In 2018, there were a handful of movies that I was anticipating – ‘Crazy Rich Asians‘ was near the top of the list because I was desperate for a film that wasn’t led entirely by white actors. When I found out that it would be the first film in over two decades to feature an all-Asian cast, my interest was piqued, and I tore through the trilogy of books over the course of a week. It was the kind of story that I wanted to know inside and out before I settled into the movie theater. Suffice it to say, it was one of my all-time favorite movies in 2018 (we all know the big film that came out that year, no need to compare them). Yet, when I settled into the movie theater for ‘Crazy Rich Asians‘, it was the moment for me. The love story was enticing, the characters felt rich and real, and the setting was beautifully exemplified in each and every shot. Sometimes, you really can have it all.
Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) is an enigma to the greater Asian community, to them, she is obviously an ABC (American-born Chinese), and the context of her story is unimportant to them because of one simple reason. She’s dating Nick Young (Henry Golding in his acting debut), and unbeknownst to her, he is the heir apparent to one of the largest fortunes in Singapore. Michelle Yeoh plays the cool, disapproving mother Eleanor Young, and she is certain that no woman is good enough for her son (mind you that they cut a minor subplot where she reintroduced Amanda Ling, played by Jing Lisu who does wonders in her brief role) and, based on a series of inconvenient miscommunications believes that Rachel is with Nick for his inheritance. She is determined to expose the “gold digger” for who she is, and in the process uncovers some unsettling family secrets that Rachel was unaware of.
Beneath the glitz and glamor of the Singaporean elite, however, lies the same drama and problems that families of all socioeconomic statuses can understand. A cheating husband, a strained marriage, and familial political dynamics – all of it serve as the backbone of this fun rom-com that strives to play the familiar structure straight while also throwing in a lot of parties and a lot of casual displays of wealth. The film uses this in order to address racism in its opening minutes. When the Young family arrives at a hotel in London for which they have booked the largest suite, they are turned away and told to find accommodation in Chinatown. Not even allowed to use the hotel’s phone as a courtesy in the middle of a thunderstorm, Eleanor Young huddles in a phone booth, calls her husband, and purchases the entire hotel in less time than it takes most of us to order a pizza.
Awkwafina plays Rachel’s old college roommate, Peik Lin, and provides a lot of comedy alongside Nico Santos as Oliver T’sien. Peik Lin’s family are not, by any means, new money, but compared to the long-established Young family, their gold mansion is garish – but I am here for it. Gemma Chan portrays Astrid Leong-Teo who, married to Pierre Png’s Michael Teo, hides her spending from her husband because he is nowhere near as wealthy as she is, as he is so kind to remind her with half of his dialogue. Chris Pang plays Colin Khoo, Nick’s best friend, and the groom at the center of the wedding that has drawn the elusive Nick back home to Singapore. Set to marry Araminta (played by Sonoya Mizuno), much of the detail surrounding their characters are excised from the novel, specifically the fact that Colin is bipolar (a defining aspect of his character that I was disheartened wasn’t included). Other supporting characters, who have much larger roles in succeeding books are boisterous rich fool Bernard Tai (Jimmy O. Yang), former adult film actress Kitty Pong (Fiona Xie) the girlfriend of Nick’s cousin, Alastair (played by Remy Hii in the same year he played a high school student in Spider-Man Far From Home). Another supporting player is Ronny Chieng (From The Daily Show) as Eddie Cheng, Ken Jeong as Goh Wye Mun, who is Peik Lin’s father, and Tan Kheng Hua as Kerry Chu, Rachel’s mother – whose past is critical to the overarching storyline in the trilogy.
This film, as the previous paragraph indicates, has a large ensemble of characters, many of whom are related to one another, and almost all of whom are crazy rich. That aspect of the film, and the book, is what makes it so alluring. By having a large cast, the film disallows the use of stereotypes and lets us as the viewer see a group of people not typically represented in media be seen. As an adaptation, it also has to pick and choose what parts of the book are the most critical to tell a compelling story, by relying on the source material it was able to tell that story thoroughly and deeply. Changes that were made allow for a richer storyline – and since a good portion of it involves detailed descriptions of the lavish parties, clothes, cars, and jewels, it was able to cut to the heart of the story.
The love story between Rachel Chu and Nick Young is the most important plot point, and the characters who orbit around it are able to still have their stories told in a way that doesn’t diminish their overall importance. This book, as many more have in recent years, features a long list of viewpoint characters, akin to a movie already, it made adapting the book to film an easier process. The director and scriptwriter didn’t have to guess what other characters were doing during certain portions of the story while other lead characters were taking up the screen. We know what’s happening because the book takes care to tell us, giving the film all the more material to play around with.
Shang Su Yi, the matriarch of the Young Family, greatly favors Nick over all of her other grandchildren – and her own children at times – and while she is not in much of the film, she provides the true obstacle between Nick and Rachel having a true, long-lasting relationship. It is Su Yi that Eleanor seeks to get on her side in order to rid Rachel of her sight, and while the subplot that leads to it happens entirely off-screen in the movie, its exclusion is not to its detriment. In fact, having them not hunt down the information personally only further serves to prove how “crazy rich” they all are – why do something yourself when you can pay somebody to do it for you?
One of the standouts in the film is, unsurprisingly, Gemma Chan’s Astrid. As one of the few characters to have a major plotline running throughout this film (and truly each book), she is given prominence in the film. Her kindness and compassion are on display from the get-go, making Michael’s potential infidelity and insecurities a harder excuse to accept in any way, shape, or form.
On the other hand, Eleanor’s relationship with Nick’s father is not featured on screen, but the fact that they live in different hemispheres speaks volumes. Both relationships act as potential versions of the future that Rachel and Nick could have if the toxicity of the crazy rich life were to take hold of their relationship. Rachel is most certainly not with Nick for his money, but therein lies another flaw in their relationship. Nick never told Rachel that he came from a wealthy family, let alone how wealthy they are – robbing her of the chance to choose him for him, but more importantly not adequately preparing her for the situation she was going to walk into. Ultimately, it works out in their favor in the first film.
The only real change that the film made, on the off chance that it didn’t get a sequel, was how it ended. A more uplifting finale in comparison to the book’s more somber one was crafted. Now, almost four years after Crazy Rich Asians hit theaters, work has officially begun on China Rich Girlfriend, and I will be there on opening night.