect Rachel and Nick even more than I did at the start.
I’m still not planning to read the novel, but I have spent quite a few hours reading about the making of the movie and watching interviews with the director and some of the cast. This movie, in essence, is all about the American Dream, even though most of it takes place in Singapore. Rachel’s struggling immigrant mother worked hard so her daughter could go to college and build whatever life she desired, to become a first generation American living the dream. For Asian-Americans watching the film, it’s a chance to see a story about people who look more-or-less like they do (maybe minus the diamond tiara) and to think, yes!, I’m part of the American story and other Americans are paying money to see it and seem to be enjoying it as much as we are. For the director, 38-year-old Asian-American Jon M. Chu, making this film was like playing a perfect game of mahjong. He wasn’t playing not to lose, he was playing to win. He’d made a number of other movies–many with a dance theme–but none about Asians, and none as big as this one. He had offers from Netflix and Warner Brothers, and he went with Warner Brothers (which just announced there will be a sequel.) As he told Deadline/Hollywood, “If this can crack the door a little bit so that other stories can be told, and it spawns a resurgence in these stories getting shown at the highest levels possible–I would love to have this.”
There’s a lot of money in Singapore, but not everyone is crazy rich. That’s been one criticism of the film. But Chu has said Hollywood studios are standing by, watching to see if Crazy Rich Asians is a big hit. If it is, they’ll be green-lighting other films like this that tell different kinds of stories.
America is a melting pot. Most Americans’ family trees started in other countries. We people are the sum of our stories. We all want to see ourselves reflected in books and films. We want to be recognized and acknowledged for what and who we are. We want others to understand our joys and sorrows and to weep over our tragedies and successes. Americans are good at making movies. Let’s keep going.