Monday, 17 September 2018

Movie review: Crazy Rich Asians, dir Jon M Chu (2018)

This review contains spoilers so if you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want to know the ending at this point in time, stop reading here. I’m not going to pussy-foot around with this comedy (used in the traditional sense of a drama that ends with a marriage), which has so much in the way of revelation about it. Box office for the movie on the weekend before I saw it in Australia was just over $4 million, and its gross receipts for the weekend monitored made it the top-rating movie in the country.

To start with, I didn’t finish the book on which the movie is based when I started reading it in 2015 because I didn’t like the revanchist story that opens proceedings. And I thought that the book’s regard for wealth as it is used by the people described in it was not sufficiently penetrating. Revenge fantasies are by definition ugly and having seen the movie I can say that some of the shortcomings I found in the part of the book I completed also exist here in some form.

But it is a big, emotionally-demanding movie that draws the viewer in, shakes you up, and leaves you a bit exhausted with all of the high-toned drama on display. The actors are not the only people who end up with tears on their cheeks. Music is used effectively to stoke the feelings of the audience and to vary the tone of the spectacle at different points, lending it colour and texture.

The American actress Constance Wu is Rachel Chu, the New York University professor Nick Young (played by Malaysian actor Henry Golding), the favourite son of a wealthy Singaporean family, falls in love with. She given a lot of work to do and this is really her movie (Rachel is novelist Kevin Kwan’s Elizabeth Bennet and Nick is his Fitzwilliam Darcy). I’m not sure that I uncritically buy the underlying narrative of virtue rewarded that’s offered up, embodied in the figure of Rachel, especially as the US is full of working poor who (on a minimum wage of $7 an hour) are often left homeless or unable to feed their children properly even if they manage to keep down more than one job.

On the other hand, the narrative that’s offered to us by the matriarch of the Young family, the formidable Eleanor (MIchelle Yeoh), of sacrifices made and adversity endured, is also somewhat difficult to swallow. It’s true that sacrificing one’s own happiness in order to promote the wellbeing of the family is a particularly Confucian virtue, one that seems at odds with the western aspiration for the individual to develop their innate talents. Of course, in most cases the second aim, if pursued successfully, will also result in achieving the first aim. But here Eleanor is making a simplistic comparison that ignores the subtleties of the argument, in order to get what she really wants. Which is sort of like the white phagocyte’s ambition to eject a foreign body from the organism.

And it’s more really a matter of a bit of luck enjoyed by people on both sides of the equation. I’d say that Rachel is the more deserving of respect but America in reality is by no means always a mecca for migrants or other types of Cinderella, nor is it just chock-full of rough diamonds, as inherited privilege constitutes a significant barrier to success for many people who grow up there.

Nick is not given as much work to do, and I was disappointed that there was but one scene in which we see him in the company of only his family talking about his life choices. That scene, near the beginning of the film, involves Nick alone with his mother and she comes off looking like nothing less than a fond parent. There’s no hint there of the cruelty and superficiality that taints her persona later in the film when it becomes clear that Nick is going to propose to Rachel. The critical scene at the end where he talks to his mother to get her to change her mind about Rachel takes place away from the camera.

The deference everyone shows to the elderly grandmother (Eleanor’s husband’s mother) Ah Ma (played competently by Lisa Lu) turns out to be nothing more than hollow ritual when it transpires that Eleanor has hired a private investigator to look into Rachel’s past. Ah Ma is the first to tell Rachel that she opposes a marriage between her and her grandson. The movie illustrates the pitiless demands placed on people by Asia’s ceaseless striving to maintain an unblemished public face. Just as it drove Rachel’s mother Kerry (played by a gritty Kheng Hua Tan) to work to become a successful real estate broker in America, it likewise propels Eleanor to try to impugn base motives to Kerry’s daughter.

The investigator finds that Kerry had had a child with a man who was not her husband. Kerry had always told Rachel that Rachel’s father had died before Rachel was born. It turned out in fact that the husband had been violent and Kerry had had an affair with another man, but had not gotten back in contact with him after she had brought her daughter with her to America. Kerry was afraid that her husband would seek revenge on them all.

So much unhappiness should not be answered by more cruelty, but the culture underpinning Singapore’s success is shown at times in this movie to be deeply flawed and vanishingly frail. At the beginning of the movie Eleanor is shown sitting around on her verandah with her low-church gal-pals reading from the Bible but it doesn’t appear from what comes later that any of Jesus’s many messages have sunk in that emphasise the centrality of the notion of forgiveness to his way of living.

