Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings review

Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Cast : Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Meng’er Zhang, Tony Leung, Fala Chen, Florian Munteanu, Michelle Yeoh, Benedict Wong, Ronny Chieng
Genre: Action/Adventure
Run Time : 132 min
Opens : 1 September
Rating : PG13

We are now into Phase 4 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Post-Avengers: Endgame, it seemed like audiences would lose interest in the sprawling franchise, but while some have, there is still a lot to keep others invested. With TV series on Disney+ and many movies on the slate, the MCU is moving in various directions, one of those directions being the wuxia-inspired realm of Shang-Chi.

Shaun (Simu Liu) lives in San Francisco, working as a hotel valet alongside his best friend Katy (Awkwafina). Shaun hides a secret: he is actually Shang-Chi, the son of ruthless warlord Wenwu (Tony Leung). Armed with ancient artifacts called the Ten Rings, Wenwu has moved in the shadows for centuries. He had thought his endless need for conquest would come to an end after meeting Ying Li (Fala Chen) in the magical land of Ta Lo. Wenwu and Ying Li had two children, Shang-Chi and Xialing (Meng’er Zhang). However, tragedy brought Wenwu back to the violence of his past. Now, Shang-Chi must confront what he has spent half his life running away from, as he and Katy get drawn into an epic battle involving criminal empires, magical creatures and lots and lots of martial arts.

It is perfectly understandable that many audiences were apprehensive of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. After all, it’s very easy to cynically view this as solely a bid for Asian moviegoers’ money and nothing more. Also, there have been many films aimed at appealing to both Asian and American audiences that have faceplanted embarrassingly, including The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, Dragon Blade and The Great Wall.

Shang-Chi avoids practically all of those pitfalls.

This is an immersive, entertaining adventure that is largely bereft of the samey-samey feel which MCU movies can carry, and which plagued this year’s Black Widow to a certain extent. While there still is a reliance on the ‘chosen one’ origin story formula, Shang-Chi introduces myriad elements to the mix which we haven’t seen done quite like this before. Director Destin Daniel Cretton displays a healthy amount of reverence for classic wuxia movies. While purists will nitpick the action in this film, most of it is truly spectacular, choreographed beautifully and not shot with shaky-cam or hyper-edited to death. The late Brad Allan, who is the second unit director and supervising stunt coordinator on this film, was one of Australia’s top wushu athletes and a long-time member of Jackie Chan’s stunt team. There is every effort made to deliver beautiful action, and unlike in some MCU movies where it can feel like the action scenes are disjointed from the rest of the movie, everything flows well here. In addition to the martial arts-centric sequences, there’s an entertaining runaway bus setpiece that nods to 90s action films like Speed and The Rock.

While Simu Liu has a background as a stuntman and has trained in Taekwondo and Wing Chun, he sometimes feels like the least convincing fighter in the film. He has clearly worked very hard to learn and execute the choreography, but especially when compared to Arnold Sun, who plays Shang-Chi as a 14-year-old, it doesn’t fully feel like Shang-Chi has been training his entire life. Perhaps that can be explained away by how he has spent ten years in hiding.

A problem with many Marvel films and indeed many present-day action blockbusters is that the final action sequence is very heavily reliant upon CGI, and goes on for a bit too long, such that one is wont to tune out. Amusingly, the climactic battle revolves around closing a portal, something which the earlier Marvel movies have often been mocked for, but there is a bit of a twist put on it. Some may also roll their eyes at the “dead wife” motivation, but this reviewer feels it is a justified plot point here.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is shang-chi-awkwafina-ronny-chieng-simu-liu.jpg

Marvel Studios have typically been great at casting, and Shang-Chi is no exception. Simu Liu and Awkwafina are actors who might typically be relegated to playing sidekicks, and both step up to the leading roles very well. Liu has an earnestness to him and the early scenes of Shang-Chi and Katy hanging out make them seem like people whom we would want to be friends with.

Relative newcomer Meng’er Zhang displays excellent physicality and a convincing woundedness behind exterior strength as Xialing, who was always relegated to the sidelines while Wenwu focused on Shang-Chi. Zhang met her husband, action designer Yung Lee, on the set of the film. Florian Munteanu, who played Viktor Drago in Creed II, makes for an adequately intimidating henchman as Razorfist. Michelle Yeoh is elegant and has gravitas to spare, making a meal of some potentially unwieldy exposition. There’s also an appearance from an MCU character which is a great surprise if one doesn’t know they’re going to be in Shang-Chi.


