It's been 25 years since a film telling a contemporary story centered on an all-Asian cast was released by a major Hollywood studio (the last one was "The Joy Luck Club" back in 1993). This makes "Crazy Rich Asians" not just a major achievement in on-screen diversity but -- thanks to its excellent ensemble cast and charming script -- a breath of fresh air in the familiar romantic-comedy genre.
Based on Kevin Kwan's best-selling novel, "Crazy Rich Asians" is a glossy, big-budget romance that gets an additional kick thanks to the cultural specificity baked into its story, married to universal themes of love, class, money, family, and tradition.
As the film begins, Chinese-American economics professor Rachel (Constance Wu) and her handsome long-term boyfriend Nick (the impossibly dashing Henry Golding -- a television host for the BBC, making his acting debut) are planning to travel to his hometown of Singapore to attend his best friend's wedding and finally introduce Rachel to his family.
But it turns out Nick has been less than forthright about his background, and Rachel learns that he's the favorite son of one of Singapore's most extraordinarily wealthy families -- he's practically royalty back home. "We're comfortable," he says when prodded about his family's financial situation, a statement Rachel points out is as sure a sign as any that his folks are loaded.
As they arrive in Singapore, the film becomes a fish-out-of-water story. Rachel, who was raised by her working-class single mother (Tan Kheng Hua), learns to navigate Singaporean high society, faces down jealous ex-girlfriends, and tries to get on the good side of Nick's icy mother, Eleanor (the magnificent Michelle Yeoh).
The script, written by Adele Lim and Peter Chiarelli, breathes life into some of the more familiar tropes of the genre, rooting the film's central conflict in the complex relationship between Asian and Asian-American cultures. It also makes parental relationships key, earning some genuine emotion not only from Rachel and Henry's swoon-worthy relationship, but also through Rachel's growing appreciation of her own journey, shaped by her and her mother's experiences as first- and second-generation immigrants.
The film's messages about wealth are admittedly somewhat muddled, encouraging us to revel in the extravagance of its characters' world, while simultaneously suggesting there's something rotten at its core. But at its heart the film is a Cinderella-esque fairy tale.
Director Jon M. Chu has a wonderful feel for movement (evident in previous films like "Step Up 2: The Streets"), giving the film a bright and breezy energy. It's also a feast for the eyes, with playful costuming and production design (it's not hard to imagine this film being adapted into a splashy Broadway musical somewhere down the line). The film boasts one of the most breathtakingly beautiful wedding sequences I've ever seen on screen, not to mention some mouthwatering food porn, including an emotionally-fraught dumpling-making lesson and a lively trip to one of Singapore's night markets.
Like "Black Panther" and "Love, Simon" earlier this year, "Crazy Rich Asians" is a breakthrough for on-screen representation, and a reminder of just how sad it is that in 2018 we're still so in need of these milestones. But like those other films, this shouldn't be considered the endpoint of diversity on the silver screen. Told with plenty of heart, humor, and style,"Crazy Rich Asians" offers a glamorous romantic fantasy that's as universally crowd-pleasing as they come.