And the spending habits of the children of the generation that built the island-state’s flourishing economy reveal them to be undeserving at best and feckless at worst, impressed by nothing more than money, just like their distant parents. It’s disturbing how often in the movie celebrations involving large numbers of people turn out to be places you want to escape from, rather than join. Neither Nick nor Rachel truly belong in the society on display.

Standing somewhat apart from the vulgarity of all the conspicuous consumption is Nick’s sister Astrid, but she’s nevertheless very attracted on her own account to expensive clothes and jewellery although she appears to have better taste then the average female we’re shown. Her husband ends up leaving her, having commenced an extra-marital affair that Astrid finds out about just as Nick is arriving to celebrate the wedding of his best friend.

Also separate in spirit from the crowd of feckless men and women who make up the flower of Singapore’s monied youth is Rachel’s friend Peik Lin Goh (played by a puckish Awkwafina) who provides Rachel with the kind of stability that the Young family seems intent on depriving her of. But Peik’s mother and father are even more crass than Nick’s family, and have unselfconsciously decorated their big house with lashings of gilt and carved wood in a fashion made famous by the epitome of European vulgarity, the Palace of Versailles. No-one is exempt from some degree of satire.

The question of what it’s all for comes up occasionally but the film has no real answers to offer the viewer apart from Nick’s dauntless ardour and the wisdom of his girlfriend.

Rachel is shown in a lecture theatre talking to a gathering of students in the opening scene of the movie but you rarely see a book anywhere in the film thereafter despite the fact that the Young’s establishment credentials as the holders of “old money” are laboriously underlined. In Nick’s old room no bookshelf is visible. The scene with the Bibles on the verandah has already been mentioned and apart from that there is only a scene showing Astrid reading French aviator Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry’s ‘The Little Prince’ in French to her small son, who is asleep on the bed with her. It is a lovely vignette that hands the viewer a calm centre in the maelstrom of otherwise mindless consumption of the vain trappings of wealth.

It’s not evident from where your virtue originates if you constitute part of the “establishment” in the city-state. The scene where Rachel is exposed to the Young family’s tradition of making dumplings together around the kitchen table is so burdened with signification it fairly rattles along like a poorly-maintained shopping trolley pushed along a gravel path. When Rachel makes a comment about Eleanor’s huge sapphire ring the air between them is as thick as pea soup, as they sit in their chairs like warm mannequins surrounded by what is supposed to be a wholesome family. In this scene as in several others Philippino actor Nico Santos as Nick’s cousin Oliver T’sien, who is arch and ironic about what he sees, provides an effective foil for the weak Eleanor and her doddery mother-in-law yet these two are paradoxically allowed to retain their dignity largely intact right to the end of the movie.

This is the thing with this movie: you feel like you’re getting into the passenger seat of a cab. Things are familiar in some ways but unfamiliar in others. The dashboard is set too close to your legs and you have trouble getting the seatbelt fastened. Despite the conventional story it uses, there’s something left in the film of Kwan’s original book and it is something that is different in fundamental ways from what we’re used to getting from Hollywood. Nick’s father, the patriarch of the family, is away on business in the movie (in the novel he lives permanently in Australia looking after the family’s business interests there). In the movie, he remains an aloof presence, as though too illustrious to be tainted by the author’s and the director’s and the screenwriters’ laughing regard, like some modern-day emperor.

One thing that I am reminded of when thinking about this film are the mummies that were made in Egypt after the country was colonised by the Romans. Prior to this point in time, intricate abstract designs painted on the sarcophagus had some relation to the person of the individual encased inside it, but they mainly had symbolic and religious significance. The designs were painted on the outside of the container by craftsmen involved in the burial of the notable person who was being honoured in the process. We all know what those designs look like because they have become so familiar to us from reproductions in the years since the 1970s when the King Tut exhibition toured the world.

After the Romans arrived people were still mummified and interred in memorials however instead of the stylised designs that had previously been used on the sarcophagus’ exteriors, now for burying residents of the colony realistic portraits of the dead person were painted on the containers. This kind of fusion, melding two completely different cultures, is what the viewer is faced with in this movie. It offers a way in for foreigners and a way to communicate for people in the culture being portrayed.

But America is slow to come to grips with things that lie outside its borders. When you think of how long they have been exposed to the culture of Japan, for example, and how stereotypes about the Japanese still dominate in the media in America, you realise that Americans have only just turned up the corner on the covering that wraps Japan in its layers of protective cladding. The truth itself still lies buried deep inside.

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