Tony Leung is truly incredible. It was a valid concern that he would just be there for the sake of saying “we’ve got Tony Leung,” but the Wenwu part is a substantial one and is easily one of the greatest MCU villains yet, even though that is a low bar to clear. One of the big selling points of the film is that this is the venerable Hong Kong actor’s long-awaited Hollywood debut. Wenwu reminded this reviewer of Vincent D’onofrio’s Wilson Fisk in the Daredevil series: he does monstrous things, but we come to understand what made him this way. In his earliest comics appearances Shang-Chi was literally the son of Fu Manchu, and the movie addresses the outmoded orientalism inherent in the source material. The name “Wenwu” comes from the Chinese idiom 文武双全 (wén wǔ shuāng quán), roughly meaning “master of pen and sword,” reflecting how Wenwu is both an intellectual and physical force. Wenwu is a modified take on the Iron Man villain the Mandarin. The portrayal of the Mandarin in Iron Man 3 proved to be controversial, and that is acknowledged here in a clever way.

Representation is a tricky thing, because no one piece of media can speak for a multitude of communities. There are many East Asian communities and indeed many Chinese communities around the world, and Shang-Chi can’t be expected to tell everyone’s story. However, there is an effort made here to infuse a certain amount of authenticity into the story and especially the dialogue. When the characters speak in Mandarin Chinese, which they do roughly 40% of the time, it doesn’t feel like it’s been fed into Google Translate. It’s fun hearing someone say “I’ve eaten more salt than you have rice,” an expression commonly used by the older Chinese people to admonish the younger generation, in a Hollywood movie.

This is a story about identity and belonging. Shang-Chi has always been Asian-American: in the earliest comics, his mother was a blonde American woman. Shang-Chi’s hero’s journey centres on finding out who he really is and reckoning with his father, who put him through arduous training and moulded him into an assassin, but who ostensibly loves him. The relationships in the film are very well defined, and the audience quickly understands the underlying nature of each of the relationships: the friendship between Shang-Chi and Katy, the estranged sibling relationship between Shang-Chi and Xialing, the parental relationship between Wenwu and Shang-Chi and so on.

Summary: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a spectacular adventure. Never feeling like it’s too tied down to the now-labyrinthian MCU mythology, there is something refreshing to this even as it evokes the feeling of classic wuxia films. Simu Liu proves himself to be a worthy superhero, Awkwafina is more than just the funny sidekick, and Tony Leung is just magnificent as one of the best Marvel villains yet. Far more than just token representation for the sake of it, Shang-Chi is one of the most successful instances of a big-budget movie designed to appeal to international audiences without feeling like mere hollow pandering. Stay behind for one mid-credits scene and one post-credits scene, but you should know this by now.  

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Raya and the Last Dragon review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Don Hall, Carlos López Estrada
Cast : Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Sandra Oh, Benedict Wong, Izaac Wang, Alan Tudyk
Genre: Animation/Adventure/Comedy
Run Time : 114 min
Opens : 5 March 2021
Rating : PG

Disney Animation has drawn on stories from various regions as the basis for their films. With Raya and the Last Dragon, the House of Mouse goes a little mousedeer, telling a story inspired by the mythology of Southeast Asia.  

Dragons were the protectors of the mythical land of Kumandra, sacrificing themselves to save humanity when monsters called the Druun attacked, petrifying all in their path. Kumandra is divided into Heart, Talon, Fang, Spine and Tail, each land named for a different part of the dragon.

Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) is a warrior princess from the Heart kingdom, whose father Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) is training her to become the guardian of the Dragon Gem. Chief Benja attempts to broker peace between the disparate lands, but the Druun return and the conflict continues. As an adult, Raya finds and revives Sisu (Awkwafina), the last dragon. Raya and Sisu must unite the fractured pieces of the Dragon Gem to bring back all who were lost to the Druun. Along the way, Raya must face off with a figure from her past: the equally formidable Namaari (Gemma Chan), princess of the Fang Kingdom.  

Raya and the Last Dragon is gorgeously animated and the world of Kumandra is a visually captivating one. The details in the costumes and architecture are plentiful, and the effects animation, especially on the angry black mist that is the Druun, is exceptional. The hand-to-hand fight sequences are well choreographed and there is a genuine sense of thrilling adventure to the story.

