When I first heard about Crazy Rich Asians, my first thought was “oh no, here’s another predictable romantic drama” and proceeded to not engage with any promotional content, that is, until I learnt that the film was set in Singapore and was largely filmed in my hometown in Malaysia.
After watching trailers and learning a bit more about the plot of the film, I realised that, actually, this was exactly the film I needed to see, given that cultural differences played a big role in the film.
The film is based on Kevin Kwan’s 2013 novel of the same name, which was written to “introduce a contemporary Asia to a North American audience” and what an introduction it was, depicting the extraordinary and luxurious lives of one of the richest and most notable, and yet fictional, families in Singapore.
The film follows Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) who travels to Singapore with her boyfriend Nicholas ‘Nick’ Young (Henry Golding) to meet his family, and is surprised by the stark differences between their respective upbringings and ways of life.
Right from the start, I had an inkling of how the film was going to pan out, given that romantic dramas often follow a set formula. However, what I was really interested in, was seeing how well John M. Chu, the American filmmaker behind the film, handled portraying Singaporean culture on the big screen, as well as how well Malaysian actors handled being in a blockbuster film.
In the film, the Youngs are Singapore’s wealthiest property magnates, who are treated like royalty. The film effectively showcased just how wealthy they are and how money was no object with lavish parties, a ‘care a damn’ attitude, and of course, the arrogance that comes with fortune. Rachel, being brought up by a single mother in the U.S.A, has a completely different appreciation for life and relationships. With this comes a bit of a mismatch in terms of her relationship with Nick Young, which is the crux of the film’s story.
In Southeast Asia, status is everything and familial backgrounds, career, the brands one wears, and the company one keeps, all matter. It is of utmost importance what others think of you and those of us brought up in the region tend to lead our lives with this at the forefront of our minds. Everything we do is constantly scrutinised and gossip is almost a way of life, as can be seen in the film when Rachel was under constant watch by Nick’s family and friends, with gossip about her being passed around in attempt to remove her from Nick’s life.
The film captured the disparity between Rachel’s American upbringing (despite being Chinese) and Nick’s high society upbringing well. Where Rachel simply tried to be a good girlfriend and bond with her partner’s family and friends, Nick’s friends and family instead, looked down on Rachel, belittled her in the snarkiest of ways (one that would clearly not be tolerated in the politically correct Western society) and did everything they could to make it evident to Rachel that she was a terrible fit for Nick.
The belittling and snarky comments, of course, is not something localised to just Southeast Asian culture. However, it is the directness and the way in which comments are made that makes the difference. I grew up having people constantly commenting on my looks, my size, my grades and anything that they could scrutinise, directly to my face, and bear in mind, I was twelve when I moved to New Zealand.
I grew up knowing all about the upper class fashion brands, such as Fendi, Prada, Gucci and the like, and my mother only dressed me in the best outfits. As a result, I indirectly learnt to look down on those who weren’t quite in the same league, feeling a sense of superiority when my friends gushed over the fact that I had all the best belongings and both my parents were young lawyers, who drove luxury European cars and carried fancy phones. Thank goodness I learnt and developed some humility as I grew up, where things like material wealth no longer matter to me.
Watching Crazy Rich Asians brought back some rather unpleasant memories in that respect and made me realise how distorted my view of the world was as a Malaysian child from a rather well-off family.
Of course, some of the cultural accuracies were also rather funny as we got to see some exaggerations of stereotypes, such as Nick’s cousin, Eddie Cheng, who was a control freak who only cared about how wealthy and good he looked in the public eye. I had to laugh out loud at some of the antics of Nick’s family members as many of them reminded me of people I knew back home who behaved in similar ways.
The locations featured in the film had me excited as, despite being ‘set’ in Singapore and America, most, if not all of the locations in the film were essentially filmed in my hometown, Malaysia, some, even in my own neighbourhood of Bangsar and Damansara. I wasn’t really surprised though, given that both those suburbs were home to high rollers, elitists and those who were just made of money.
Watching the film, I felt a little homesick, as characters spent time in resort locations where my family and I used to holiday in, or walk down streets that I used to frequent. The combination of Malaysian and Singaporean locations simply brought out a feeling within me that I didn’t realise I had….I missed my home and despite everything, I missed the culture.
As can be seen in the film, ‘lepaking’ (Malay for chilling/hanging out) with friends is an important past time and there are no shortages of places to go for food, even in the middle of the night. The closeness in terms of family and friends and the welcoming nature of some families, highlight the other end of the South East Asian culture…generosity. Inviting people over and filling them with food galore is common practice and is one of the ways we show caring and love for others. The way the family of Peik Lin Goh (Awkwafina), Rachel’s University friend, welcomed her into their home and treated her as one of their own, is typical of families in Southeast Asia. It’s completely normal to come home each day to find a group of teenagers all hanging about at one’s home, leading to having dinner together, staying up late well into the night and sometimes even staying over. There was no such thing as needing to be invited first. Going over the friends’ homes and eating their food was just a normal way of life, of course, with plenty of gratitude to the Uncles and the Aunties (adults are never referred to by their names in Southeast Asia).
Whilst the film was entertaining and engaging, reminding me of life back home, the one thing that I couldn’t quite shake were the character accents. I understood that the Young family were meant to have been educated in Britain or other foreign countries, but it was my understanding that they were predominantly raised in Singapore. To have only one or two characters genuinely have the Singaporean/Malaysian accent, of which the most notable was Michelle Yeoh, was a little off-putting, as it felt that the film was trying too hard to appeal to the Western audience.
As someone who’s lived in New Zealand for 15 years and has picked up an accent, there are still moments where the Malaysian slang and accent appear, often when speaking with other Malaysians. I would have thought it more genuine for the same to be depicted on film, especially when Nick speaks to his Singaporean grandmother.
Regardless, that wasn’t at all a deal breaker as the film and characters were still watchable. Character wise, each character really outdid themselves in their portrayal of their role. I was really stunned by how dramatic yet stoic Gemma Chan could be and Michelle Yeoh was absolutely brilliant as the matriarch of the Young family. Constance Wu’s portrayal of a Westernised Chinese woman was also on point, which played an integral part leading to the conclusion of the film.
Needless to say, I had a lot of fun watching Crazy Rich Asians. It may have been a predictable love story between two individuals from completely different backgrounds but the humour, the nostalgic value for those who identify with the culture, the locations and details into the lives of the filthy rich in Asia, made the film a decent watch. I have to say, I wouldn’t mind watching this one again.