Buckle up, because this is going to be a long one. Like many Singaporeans last week, I watched Crazy Rich Asians to see how well Singapore comes off in the movie. I’ll try to corral my many thoughts into a manageable puddle here, rather than an uncontrolled torrent of words.
First, a background on how my attitude towards the film did a 180 — because I wasn’t always excited for the film. Up till about a month ago, I was unmoved by all the hype about Crazy Rich Asians, and had very little intention of watching this movie set in Singapore and filmed partially here. I have heard book vloggers rave about the book trilogy, but never felt compelled to pick it up to read. The description of Singapore as this breeding ground of the super rich doesn’t sound like the Singapore I know, so the book premise felt too far-fetched for me to enjoy.
Plus, the trailer made it look like your run-of-the-mill romcom — which I seldom watch nowadays — except with an all-Asian cast, many of whom are not particularly famous besides Michelle Yeoh. For a person for whom the cast plays an important role in my decision whether or not to watch a film, their lack of recognisability did not add any points to its favour. I also really do not think that lead actor Henry Golding is handsome, to put it mildly. How am I supposed to root for this film when I have severe doubts about the suitability of one-half of its main leads?
In addition, it is set in Singapore, which I have never thought of as particularly cinematic. I admit it is my own hometown bias making me think this way, as well as having grown up watching movies filmed in faraway, exotic locales. (Even downtown LA or the slums of Brazil feel exotic when they are so far removed from your world.) Seeing familiar surroundings on screen just makes me think I’m watching a local TV drama, not a Hollywood studio movie.
So what changed my mind?
Well, the full force of Warner Bros’ marketing machine started intensifying as it grew closer to the movie’s release date, and I started to see articles about the making of the movie. It began to seem marginally more interesting. I also passed by a bookstore where copies of the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy were on display in the front of the store, and flipped through them. They looked fairly well-written. But as the hype machine kept building, I became more and more curious, until one day, I decided to take the plunge and read the first book. And I was HOOKED.
I don’t know what I was expecting, but certainly not for it to be SO FUNNY, with such biting commentary on the ultra rich! The first book in the trilogy is about Chinese-American professor Rachel Chu being invited by her boyfriend Nick Young to his home country Singapore to attend his best friend’s wedding and spend the summer getting to know his relatives. What she doesn’t know is that Nick comes from one of the wealthiest families in Asia and is seen as the most eligible bachelor in Singapore. When she arrives, she’s in for a rude culture shock as she sees the decadent lives the people around Nick live, and is made to feel unwelcome by social climbing schemers and disapproving relatives.
I will review the book trilogy another day. As for the movie, I liked it very much for the most part, and it left me with a sweet high. It helps that Nick does not renounce his family at the end of the movie because in the movie, they accept Rachel, and it literally ends in happily ever after. There were several loud gasps in the cinema when Nick proposes on the plane and opens the ring box to reveal his mother’s ring, implying that his proposal has his mother’s hard-won blessing. The auntie behind Rachel on the plane telling her loudly “Hello! Can you move?” is a spot-on Singaporean touch that made everyone laugh too.
Constance Wu is perfect as Rachel, and her relationship with Nick is the most touching part of the entire movie. I felt their love, especially during the wedding scene in the church as the lovers mouth “I love you” to each other while a singer croons “Can’t Stop Falling in Love” in the background. Henry Golding is a winsome and adoring lover as Nick Young, though he is still not handsome enough for me. But he can do. Michelle Yeoh plays Eleanor Young as the imperious mother who just wants the best for her son. Harsh as she is towards Rachel, she feels more motherly and easier to empathise with than the book’s anxious, “kaypoh” Eleanor who schemes with her fellow gossipy rich aunties clique to destroy her son’s relationship with this no-name woman they think is a gold digger. Awkwafina is hilarious as Rachel’s loud and brash best friend Peik Lin, but I can’t say the same for her inappropriate family members. Peik Lin’s stalker brother P.T. who keeps taking photos of Rachel is especially NOT funny. Seriously, why did the filmmakers add him in? :S
Other things that the movie deviates from the book include Nick’s family being well-known. In the book, they are so private and exclusive that even Peik Lin’s property development family with the wealth of three generations doesn’t know about them. I am fine for the most part with the changes, but I absolutely hate that they made Alistair a douche! Alistair is one of Nick’s closest cousins in the book and a nice guy who unluckily falls in love with actual gold digger soap opera actress Kitty Pong (Fiona Xie) — basically, the complete opposite of how he is in the movie. The filmmakers probably didn’t want to have to cast lots of people just to fill up Bernard Tai’s douche posse, so they maligned Alistair’s character and made him one of them instead.
Astrid and Michael’s relationship has been changed too, so Michael really cheats on her in the movie, rather than pretending to cheat on her for complicated reasons. But I guess this is for the better, because their relationship really takes a turn for the worse and goes down in flames in the second and third books. I was expecting to see more of Charlie Wu (Harry Shum Jr.), Astrid’s first love, in the movie, but he only got a 10-second cameo during the credits! And yet his name still features prominently in the end titles! (He was supposed to be in a few more scenes, but they ended up cutting them because they wanted to resolve Astrid and Michael’s storyline properly first.) He looks handsome, but more filled out in the cheeks and body than he did in Glee.
Gemma Chan plays fashion-forward “it” girl, female envy-inspiring and male lust-inducing Astrid as a very posh, soft-spoken person in the movie. Not that it’s a bad thing. She is still a goddess, just different from how I imagined. Can’t wait to see her relationship develop with Charlie in the sequel that is definitely happening! Her relationships were one of the subplots that I was most invested in when reading the books.
Singapore is showcased so beautifully in the movie; it’s the best tourism commercial that the Singapore Tourism Board has ever helped to sponsor (including Hitman: Agent 47, a lousier Hollywood movie also set in Singapore). When the movie ended, there was so much chattering from the audience while the credits were rolling as they fervently dissected all the Singaporean elements in the film and how well they thought the movie did. They were also oo-ing and ah-ing during the film, and one or two even clapped (unnecessarily, I thought) at parts they felt were particularly funny and laudable. That is a very Singaporean thing to do.
There are of course many unrealistic scenes in the film (such as the synchronised dancers in the Marina Bay Sands infinity pool), but hey, it’s fictional! And it’s called “Crazy Rich Asians” for a reason, not “Normal Singaporeans”. The wedding scene was particularly hard to swallow though. It was very romantic, BUT I’m pretty sure everybody in the theatre was thinking the same thing when they saw water flooding the aisle and the church turning almost literally into the padi field that Eleanor had snarked about earlier. One person in my hall voiced out loud in disbelief: “So she’s going to walk on the water?” And Araminta actually did! In a movie full of over-the-top spending, including a bachelor party on a container ship in the middle of the sea, *this* was the thing that gave me pause, simply because it is stupidly impractical. Her gown is already so heavy, dragging it through all that water is going to make it a deadweight. And the bridal party’s shoes are going to be wet and disgusting after walking through that makeshift stream. In fact, did they actually flood the entire church to achieve that effect? That would be truly crazy!
BUT the thing I have the most beef with — the element that feels the most incongruent — is the music. Not only are almost all the songs in the background in Chinese, the filmmakers went with super old-school songs that came from the ’60s or something. The songs are lovely, but it feels like the filmmakers are “Orientalising” the film — putting in all these vintage jazzy music because they are accustomed to Hollywood’s idea of Asia (retro and quaint, probably looking like old Shanghai, if not Chinatown), which is a far cry from modern day Asia or its music. For instance, during the bachelor party on the ship, the speakers were playing “你懂不懂“. I do not know any Singaporean millennial guys who will fashion their bachelor parties (or their friends’ bachelor parties) after a Chinese nightclub in the ’60s; much less hip, rich guys. I don’t even think that Chinese millennial bachelor parties in China do that!
And not that it didn’t sound nice, but I’m also not sure why Coldplay’s “Yellow” had to be sung in Mandarin in the ending scenes. Singapore is not China or Taiwan, where popular songs are “localised” in the native language. I swear this is the first time I have ever heard any of Coldplay’s (or any other modern band’s) songs sung in Mandarin.
Despite these flaws, Crazy Rich Asians is succeeding on a level seldom heard of in Hollywood, and the fact that it is doing so as the first major Hollywood studio film with an all Asian/Asian-American cast since The Joy Luck Club opened 25 years ago is even more astounding. To have a film with a diverse cast succeed on this level in America is significant for Asian-American representation in Hollywood. Hollywood has always been reticent about making movies where white people are not the leads, because they think such films are not profitable, that audiences won’t turn out in droves to see these. This shows that they are wrong — that as long as a film has a great story, is budgeted appropriately, and marketed properly, it can do well.
Netflix actually offered way more money for the movie than Warner Bros did, but Kevin Kwan and director Jon M. Chu turned them down because they wanted the buzz of a theatrical release and more Asian-American representation on the big screen. And their gamble paid off. Compare Crazy Rich Asians with To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, which is also a romantic comedy with an Asian-American female lead, and also adapted from a book by an Asian-American author. The latter is a Netflix film, released at around the same time as Crazy Rich Asians opened in cinemas in the US. Guess which movie is in the news now?
There are some people criticising the film for not showcasing the true ethnic makeup of Singapore, or Asians, but you know what? It’s perfectly fine. This film doesn’t have to be *everything*. It is already a great stride in Asian-American representation in Hollywood. It doesn’t claim to be an anthropological study of society — neither does it have to be one. Singapore is just the foreign locale they set their movie in, and their characters all happen to be rich Singaporean Chinese. Heck, the next thing you know, people will be criticising the film for not showcasing enough middle-class Singaporeans, when that is not what this movie is about!
I’m not saying there isn’t room for improvement. I’m saying Rome wasn’t built in a day. An industry that has consistently gotten an F in diversity isn’t going to miraculously improve its grades to an A.
The movie is performing gangbusters in Singapore, and will definitely break all local box office records for a romantic comedy. Personally, I predict a box office of $5 million to $8 million in Singapore (and I lean towards $8 million), which is more like what an established action blockbuster franchise like Mission: Impossible will earn than a romcom. Then again, Crazy Rich Asians is no ordinary romcom here. Singapore plays such a huge part that most Singaporeans will be watching to see our country’s role in this bona fide Hollywood movie that has gotten glowing reviews and achieved astonishing success in the US. It’s a matter of national pride.