The voice cast is also excellent, with Kelly Marie Tran bringing both steeliness and warmth to the part of Raya. Awkwafina’s rasp works well as the voice of an animated character and she plays the fish-out-of-water aspect of Sisu entertainingly. Daniel Dae Kim effortlessly essays calm authority, while Benedict Wong seems to be having the best time as Tong, a boisterous gentle (?) giant type. Boun (Izaac Wang), a kid entrepreneur who runs a shrimp congee restaurant out of a boat, is also a fun, likeable road movie side character.

The most interesting part of the film is the rivalry between Raya and Namaari, and the possibility that they might still find common ground with each other. Namaari is sufficiently different from your standard snarling Disney villain, and this reviewer feels not enough of the movie is about this relationship.

While watching Raya and the Last Dragon, it’s evident that there is a tension between making this something fresh and innovative, while also honouring the storied legacy of Disney animation, and fulfilling expectations associated with its most successful films. As such, Raya and the Last Dragon can sometimes feel tied down to Disney animated movie formula. There’s a plucky princess raised by a single father, and she goes on a quest accompanied by a comic relief sidekick (or two or three). Sticking to a formula isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and Raya breaks from formula in certain significant ways, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that the movie is still constrained by certain expectations associated with Disney animated movies.   

Tonally, there are moments that don’t quite work. This is a movie about a world and its inhabitants dealing with trauma and loss. However, it also wants to be light-hearted and appealing to children – hence characters like an adorable half-armadillo-half-pillbug named Tuk-Tuk (Alan Tudyk) who clearly exists to sell toys – not that we don’t want a Tuk-Tuk plushie.

Like the Dragon Gem, the story sometimes seems fragmented, and feels episodic the way many movies with a road trip structure do. Some of the dialogue is clunky, and several of the anachronistic jokes don’t work, including a moment when Raya proclaims, “bling’s my thing”. Several of Sisu’s jokes sound like improvisational riffs that Awkwafina came up with in the booth, and can be a little grating, but Sisu is generally likeable. Unfortunately, Sisu’s character design sticks out – typically, East Asian and Southeast Asian dragons are depicted with a maned head and a scaly body, but Sisu is entirely furry and doesn’t seem like she belongs stylistically.

Kumandra incorporates facets of Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Laos. For Raya and the Last Dragon, Disney assembled the Southeast Asia Story Trust comprised of experts in various fields, including an Indonesian linguist, a textile expert from the USC Pacific Asia Museum and a visual anthropologist. Head of Story Fawn Veerasunthorn is an artist of Thai descent, while co-writers Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim are of Vietnamese and Malaysian Chinese descent, respectively.

There is a desire here to tell a story that has a degree of authenticity, but “authenticity” is something that’s hard to measure empirically. As Moana did with Polynesian countries, Raya and the Last Dragon amalgamates and mashes up Southeast Asian countries to create the fictional Kumandra. While there is an overlap in the cultural traditions and mythologies of many Southeast Asian countries, residents of said countries would also generally prefer for others not to get one country confused with the other, and that creates a kind of paradox in telling a story that is inspired by a blend of cultures.

Watching Raya, it’s also hard not to think of the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender and the follow-up The Legend of Korra, which have thus far been western animation’s most successful attempts at creating fantasy worlds inspired by disparate Asian cultures. The world-building of Avatar seems more thought out than it is in Raya, but then of course the animated series had a lot more time to spend on that.

Summary: Raya and the Last Dragon sometimes struggles with telling a story that is authentic to the region from which it draws inspiration while also delivering what audiences expect from a Disney animated adventure, but it mostly succeeds in pulling off this balance. It may not be as revolutionary as Disney had hoped, but it is still a largely entertaining adventure that draws on rich storytelling traditions. Hopefully, filmmakers from varied backgrounds will continue getting the support they need in Hollywood to tell more stories from more places.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Farewell review

For F*** Magazine

THE FAREWELL

Director: Lulu Wang
Cast : Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo, Chen Han, Aoi Mizuhara
Genre : Drama/Comedy
Run Time : 100 mins
Opens : 3 October 2019
Rating : PG

Nora “Awkwafina” Lum has burst onto the scene in a big way. Starting out as a rapper, Awkwafina recently appeared in high-profile films like Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean’s Eight. She will next be seen in Jumanji: The Next Level, with roles in the live-action remake of The Little Mermaid and Marvel’s Shang-Chi lined up. Awkwafina is known for her brash, comedic onscreen persona, but it wasn’t long before she would get a tour de force dramatic showcase to prove her versatility as an actor. The Farewell is that showcase.

