Crazy Rich Asians movie review


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

High Strung

For F*** Magazine


Director : Michael Damian
Cast : Keenan Kampa, Nicholas Galitzine, Jane Seymour, Sonoya Mizuno, Richard Southgate, Anabel Kutay, Paul Freeman, Marcus Mitchell
Genre : Dance/Music/Romance
Run Time : 97 mins
Opens : 14 April 2016
Rating : PG

Dextrous fingers and fleet feet work in concert to create something magical in this dance movie. Ruby (Kampa) is a dancer who has received a scholarship to study at the prestigious Manhattan Conservatory of the Arts. She befriends her outgoing roommate Jazzy (Mizuno) and runs afoul of the catty April (Kutay). One day, Ruby comes across a hip hop violinist busking in the subway station. This is Johnnie (Galitzine), a brooding young man from England in search of a Green Card since his Visa has expired and there’s nothing for him back home. Johnnie draws the ire of Kyle (Southgate), a classical violinist and Ruby’s schoolmate at the conservatory. Ruby proposes that she and Johnnie jointly enter the Peterson Strings and Dance competition, in collaboration with a hip-hop dance crew headed by Johnnie’s downstairs neighbour Hayward (Mitchell). However, this burgeoning relationship begins to distract Ruby, with her teachers including contemporary dance instructor Oksana (Seymour) and respected ballet teacher Kamrovsky (Freeman) pushing her to up her game.

            High Strung is directed by Michael Damian, who co-wrote the screenplay with his wife Janeen. The couple have created an incredibly cheesy affair packed with very familiar story beats. It’s the streets vs. the conservatory, the cool kids vs. the snobs, and the realisation that the two worlds need not be discrete. The production values definitely possess a satisfactory degree of polish, and one would be hard-pressed to tell that the film was also shot in Bucharest, Romania in addition to on location in New York. The camerawork and music production is slick and Dave Scott’s dance choreography is dynamic if not spectacularly inventive. However, it’s hard to shake that “student film” feeling, primarily owing to the predictability of the plot and the clunkiness of the dialogue. While most of the cast are talented dancers, it looks like acting comes second (or, for some of them, third).

            When we first see Johnnie he’s shirtless, tattoos and abs on display, sitting on the edge of his bed playing the violin as sunlight streams in through the window. “The music is always there, burning inside me,” he says dreamily in voiceover. “I don’t know where it comes from. I only know that if it stays trapped, I will be consumed.” This is a character that seems like the result of a group of 14-year-old-girls holding hands around a pentagram drawn on the floor, summoning some improbable dreamboat who is tormented, but sexily tormented. Galitzine has wannabe-James Dean written all over him, but it’s easy to see why the ladies will swoon. He does look great playing the violin though, and does an excellent job of approximating some complex finger placement – though those in the know will be able to spot a few spots where the finger placements don’t match up to the notes being played.

            Kampa is a professional dancer who was the first American to join Russia’s Mariinsky Ballet in 2012. After several injuries and feeling overworked, Kampa moved back to the U.S. The film is it its best when it simply allows the dancers to dance and does not demand that they act. Therefore, the plot proceeds on autopilot, hitting dance sequences that are as varied in styles and settings as possible. Ruby is very much a tabula rasa character for young female viewers to project themselves upon. As the requisite best friend, Mizuno’s Jazzy has few defining qualities, other than she likes to party. Southgate’s Kyle is intended as a foil and romantic rival for Johnnie, but he stays in the middle of the dial, failing to make the audience feel conflicted about whether they want Ruby to end up with Johnnie or with him. Freeman and Seymour, somewhat recognisable names (he was the villain in Raiders of the Lost Ark and she was the Bond girl in Live and Let Die) are on hand to lend authority, but they mainly stand by the piano and shout orders to the class.

            High Strung is as paint by numbers as they come, but then again, people don’t go to dance movies for the plot. Director Damian is well aware of this and delivers several lengthy dance/musical sequences, the most memorable being an Irish jig and a duelling violins set piece. Instead of moving the formulaic plot along though, it feels like the story is put on hold for these scenes to dutifully unfold. The film’s corniness and stubborn refusal to rework the shopworn tropes that it piles on thick are the equivalent of tying a ballerina’s legs together with violin strings.

Summary: Laughable dialogue and stiff acting detract from the strikingly performed dance and music numbers in this generic dance movie.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong