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Before we address the movie proper, let’s first talk about representation, a topic intrinsic to a movie touted as that rarest of things: a high-profile Hollywood production with an all-Asian cast.
Is Crazy Rich Asians, a movie set and filmed in Singapore with a cast of Singaporean characters, an accurate portrayal of Singapore society at large? The short answer is ‘no’, for several reasons.
Just like the book it is based on, the movie zeroes in on the elite of the elite. The main cast also comprises non-Singaporean actors who mostly speak in Western accents and there is but a smattering of Singlish spoken, despite the valiant efforts of local actors like Selena Tan.
But the most glaring misrepresentation is the absence of significant roles played by actors from Singapore’s minority races. The only Malays and Indians present in the movie appear to be servants and underlings, which is a crying shame given Singapore’s multiracial society. Was there no space for a single supporting cast member who is a non-Chinese Singaporean?
Let’s be hard-nosed about it too: the movie is pitched at an American/international audience, and a pan-Asian cast would have far more global appeal than a purely Singaporean one. As director Jon M. Chu told reporters during a visit to the Singapore set last year, “This is not the movie to solve all representation issues.” But if you’re going to make a movie set in Singapore with Singaporean characters – even a movie that does not aspire to be anything more than light, frothy fun – then at least get the depiction of Singapore right.
So to the movie, an adaptation of the Kevin Kwan bestseller of the same name, about the megarich Chinese families of Singapore.
Chinese-American academic Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) and her Singaporean boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding) take a trip to Singapore at the latter’s suggestion for the wedding of Nick’s best friend Colin (Chris Pang). Unbeknownst to her, Nick is the scion of one of the richest families in Asia – and his domineering mother Eleanor (Malaysian superstar Michelle Yeoh) stands in the way of true love.
This is first and foremost a movie about the megarich, and we are all here to gawk and stare at a lifestyle most of us would never experience – here a raucous party on a yacht with its own swimming pools, there a gathering in a luxurious mansion. The CHIJMES chapel, one of the most expensive wedding venues around, is particularly impressive as it is converted into a ‘garden’ for Colin’s wedding.
It all feels like a Singapore Tourism Board ad at times with its captivating shots of Marina Bay, the Merlion, Gardens By The Bay and other familiar tourist spots. You half expect someone to blurt out “Passion made possible!” or whichever government slogan is in vogue.
All the romantic comedy tropes are present: lovers beset with familial jealousies, the funny best friend (Awkwafina as Peik Lin) and the douchey male friends. But the American/British/Australian accents of the lead ‘Singaporean’ characters often feel grating and out of place (not that American audiences will feel it). For example, while Ken Jeong (as Peik Lin’s father Wye Mun) and Awkwafina are gifted comedic actors, they are about as Singaporean as apple pie.
Singaporean actors are well represented in the film with Tan Kheng Hua as Rachel’s mother Kerry to Selena Tan (speaking in a verrrry posh accent) as Nick’s aunt Alix and Pierre Png as Astrid’s husband Michael acquitting themselves well. A highlight is the vivacious Koh Chieng Mun, who plays Peik Lin’s mother Neena (essentially a reprisal of her Dolly Tan persona) and accounts for most of the Singlish spoken.
Nevertheless, the local actors play second fiddle to the pan-Asian cast. Which begs the question: was there not even one Singaporean actor good enough to be in the main cast?
But the majestic Yeoh is the true star of the movie, oozing icy contempt and aiming snarky double entendres at those she considers beneath her. “When children are away from home for too long, they forget who they are,” she breezily declares. The seasoned actress effortlessly conveys the vulnerability beneath her dignified demeanour, given that she was once in Rachel’s position.
The delightfully pithy exchanges between Yeoh and Wu are the highlight of the movie, and there is a sense that the latter will go on to bigger and better things. Having received acclaim for her role as the matriarch in Fresh Off The Boat, Wu pulls off the romantic lead in this movie with aplomb.
Another standout is Filipino-American Nico Santos as Nick’s cousin Oliver, a minor character in the book who ends up with some of the best lines in the movie. While watching Rachel try on a colourful new outfit for an evening soiree, he quips, “She looks like a clown’s tampon on a heavy day.”
So don’t expect too much from Crazy Rich Asians. Have fun spotting the familiar local faces, who are bit players emerging every now and then to help sharpen the focus on the main cast. The gushing reviews coming out of the US may call it a triumph for representation, but that certainly doesn’t apply to Singapore.
Verdict: 2.5 out of 5 stars. Representation issues aside, the movie is entertaining enough, but nothing to really write home about.