Billi Wang’s (Awkwafina) family moved from China to the US when she was six. Billi has been struggling to make it as an artist and moves back in with her parents Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Jian (Diana Lin). They tell Billi that her paternal grandmother ‘Nai Nai’ (Zhao Shuzhen) has been diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. However, the extended family has made a pact to hide this from Nai Nai, so she can live out her remaining months without worry. Under the pretences of a wedding between cousin Hao Hao (Chen Han) and his girlfriend Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), the family reunites in Changchun to see Nai Nai one last time. Billi wrestles with the dilemma of whether she should tell her beloved Nai Nai the truth, as she is confronted with the realities of Chinese traditions and societal expectations after having lived in the US for most of her life.

The Farewell is a remarkable piece of storytelling – moving, involving and gently funny without being overwrought. Writer-director Lulu Wang has a fantastic ear for dialogue and a confident yet light directorial hand, creating a film that is filled with relatable scenarios and yet has a specificity to it that only someone with that cultural background could bring to the movie. Wang was fiercely protective over keeping most of the dialogue in Mandarin Chinese, against the wishes of the studio for the movie to be in English or to be a broad comedy. Tonally, Wang keeps everything just right – it’s just the right amount of sad, the right amount of funny, and no incident or interaction is superfluous. This is how one does family drama. The device of the big secret that the family is keeping from Nai Nai adds to the dramatic tension and serves as a focal point.

Perhaps it’s an exigency of movies about big family gatherings, but naturally not everyone gets equal amounts of characterisation or screen time. The character that suffers the most from this is Aiko, who has practically no lines. As the biggest outsider, things must be the most confusing for Aiko, who has been dragged to a pseudo-wedding because her boyfriend’s grandmother is dying but nobody is going to tell her. This reviewer would like to have seen Billi and Aiko share a moment.

Awkwafina is brilliant as Billi, bringing a raw, beautiful honesty to the part while also displaying her comedic instincts when the story calls for it. Tzi Ma, who is often given thankless bit parts in Hollywood, creates a sympathetic character in Billi’s father. The film contrasts Billi’s relationship with her father and that with her mother without putting too fine a point on it. Zhao Shuzhen’s turn as Nai Nai is confident and brimming with warmth; the affection between Billi and Nai Nai is utterly, heart-achingly believable.

Part of why The Farewell feels so authentic is because Lulu Wang drew inspiration from an incident in her own life, when her own grandmother was diagnosed with cancer and her family decided to keep it a secret from her. She first told this story in an episode of the podcast This American Life, which garnered the attention of film producers. Lulu shares a lot in common with the character Billi, including moving from China to the US with her family at age 6. Much of The Farewell was filmed in Changchun, which is where Wang’s family is from. Further adding to the verisimilitude is that Lu Hong, who portrays Billi’s grandaunt “Little Nai Nai”, is Wang’s real-life grandaunt.

The Farewell is another good example of why more filmmakers from different backgrounds and with different life experiences should be given the opportunity to make movies. Writer/director Wang demonstrates a sensitivity and a sense of humour about questions of identity and of the immigrant experience, which itself covers a wide spectrum. Drawing inspiration from the specificities of her life, Wang creates something that can reach a wide audience regardless of their cultural background. The exceedingly positive critical reaction to this film is more than deserved.

Summary: The Farewell is a touching portrait of family that asks poignant questions about cultural values and identity without being either dull or histrionic. Writer-director Lulu Wang firmly establishes herself as a talent to watch, with star Awkwafina showing off impressive dramatic chops while still being appealingly funny.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Crazy Rich Asians movie review

CRAZY RICH ASIANS

Director : Jon M. Chu
Cast : Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Gemma Chan, Awkwafina, Ken Jeong, Koh Chieng Mun, Chris Pang, Sonoya Mizuno, Pierre Png, Selena Tan, Nico Santos, Janice Koh, Remy Hii, Harry Shum Jr., Fiona Xie, Carmen Soo, Jimmy O. Yang
Genre : Comedy/Drama/Romance
Run Time : 120 mins
Opens : 22 August 2018
Rating : PG-13

Crazy Rich Asians, the film adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s 2013 novel of the same name, has arrived on the big screen. There are many hopes pinned on this film, which has generated its share of controversy and backlash from its earliest stages of development. Let’s head to sunny Singapore and break all this down.

The film centres on Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), a Chinese-American economics professor at NYU who has found the love of her life: the dashing Nicholas Young (Henry Golding). Nick is heading back home to Singapore for the wedding of his best friend Colin (Chris Pang) to his fiancé Araminta (Sonoya Mizuno). Nick suggests that Rachel come along and meet the family. What could possibly go wrong?

