What do you get when you combine $40 million weddings, climate-controlled closets, and centuries of elitism? Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians. Living up to its title, the story depicts a world where chartering private planes to catch a cheating spouse or spontaneously buying a historic London hotel when denied entry by a racist manager is par for the course. It’s also where the ultimate rom-com fantasy plays out: The love story between Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), an ordinary girl with substance and Nicholas “Nick” Young (Henry Golding), a ridiculously wealthy Adonis, that succeeds despite the machinations of a formidable coterie of villains. This common thread unites the 2013 novel and its 2018 film adaptation directed by Jon Chu.
The film retains the prince-meets-pauper motif while executing some significant plot changes and simplifying a bunch of conflicts that the book delves into. The battle royale between Nick’s disapproving mother Eleanor and Rachel, representative of the tussle between the have-a-lots and the have-nots, stretches over three installments while it has a quick and happy resolution in the movie’s 120 minutes of run time. In the film, Eleanor’s opposition to Rachel is more of a culture clash, based on the assumption that the American Rachel is too individualistic and cannot make the sacrifices (read: self-erasure) that holding a family together demands. This is easier to remedy since all Rachel needs to do is prove Eleanor wrong. The book’s conflict is more intractable: Rachel can never have the lineage that is non-negotiably precious to the Youngs. Thus, the friction is more drawn out and real. However, this departure is understandable; the film was created when the possibility of sequels was not guaranteed and hinged on box office success.
The film retains the prince-meets-pauper motif while executing some significant plot changes and simplifying a bunch of conflicts that the book delves into.
Rachel and Nick are our gateways into Kwan’s universe of the stratospherically wealthy. Interestingly, Nick and Rachel in the movie are far more likeable than their book counterparts. Book Rachel is the epitome of the “not like other girls” trope: she is smart, accomplished and doesn’t know she is beautiful, as One Direction once said. She is the antithesis of the “red carpet ready” girls Nick is surrounded by. These counterparts occupy themselves with flaunting their latest designer label acquisitions and scheming to snag Singapore’s billionaire bachelors. The book spends a lot of time drumming into our heads Rachel’s many virtues, by putting down the other women as vacuous and vain. It’s an age-old strategy of pitting women against each other, one that I have tired of.
While movie Nick doesn’t have much personality, he serves his purpose as a dishy canvas for the audience’s romantic fantasies. Book Nick is infuriatingly oblivious to the trappings of being “Asia’s Most Eligible Bachelor”. Though intended to be evidence of his unpretentiousness, this cluelessness is frustratingly unrealistic. The two are billed as “humble and grounded” but stray from it often. When Rachel finds herself at a bachelorette party, she decides that the fashion-forward guests are “definitely not her crowd”– without a single conversation. Simultaneously, Nick has no compunctions in using the Young name to pressurise a yacht’s captain into allowing the landing of his private helicopter – all so that his friend can escape a tedious bachelor party. The movie’s limited insight into their thoughts actually works in Nick and Rachel’s favour. The characterisation of the two socio-economic strata is still dichotomous but not as try-hard and blatant as in the book.
The characterisation of the two socio-economic strata is still dichotomous but not as try-hard and blatant as in the book.
While this antagonism between the polar ends of the wealth spectrum is fairly obvious, the less familiar war of privilege between old money like the Youngs, who came to Singapore as wealthy Chinese immigrants and the nouveau riche who have amassed their fortunes in the last 40-odd years is more engrossing and significant in the book. There are some things money can’t buy and the prime among them is lineage (at least for a few generations). This compelling clash simmers underneath the surface and sometimes boils over. Peik Lin (Awkwafina), Rachel’s friend and her family, The Gohs represent the free-flowing excesses that the old guards turn their nose up at. In the book, Peik Lin is praised by her father, Wye Mun, as the smartest and most ambitious of his children; she is a capable and resourceful woman. Through him, Kwan also highlights the impregnable barriers to the inner circle of Singapore’s mythically powerful and prosperous. Meritocracy has its limits. While Ken Jeong and Awkwafina display impeccable comic timing as the father-daughter duo, relegating them only to comic relief is a missed opportunity to etch a more nuanced portrayal of Singapore’s super-rich.
An integral part of the book is Kwan’s homage to Singapore: its history, culture and food. His description of a city-state enriched by a potpourri of Malay, Chinese, Indian and other cultures is evocative. While the city is the stage where the drama plays out, this socio-cultural deep dive is not a major priority in the movie. Singapore is a place easy to relate to for Indians who share the British rule in common. While there are no major Indian characters in the book, they appear in capacities varying from the daughter of an Indian maharaja to a meticulous butler. The movie, which has been criticised for its inaccurate portrayal of Singapore’s ethnic mix, is consistent with the book in this homogeneity. However, the movie allocates a miniscule space to brown bodies: in disempowered, servile roles to the elite. It features a scene where Rachel and Peik Lin feel intimidated by turbaned Gurkha guards at Nick’s grandmother’s estate. It’s difficult to understand why this was chosen to be included despite other neutral portrayals being left out.
However, the movie allocates a miniscule space to brown bodies: in disempowered, servile roles to the elite.
The movie stands the test of being a well-executed rom-com, capable of holding its own, while being more simple and elementary than its source material. How the next two sequels pan out will be interesting considering the early resolution of the core obstacle to Nick and Rachel’s love story. Both end at the same location: Marina Bay Sands. The book sees Nick and Rachel ready to face unknown challenges but united while the movie concludes with Nick and Rachel at a grand engagement party, replete with synchronised swimmers for entertainment, something only the Crazy Rich Asians can do.