Musings on ‘Crazy, Rich Asians’

By: Michael P. Lim

THE other day, I was shopping for some ties and was eyeing a particularly nice silk one in maroon with golden yellow patterns. It was a Hermes and I thought it would go very nicely with my navy blazer. A sales staff came over and when I asked if I could take it off the tie rack and try it, she said it’s too expensive for me and that I could try the shop in the other mall down the street. Upon which, and without saying anything, I went ahead and bought four of it in different colors.

Of course, we all know that never happened. And some of you might have already heard that joke before. It was a fairly common one (with all its variations) in the heady days of the late 80s and the early 90s, at the dusk of the last century of the last millenium, when the term ‘noveau riche’ was still quite, well, noveau.

Now, we think we have become our better selves. Yes, we still throw out plastic packaging like there was no tomorrow, we still post on FB our Starbucks breakfasts like it was what we do every day, and we still consider a detour in the outlet mall to buy yet another Longchamp bag just rewards for having been good Christian parents (or kids, for that matter) #thankyoulord (Although to be fair, a friend and a niece insist Longchamp is so not Crazy Rich Asian anymore. But I digress.)

I was reminded of that joke in the opening scene of this crazy movie everybody is going crazy over. A Chinese family sans Pa walks into an old, established hotel in old, rainy London and tries to check into the Lancaster suite, to which they already had reservations. The old, white, male reception staff eyes them with haughty, condescending suspicion and decides right then that they are not good enough for the old, white rooms, much less the Lancaster suite. Mysterious matron goes out and makes a mysterious phone call in a mysterious phone booth that happens to be right outside the mysterious hotel and voila! Mr. Old White Male Manager comes out and warmly welcomes the ‘new owner’ of the hotel.

Early on, it is made clear to the viewer what this movie is going to be about. Comeuppance, that ‘battle’ between the hardworking poor & middle-class who crave to join the old rich who in turn try their desperate best to keep out the madlang riff raff of society from their social circles. It is that old classic tale of class struggle, resorting to dirty tricks and turning over dirty secrets to get the better (or worse) of each other. As I’ve said before, we have perfected the subtle bourgeoisie art of making fun of the CRA crowd while at the same time wanting to be them.

Anybody who has the slightest bit of interest in the movie (or have read the first of the three books on which this movie was based on) already knows the plot. Asian NY couple (Nick and Rachel) flies to Singapore for boy’s bestie’s ‘wedding of the century’ and girl discovers boy is just about as rich as one can imagine. (It’s strangely both necessary & unnecessary to point out here just how rich & excessive, just go read the book or watch the movie.) Not surprisingly, boy’s fambam and his previous flames cold shoulders poor little girl and she finally gives up and tries to go back to the peaceful, quiet life back in New York. (New York?!?) Or so we think. Don’t worry, I stop here. Suffice to say, plot wise, if you took out the color and the glitz, it sometimes felt like a black & white romantic formulaic flick of the old Sampaguita Pictures.

In that stretch where the above premise is built up, we are treated to a visual, auditory and gastronomic feast that thumbs up its nose on western standards of luxury. This is Crass Meets Class 101 (Awkwafina’s family), yet so relevant, so relatable, so our times. Of course, there are angels here and there (Astrid, Nick’s barkada, the Ama) but mostly, we are all mere voyeurs to these excesses of wealth and its flaunting display; we envy them but at the same time secretly wish for these people’s comeuppance.

That we don’t really get. Instead, we get a sympathetic treatment of the protagonists in the story, to the director John Chu’s credit. It turns out these people are really more like us than we are different (no surprise there, surprise!) and that at the end of the day, we are all fighting the same battles of redemption, preservation of dignity and just wanting to be happy and fulfilled in life. Now, we may see or take different paths in aiming for those but we will do well to see ourselves as mates rather than competitors in that journey.

A mate claims the movie is not really an accurate version of the book. I will not tell which one she thinks is better, but what I can say is the movie did provide a good, satisfying finish. Michelle Yeoh as Eleanor, the reigning matron, carries the weight of the film. Her subdued performance is a contrasting relief to the ‘crazy, rich asians’ around her. She is Rachel’s older, alter ego. In her, the woman who disapproved of Rachel the most (initially, that is) turns out to be someone who went through the same journey. She is what she was. She is what she was destined to become. (Spoiler: watch out for the big emerald).

Let’s be clear. The movie IS a cliché and makes no claim to be otherwise, but it does not degenerate into a mistake. It becomes a parody of the Asian times we are in. It’s technically polished. The cinematography is very good. Some characters get a little excessive they become caricatures, but surprisingly, Awkwafina’s character turns out to be that fount of friendship you count on when you need it most. The movie may be too self-referential (the crazy part, not the rich) but it is the truth about ourselves. While the movie was made before the recent British royal wedding, one can’t help but notice how Rachel’s mom was a bit like Meghan Markle’s.

Kris Aquino? Yes, she was there. Yes, she wore yellow. In that hierarchy of class that is the central premise of the movie, her character one-ups the rest of ‘em. In the scene that mattered the most (the wedding) she sits in the front row, the rest sit behind her. She was a former CRA (I presume), but now she IS royalty, and she decides who sits with her. She gets the last laugh. Take that, Kris bashing ‘tards!!!

Crazy Rich Asians. We all secretly want to be like them. Crazy. Rich. Asian. Two out three ain’t too bad. (Photo credit: Slate.com)

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