What Nick’s been hiding from Rachel all this time is that he is the heir to the wealthiest family in Singapore. Naturally, Rachel earns the ire and extreme jealousy of all the eligible society bachelorettes who thought they stood a chance with Nick. Rachel faces the condescension and rejection of Nick’s mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh). Rachel seems attacked on all sides, getting way in over her head. In her corner is her college friend Peik Lin (Awkwafina), who hails from a wealthy Singaporean family too. Rachel also has her loving mother Kerry (Tan Kheng Hua), who immigrated to the U.S. from China, supporting her. Rachel navigates the treacherous waters of Singaporean high society, as she faces questions of identity, self-worth, and whether Nick is worth all this trouble.

On the surface, Crazy Rich Asians is a frothy romantic comedy of manners. It’s a fish out of water story and is naturally being sold on its depictions of decadence, opulence, indulgence, and other things ending in -ence. There’s a lot more to Crazy Rich Asians than first appears – the story means to examine status, the true value of material wealth, the classification of people as ‘outsiders’ or ‘insiders’ – themes that have been explored before, but not in the context of Singapore’s sphere of affluence in a major Hollywood studio film.

There’s a lot of baggage that has been piled onto this movie, whether it deserves that or not. Hollywood is looking for more representation – or more cynically, to get credit for representation. Being the first Hollywood movie with a predominantly Asian cast since The Joy Luck Club back in 1993, many are looking to Crazy Rich Asians as a triumph for representation and diversity in mainstream Hollywood movies.

This is a film that will mean different things to different people – it’s important to note that the film’s protagonist is Chinese-American, and we see things from her perspective. The questions of her identity are framed by her encountering her boyfriend’s Singaporean family. The film has been decried by several Singaporeans for being an inaccurate portrayal of the island nation. Ethnic minorities like Malays and Indians are nowhere to be found, and nearly everyone speaks in posh English or brash New York-ish accents.

This reviewer would argue that Crazy Rich Asians does not have a responsibility to depict all of Singapore, nor should it be taken as a film about Singapore. Its focus on a tiny slice of Singapore society may come across as narrow, but the circumstances specified by the story justify this depiction. This reviewer would love to see Singapore depicted in all its facets in a Hollywood film – that’s not the goal of Crazy Rich Asians, nor does it mean to be, but the frustration at a skewed version of Singapore being presented for consumption worldwide is understandable.

Crazy Rich Asians falls victim somewhat to ‘have your cake and eat it too’ syndrome. This is going to be a weird example but bear with us: the 2009 sci-fi action film Gamer wanted to be an indictment of the mass-consumption of overly violent, crass media, while being an example of the very thing it is attempting to satirise. Crazy Rich Asians does this for the lifestyles of the uber-wealthy. We’re meant to question the ultimate intangible worth of having a lot of stuff and having every whim catered to, just as we’re meant to gaze upon tableaus of ridiculous luxury with voyeuristic pleasure. There is an undeniable novelty factor, however slight, at the thought that audiences in Des Moines, Iowa might walk into the multiplex and see Newton Hawker Centre and Gardens by the Bay on the big screen.

Director Jon M. Chu, who has a background in dance movies, stages the proceedings with visual panache to spare. As with any adaptation of a novel, things are whittled down, and there’s a lot of plot to get through. The movie barrels along like a freight train – there’s nary a dull moment, but there isn’t enough room for the story to breathe. Better that than things being boring, we figure.

This is a soap opera, and there are altogether too many characters to keep track of, but the film trains its focus on Rachel. Fresh Off the Boat star Constance Wu makes for an intelligent, lively, likeable and vulnerable lead. The scenes in which she matches wits with Michelle Yeoh’s Eleanor are a hoot, and a scene she shares with her mother, played by Tan Kheng Hua, brought this reviewer to tears.

Much ink has been spilled about Golding’s mixed heritage. It’s hard to talk about this without sounding like characters in Harry Potter throwing around phrases like “pureblood” and “half-blood”, so we won’t. He’s handsome and earnest and just bland enough in the way male leads in modern rom-coms often are. Nick is a decent person, while most of the people in his social circle aren’t, making us root for Rachel and Nick to end up together.

Michelle Yeoh gives the stock type of the glowering prospective mother-in-law just enough depth, and Eleanor articulates exactly why she’s so wary of Rachel. Yeoh’s performance is a savvy one, lending the proceedings gravitas. There’s a sly bit of commentary in seeing Eleanor lead a Bible study group comprised of her rich friends – the implication is that these are people who prize material gain over all else hiding behind the veneer of religious virtue.

