(Rated: PG [Canada] and PG-13 [MPAA] for some suggestive content and language; directed by Jon M. Chu; stars Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Gemma Chan, Lisa Lu, Awkwafina, Ken Jeong, Pierre Png, Kheng Hua Tan, Sonoya Mizuno, Chris Pang; run time: 120 min.)
Asian-centered romantic comedy has positive message
by Ted Giese
Years ago, Michelle Yeoh starred in a critically-acclaimed film with an all-Asian cast, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000). Moviegoers may be reminded of that movie when watching this year’s celebrated romantic comedy “Crazy Rich Asians,” in which Yeoh plays a supporting role as the protective mother of the male lead Nick Young (Henry Golding).
Nick is in love with NYCU economics professor Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) but has kept an important detail about his life from her: he is a “crazy rich Asian” from a premier family in Singapore. When he asks her to accompany him to Singapore for the wedding of his best friend Colin Khoo (Chris Pang) to his fiancee Araminta Lee (Sonoya Mizuno), he launches Rachel on a journey of self-discovery, leading her to confront her anxieties about her relationship with Nick and his family and her place in the world as an Asian-American woman.
As a romantic comedy about a wedding, “Crazy Rich Asians” is more accessible to a North American audience than a period piece such as “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” It is also filmed almost entirely in English, although the cast is almost exclusively Asian.
In an interview with Jon Turteltaub, “Crazy Rich Asians” director Jon M. Chu, himself a second-generation Asian immigrant, explained his desire to make a film that both celebrated Asian culture and bridged Asian and Asian-American experiences. This desire is reflected throughout the film.
One example of this intercultural consciousness is the film’s use of popular Western music sung with Chinese lyrics, reflecting the intersection of the two different cultures. Such intersections can be a challenging topic to address, especially in a lighthearted rom-com (romantic comedy), but Chu handles the issue well.
At one point in the film, the word “banana” is used to describe someone who is “yellow” on the outside and “white” on the inside. This moment, while initially highlighting Rachel’s personal struggle, is poignantly echoed during the credits through the use of a lilting cover of Coldplay’s “Yellow” by Katherine Ho.
Chu wanted the song in the film because of his own complicated relationship with the word “yellow” and its historically negative racial implications. In a letter to Coldplay, Chu wrote, “The color [yellow] … always had a negative connotation in my life … until I heard your song.”
In an interview with the The Hollywood Reporter, he said, “We’re going to own that term. … If we’re going to be called yellow, we’re going to make it beautiful.” While Coldplay’s “Yellow” is not itself about race, Chu’s use of the song in the film reframes the somewhat ambiguous romantic lyrics in a new context.
An exploration of identity
Questions of racial, ethnic and cultural identity are woven into the narrative fabric of “Crazy Rich Asians” at a fundamental level. In addition to her biculturalism, Rachel is also poor in comparison to Nick and his family.
As she navigates the waters of Nick’s affluence, she comes to realize that something she sees as a strength is something that Nick’s family sees as a weakness: her upbringing by a single mother with no close relatives, as compared to Nick’s intact family and vast network of tight-knit relatives.
The contrast between their perspectives exemplifies the most important point of contention within the film: the American ideal of individualism and the pursuit of happiness versus the Asian ideal of sacrifice, respect, honor and devotion to family. As a result of these conflicting ideals, Nick’s mother Eleanor sees her son’s love for Rachel as the potential ruination of the Young family, as Nick is set to take over the family business.
Christian characters and Christian values
Christian audiences may want to discuss the portrayal of the character Eleanor, as she is a Christian herself. In one scene, she leads a women’s Bible study with her close family and friends, reading Col. 3:1-2: “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.”
The scene also refers to Eph. 6:4: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”
Eleanor’s Christian beliefs contribute to many of her actions in the film, such as her refusal to let her son sleep with his girlfriend under the family roof. While this moral tenacity may be admirable, Eleanor is also mean-spirited toward Rachel and tries to keep her and Nick apart, making Eleanor a somewhat villainous character.
While she eventually gives the couple her approval, Christians may find it disappointing that a character explicitly shown to be Christian ends up coming off as somewhat cruel and backward and must compromise in the face of romantic love for the film to have a happy ending.
In the end, Rachel realizes she must outmaneuver her potential mother-in-law and not back down if she wants to succeed in her relationship with Nick. She seems to follow the principle laid out in Phil. 2:3–4: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
By showing compassion and humility to Eleanor, Rachel helps convince her to compromise and approve of Rachel and Nick’s relationship. That is a bit of a spoiler, but every romantic comedy has a dramatic impasse that must be overcome about twenty minutes before the end of the film, and “Crazy Rich Asians” is no exception.
In this, and in many other ways, the film is a conventional rom-com. However, it exceeds expectations in its final message of being “kind and compassionate” to one another (Eph. 4:32), regardless of racial, cultural or social differences.
“Crazy Rich Asians,” shot largely in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, is one of the breakout surprise successes of 2018’s rather slow summer movie season, having already made $88 million in its third week on an estimated budget of $30 million.
It also went from eighth place in its opening weekend (Aug. 10–16) to first place, dethroning “The Meg” for two solid weeks (Aug. 17–30). This success makes “Crazy Rich Asians” the third number-one film set and/or shot in Asia to top the 2018 summer box office, after “The Meg” and “Skyscraper.”
China is the second-largest market for Hollywood films (not factoring in the rest of the Asian market), making success in Asia important to the North American film industry. With the success of these films, audiences can expect more movies seeking to bridge the North American and Asian film markets. As they present this new, globalized vision, filmmakers would do well to recognize Christianity as a religion transcending race, culture and ethnicity, as it has since Jesus said to his disciples, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15).
Rev. Ted Giese (email@example.com ) is lead pastor of Mount Olive Lutheran Church, Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, and movie reviewer for the “Issues, Etc.” radio program. Follow Pastor Giese on Twitter @RevTedGiese.
Posted Sept. 10, 2018