Food for the Soul: Crazy Rich Asians

“Rachel Chu: So your family is rich?
Nick Young: We’re comfortable.
Rachel Chu: That is exactly what a super-rich person would say.”

~ Dialog from the movie Crazy Rich Asians

By Nina Heyn, Your Culture Scout

You don’t need statistics to enjoy a comedy but here it is anyway. There are 637 billionaires in Asia, 594 out of them in China alone. They are often young and they became so rich within the last 10-20 years. What better way of pointing this financial fact out than through a romantic comedy that is now lighting up screens across the U.S.

Crazy Rich Asians is a romantic tale about Rachel (Constance Wu), a New York professor of economics who has been dating a handsome history professor Nick Young (Henry Golding) and who suggests that they visit his family while attending a wedding in Singapore. What he neglects to mention is that his family is rich. Crazy rich. Rachel discovers that in the private suite of a first-class cabin and soon after landing her friends make her aware that she has entered an entirely different, private world of billionaires. From the point of view of a sensible Rachel things get even worse – Nick’s family owns a big chunk of Singapore and he is expected to take his place in the family empire. As a middle-class Asian-American (“you are like a banana – yellow on the outside and white on the inside” says her best friend), Rachel is not what this family needs. This is brought to her attention in no uncertain terms by Nick’s mother (Michelle Yeoh) – a formidable woman who runs the family with an iron hand holding a designer purse. Rachel has also a target on her back amongst the Singaporean socialite girls who all hope to marry the most eligible bachelor in town.

While this kind of story has been told before in movies ranging from Cinderella to Pretty Woman, from Pride and Prejudice to Roman Holiday and from Maid in Manhattan to Prince and Me, the importance of the movie is not so much in the story itself but how it is being told: with all-Asian cast for non-Asian audiences worldwide. In Hollywood, this is an exhilarating milestone.

Crazy Rich Asians is the first US movie featuring an all-Asian cast since Joy Luck Club came out in 1993. Asian Americans are buying out entire screenings, offering on social media to buy a ticket for anyone who wants to see this movie, and they are bringing their families or groups of friends even if they have not gone to see a movie in years. The director John M. Chu turned down a lucrative production offer from Netflix to ensure that the movie gets a proper wide theatrical release though Warner Bros. Social media is full of postings by various people of Asian descent whose sentiment is the same: “finally a Hollywood movie with Asian cast!” For anyone with Asian heritage but living outside Asia, this is like a breath of fresh air. Typically, a major US movie would have one or two Asian actors, cast either for some outstanding martial arts skills (e.g. Jackie Chan or Jet Li) or an exotic beauty (e.g. Fan Bing Bing or Zhang Zi Yi), or even a combination of both: beauty and martial skills (Michelle Yeoh). Crazy Rich Asians incites so much interest precisely because the entire cast is Asian, with principal roles given to Constance Wu- a comedy actress in the extremely popular TV show Fresh Off the Boat, Henry Golding- a Malaysian TV presenter debuting on big screen, Michelle Yeoh – the world famous and glamorous star of blockbusters and arthouse gems alike, Ken Jeyong – a popular American comedy actor, Lisa Lu – a marvelous doyenne of Asian American actors who starred in Joy Luck Club, Awkwafina -a popular rapper and actress last seen in Ocean’s Eight, and Gemma Chan – a British actress recently seen in the Sherlock TV show.

Moreover, the movie is a labor of love for the creators of this film who are of Asian-descent: writer Kevin Kwan, co-screenwriter Adele Lim and the director John M. Chu. Thanks to them, the movie is full of authentic-feeling scenes of some distinctive rituals of most of the Chinese households. One is a game of mah-jong with its traditional way of building and distributing the wall of tiles and even though these days tiles are made of plastic (in the olden days they used to be made of ivory or bone with bamboo backing) they still make a delightful clacking sound when the tiles as shuffled. The game in the movie has been staged to reflect a power play between Rachel and Nick’s mother who are exchanging subtle messages of family sacrifice and duty. Another ritual is a tradition of the whole family making holiday dumplings where everyone has their own way of pinching the dough, everyone has their own favorite filling, and even the young kids are encouraged to participate.

These traditional customs are mixed with thoroughly modern and global pursuit of latest designer fashion and fun in exotic locations. Filmed in Singapore and Malaysia, locations highlight the incredible skylines, harbor views, luxury resorts and vacation islands. This being a story of the crazy rich, there is no lack of high couture gowns (check out Michelle Yeoh’s Valentino gown or Gemma Chan’s pink dress from Dior), many-carat jewels (the most important prop in the movie is Yeoh’s own emerald ring) and one-of-a-kind handbags. Since the real ultra-rich crowds would not be caught dead in any off-the rack outfits, the visuals in this movie are at whole another level as far as the fashion quotient goes. The Devil may wear Prada but Asian billionaire daughters often wear things much more exclusive than that.

Asia new riches brought in a whole new level of a global demand for luxury goods, even if recent tax scandal around the Chinese stars salaries has made things a bit difficult for international luxury brands. Even if the comedy setting is an artistic exaggeration, the core message rings very true. The age of Asian consumer has arrived and it will dictate commerce activities, entertainment trends, marketing behaviors and financial markets for years to come. What better and more pleasant way to observe this new world than through the light and colorful world of Crazy Rich Asians.

The film has opened to almost $35M in the U.S. with a high per screen average and a strong word of mouth. For a movie that is making such a stir in Hollywood, a sequel will not be far behind. Kwan wrote two more books in the series, populated with celebrity internet bloggers, scheming society ladies and powerful tycoons from the mainland. Personally, I am voting to invite for sequels all the great Chinese stars that graced various Hollywood movies in the last few decades such as Jackie Chan, Chow Yun Fat, Jet Li and Donnie Yen, Joan Chen and Maggie Cheung or even 89-year-old James Hong.

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