The rest of the cast is comprised of a lot of attractive people doing attractive people things, and sometimes they can blend together a little. The camera lingers on Pierre Png’s bare torso as he exits the shower, and much is made of how physically beautiful the characters played by Gemma Chan and Sonoya Mizuno are. There are also many characters who are outwardly attractive but are awful on the inside.

Peik Lin and her family stand out by design – they’re outlandish, brash, and they’re rich but not pretentious. Awkwafina is utterly enjoyable, delivering a giddily infectious performance. Ken Jeong and Koh Chieng Mun are plenty of fun as Peik Lin’s parents. Nico Santos hams it up as Oliver, who calls himself the ‘rainbow sheep’ of the family. Oliver does fall a little too neatly into the ‘gay best friend’ role, but Santos gives the character welcome personality.

There are times when Crazy Rich Asians is a touch too ridiculous for its own good – there’s an Apocalypse Now homage (think helicopters and “Ride of the Valkyries”) that seems a little too on the nose. However, there are others when performers showcase excellent comic timing, and the film hits a pleasantly silly pitch.

Crazy Rich Asians is a lot of things, and there will be a wide range of reactions to it. There will be more social media comments hung up on the accents, and there will be thoughtful socio-political treatises deconstructing the film and what its existence means in the current film industry landscape. As a frothy, sometimes-clumsy, almost-emotional rom-com, Crazy Rich Asians works.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Positively Preposterous Prosperity: Crazy Rich Asians set visit

POSITIVELY PREPOSTEROUS PROSPERITY

inSing witnesses the wealth and wackiness first-hand on the set of Crazy Rich Asians

By Jedd Jong

Sprawling mansions, multi-million-dollar weddings, a bachelor party on a converted container ship, private jets, limited edition supercars – oh, to live as the top 0.1% does. inSing got a whiff of that rarefied air when we visited the set of Crazy Rich Asians in Singapore. Besides taking in the luxury, we learned that, yes, rich people have their problems too. Please contain your outpourings of sympathy.

Crazy Rich Asians is based on Kevin Kwan’s best-selling novel of the same name. Kwan was born in Singapore, and his family relocated to the United States when he was 11. The story’s protagonist is Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), a Chinese-American economics professor at New York University. Rachel falls in love with Nick Young (Henry Golding), who hails from Singapore. Nick takes Rachel back to Singapore for the wedding of his best friend Colin Khoo (Chris Pang) to Araminta Lee (Sonoya Mizuno). It is only then that Rachel realises that Nick belongs to one of the wealthiest families in Asia, and as the girlfriend of an extremely eligible bachelor, she draws the ire of scores of Nick’s would-be suitors.

Rachel also butts heads with Nick’s mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), who disapproves of her son’s choice. Rachel finds herself drawn into an intricate family drama, with players including Nick’s beautiful cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan); Astrid’s unfaithful husband Michael (Pierre Png); Peik Lin (Nora “Awkwafina” Lum), Rachel’s best friend in Singapore, rowdy groomsman Bernard Tai (Jimmy O. Yang); social-climbing Hong Kong soap opera starlet Kitty Pong (Fiona Xie); and various other colourful characters.

When we visited the set along with other members of the press, it was the penultimate day of filming in Singapore. It was a night shoot, which tends to be arduous on the cast and crew. The scene being shot that night was set after the wedding reception at the Gardens by the Bay in Marina Bay Sands. In the shadow of the towering Supertrees was a cluster of banquet tables, each with a roasted pig as its centrepiece. Food stylists would occasionally spritz the pig with oil to keep its skin glistening. A stage sat towards the front of the garden, with an ornate fan-like backdrop and a bandstand on it. The laminated dance floor before the stage was kept covered with a grey carpet. The scene of the dinner itself was shot the night before.

Observing from a distance through a bank of monitors, we watched a heated confrontation between Nick, Rachel and Eleanor, with Nick’s grandmother (Lisa Lu) witnessing the argument. In between takes, director Jon M. Chu rushed over to speak to us. While he was perspiring heavily from the muggy Equatorial weather, Chu appeared to be in good spirits. To keep the cast looking picture-perfect while shooting outdoors, Chu told us that the makeup department alone was 30 strong. “That’s the biggest makeup crew I’ve ever had, and I’ve done bigger movies,” he remarked, quipping “sometimes dressing nice to a wedding takes more effort that being ninjas on the side of a mountain” – referencing his earlier film, G.I. JOE: Retaliation.

Chu’s credits also include two Justin Bieber concert films, two films in the Step-Up series of dance movies, Jem and the Holograms and Now You See Me 2. He explained that after helming several sequels, he was ready for a change of pace and sought out material that would be more personal to him. “I grew up in a Chinese restaurant with my dad and mum who came over – my Mum is from Taiwan, and my Dad is from [Mainland] China,” Chu said. “There’s that side of me, the traditional part of it, but I also grew up in California, as a California boy my whole life, so I have this other side.”

It was the director’s sister who introduced him to the novel, which struck a chord with Chu. “It says everything that I feel, but in the most fun way, not so dark and deep or trying too hard,” Chu observed. He added that he was excited to showcase Singapore in his film, proclaiming that “The world has not seen this world on the big screen in a big American movie.”

Chu was effusive about his cast, saying “they’re hilarious, they’re amazing, they’re talented, they’re fresh, they’re excited to tell a great story.” Over the course of the night, we would consistently hear about the actors’ camaraderie on and off the set. “Our cast gets along better than any other cast. They go for karaoke every night,” Chu said, adding jokingly “Almost too much, I think it might be a problem.” He added that he wished he could hang out with them more, but alas, a director’s work is never done. As if to demonstrate this point, Chu was whisked back to work and away from the media, returning to direct another take.

Crew members were stationed across the Gardens by the Bay complex, with personnel shuttled to and fro on buggies and golf carts. A function room had been converted into a green room, where we would meet several cast and crew members when they weren’t needed on set. Producer Nina Jacobson ducked behind the partition curtain in the green room where we were waiting. Outlining the film’s appeal, Jacobson described Crazy Rich Asians as “a universal story but told in a way we haven’t seen, in a place we haven’t seen.” Jacobson co-produced the blockbuster Hunger Games franchise, so she knows cinematic potential in a book when she sees it. “When I first read the book, I couldn’t put it down,” Jacobson recalled, adding “I very much identify with Rachel, but I was also fascinated by this world.”

According to Jacobson, the film examines cultural attitudes in a way that hasn’t yet been seen on the big screen. Jacobson said one of the themes in the story is “Tension between family and duty and happiness and love,” and the film deals with negotiating those tensions in a global economy in which “increasingly, people have a foot in two worlds.” Jacobson credited Malaysian-born co-screenwriter Adele Lim with providing “insights into generational conflict,” and assured us that there would be nuance to the conflict presented in the film. “It’s not just everyone being mean to the American girl,” Jacobson clarified.

According to Jacobson, Constance Wu was the first choice for Rachel. Jacobson described her leading lady as “funny, smart, casual” and “a breath of fresh air”. Wu actively pursued the part, and didn’t even have to audition. Similarly, Michelle Yeoh was the top pick to play Eleanor.

Jacobson insisted that the filmmakers were “mindful about people’s heritage,” and were aiming to accurately represent the characters as written in the book. This led to the elephant in the room: leading man Henry Golding, born to an English father and a mother from the Iban tribe in Sarawak, Malaysia, plays Nick Young. The character is ethnic Chinese and is described in the book as resembling “Cantopop idols”. The casting received its share of backlash, with critics decrying the film as committing ‘partial whitewashing’. This seemed hypocritical, given that star Constance Wu has been an outspoken opponent of whitewashing in media.

Jacobson called Golding “by far the best person for the part,” adding that “he felt like how we always imagined Nick.” Jacobson justified the casting by pointing to how “Singapore is a very multicultural place.” Clearly prepared for the topic to be broached, Jacobson said “There are many people whose families have mixed backgrounds and we could get away with it here, especially with Michelle as his mother, who has a Malaysian background as well.” The producer explained that due diligence had been done, and that author Kwan and Warner Bros.’ international partners had all been consulted about Golding’s casting and given their approval. “He had to be both the kind of guy a girl wishes she could be with, and a guy wants to have a beer with,” Jacobson reasoned, saying that Golding struck that balance.

While Crazy Rich Asians can be loosely classified as a romantic comedy, Jacobson insisted that there is dramatic heft to the story too. “Oftentimes in romantic comedies, there’s a major contrivance or misunderstanding,” Jacobson said. “To me, a movie is as romantic as the conflict between the characters is great.” Jacobson broke down the components of the film, saying “There’s the comedy of manners, there’s the romantic comedy, but at the heart of it, there’s a real dramatic conflict.”

Production designer Nelson Coates gave us a sense of the logistical undertaking that making Crazy Rich Asians was. Principal production lasted a mere 40 days, with shooting taking place in three cities in Malaysia and in Singapore. Despite the stressful schedule and the daunting task of re-creating staggering opulence on a limited budget, Coates was easy-going and friendly. He described working with a crew from 18 different countries, saying “you have to tune your ear to different kinds of English.” He remarked on some of the challenges of working in an unfamiliar environment, saying “Singapore does a funny thing in that they blend metric and Imperial. You might get a 4’ by 8’ sheet of plywood, but it’s 16 mm thick.” Coates seemed to take it in his stride.

To create Tyersall Park, the Young family mansion, Coates turned to the Carcosa Seri Negara, formerly a luxury hotel in KL. The historic complex had been abandoned for some time, and the production team gave it a makeover to turn it into the stately home befitting the wealthiest of the wealthy. “There were bats and hornets and feral dogs, we had to do major cleans,” Coates recalled. Some movie magic was required to make multiple locations feel like they were part of the same mansion. Coates built the Tyersall Park kitchen in the Kuala Lumpur Craft Museum, earning the approval of one key cast member. “Michelle Yeoh walks in and she goes ‘how did you know?! How did you know about all the food?!’ She was so excited to see it,” Coates beamed. The gates were built near Champion’s Public Golf Course in Singapore, in a stretch that the production nicknamed “monkey road”.

Coates’ eyes lit up as he described a central set piece – a container ship that had been converted into a party yacht to host the bachelor party. “When you get in, you come down the stairs from where the helicopter’s landed, and there is the basketball court, and the pit that you can dive and do stunts into, and the cars that have been cut and turned into pool tables on the top, and a climbing wall, and a series of Ducati motorbikes in front of a huge electronic wall that has all the streets of Singapore going past you as fast as they can, so it looks like you’re in the ultimate videogame. Then there’s the gambling area, and the arcade area, and a stage where all the beauty queens from all over the world come out and do a little dance.” All this was built in a parking lot in Kuala Lumpur.

While striving for a fidelity to the source material, certain changes had to be made to accommodate filming. For example, a scene that takes place in the Lau Pa Sat hawker centre in the book is relocated to Newton Circus for the film. “I know it’s not the one that’s in the book, but we chose it because it’s triangular,” Coates said. “Everywhere you look, you see vendors. We wanted that full explosion of foods.” Coates became a big fan of Singaporean food, and was fond of one particular snack, exclaiming “I love those ice cream sandwiches!”

When actress/rapper Nora “Awkwafina” Lum swung by, the room lit up. Energetic and personable, Lum quickly put everyone at ease. Rocking a necklace shaped like an avocado, it was clear that while some characters in the film were bound by strict decorum, Lum’s Peik Lin was a little on the wacky side. “She’s fashionable, but not classy,” Lum said of her character, adding “she wears bunnies all the time”. It was easy for Lum to relate to the character. “She’s a little bit of myself – I’m crazy, I’m very eccentric, and I’m a different kind of Asian female for people to digest,” she proclaimed. “She’s not a stereotypical character – she’s not the brooding mother-in-law, she’s not the classic beauty, she’s just a little crazy – so I feel like I connect with that a lot.”

Lum’s onscreen dad is played by Ken Jeong, whom she was thrilled to work with. However, filming scenes with him was challenging in its own way. “He’s so funny that when we run takes, I can’t keep a straight face. I break character every time,” Lum laughed. “In America, we have a very limited icon list, and he’s one of the most famous prominent Asian-American entertainers that we have,” she said of Jeong. “He literally called Jon and was like ‘I don’t care if I get paid, I just want to be in this movie,” Lum revealed, adding “it’s that important for our community back home.”

The actress considers it a privilege to be part of the first Hollywood studio film in 25 years with a predominantly Asian cast. “It’s something I didn’t think I’d see in my lifetime, and definitely not something I thought I’d be a part of,” she admitted. Lum stated that it was “important for the next generation to understand that this is possible,” hoping it sets a precedent in the American entertainment industry. “I look at the cast and realise that we’ve all, at some point in our lives, been the minority on a set full of white people,” Lum said, turning vulnerable for a moment. “We’ve been ‘that Asian’ on set. And now, that dynamic doesn’t exist.”

Stay tuned for more of our coverage of Crazy Rich Asians! Up next – interviews with stars Constance Wu, Henry Golding and Michelle Yeoh.