joreth: (being wise)
www.imdb.com/title/tt3104988/ - IMDB
www.crazyrichasiansmovie.com/ - Official Website

So, I just saw a pre-screening of Crazy Rich Asians. And I fucking loved it. Seriously, put it on your calendars to watch when it comes out for wide-release and give it a good opening weekend box office return.

I normally can't stand rom-coms and rom-drams, although I watch a lot of them (film student, movie review podcaster, masochist). They basically all go the same way - by following the standard Rom-Com Formula (TM) and occasionally picking one step to change as the "twist" in the film:

1) Neurotic young, thin woman who is a) hyperactive; b) clumsy (because that's how you make unobtainably attractive women feel "relatable"), and/or c) brusque and perfectionist meets ...

2) Extremely attractive man who is either a) emotionally distant, b) charming and charismatic; or c) warm yet stoic.

3) Woman and Man have everything or nothing in common and get thrown together by circumstance, whereupon they immediately proceed to hate each other.

4) As more and more things go wrong, continuing to keep the characters together, they are forced to reveal a vulnerability or two that erases or excuses whatever character flaw that has been their defining feature up until this point, so that

5) The characters fall in love with each other, but are not aware of it yet, because

6) The resolution of the continuing conflicts happens so that the characters are no longer forced to be together.

7) In their pending or ensuing absence, True Love is finally revealed and one character rushes to share the revelation with the other character before it's Too Late.

8) Optional ending: It is already Too Late, and the rushing character goes home dejected, but then the Plot Twist intervenes and fixes whatever it was that makes it Too Late so that the other character now shows up at the first character's home to confess their own undying love.

Additional elements that rom-coms might throw in can include:
  • The ex-lover who sows seeds of dissension and mistrust in order to win back their love-interest (or just cause trouble).

  • A current lover who prevents the main characters from hooking up because one of them is unavailable, and who seems like an OK enough person at first but is then revealed to be a total douche so that the audience feels justified in rooting for that character to get replaced by the main character and the audience doesn't have to deal with the thought that they are wishing for the misfortune of a "nice person".

  • Alternately, a current lover who never turns into a total douche but is just a nice person who is also totally flat and boring so that the audience can mollify itself over rooting for the other main character, and because the current lover is "nice", they willingly step aside for the other main character because it's the Right Thing To Do and they acknowledge that there is no chemistry between them and their lover anyway.

  • The best friend who tries to protect the main character by sabotaging the budding relationship "for their own good".

  • The best friend who tries to keep the relationship together (or jump-start it) because the main character is clearly not capable of managing their own shit.

  • Goofy parents who wholeheartedly support the main characters in their every wacky endeavor.

  • Strict parents for whom nobody will ever measure up to their standards for a child-in-law.

  • A gay friend. Just because. Usually to help with someone's deplorable fashion sense and/or to provide comedic relief.

  • A pet that either knows when someone is an asshole before the main character does, that knows when someone is a keeper before the main character does, or that is an annoyance to highlight the flaws of somebody who doesn't find the pet annoying.
So, all this to say that the things I hate the most about rom-coms were not present in Crazy Rich Asians, even though there were enough elements present to make it clearly fall square within the genre.

A few spoilers, to explain what I mean, but not the conclusion of the film and I'll keep the details to a minimum (to avoid all possible spoilers, skip down to the very last paragraph for my final comment).

First of all, the main characters were not strangers who meet and hate each other. When the film opens up, the couple has already been dating a year and the relationship is going well. They clearly adore each other and are compatible with each other.

The next thing I liked about the movie is that *this fact never changes*. There is no big reveal that someone is a douche, or that someone has a secret past that the other person might leave them if they find out, none of that.

The premise of the movie is that Nick is so rich with old family money that he's basically "Asian royalty", and Rachel doesn't know that until he invites her back to Singapore for his best friend's wedding, where Rachel meets his family.

So, there *kind of* is a "big reveal", but it's not like someone used to be a sex worker or used to be married or invents a fake past that they get "caught" about and then have to own up to it.

Nick doesn't tell Rachel because Rachel comes from a very humble background and Nick is pretty down-to-earth himself so he *likes* being "just a guy" with Rachel, not the famous Nick Young the way he is with every rich woman who knows who his family is.

And he knows that she's going to learn about his family because he voluntarily invited her to go to this wedding. He breaks the news to her in stages, because it's kind of a lot to take in, but I wouldn't say that it's really the same kind of deception that make the usual rom-com plots.

The third thing I liked about the movie is that the main female character is smart and capable, but still a little messy, and it is her smarts and strength that move her along through each obstacle.

In fact, most of the women characters have some depth and nuance to them, even if they are put into a particular role for the sake of the plot.

Rachel is a professor of economics and very good at her subject. She specializes in game theory. Nick loves that about her, and praises her intelligence and accomplishments in her field both to her and about her to others.

In each setback that she experiences, a woman close to her reminds her of her strengths and supports and encourages her, and she walks into her next challenge (usually alone) armed with her intelligence and courage. Every gain she makes in the plot is because of something she *did* deliberately, using her skills.

Speaking of which, we come to the next thing that I liked about the movie. The conflict is never about incompatible personalities, "opposites attract", or that really irritating trope where someone has a misunderstanding and goes off half-cocked without discussing it with the other person. Nick and Rachel genuinely like and trust each other, which means that they *talk* to each other. So the conflict has to come from somewhere else, not lazy script-writing and secrets.

The conflict is a culture clash, which is a real, legitimate conflict that can be big enough to break apart a relationship. Nick's mother is the foil in this film. But unlike most American movies where the "in-law" type character is the "bad guy", Mrs. Young is not a flat, 2-dimensional villain. Her motivations are all understandable and make a logical sense if you know and accept her premises. The actor who played Nick's mother did that deliberately.

Mrs. Young comes from a very specific cultural background, with very specific priorities and roles. Rachel comes from another cultural background with very different priorities and roles. It's not that either are necessarily better or worse than the other. While it's clear which position the screenwriters feel should win out, they don't make the other position out to be evil or bad ... just not right for our main characters.

The actor playing Mrs. Young intentionally set out to make her motives clear and understandable, so that we as the audience could empathize with her and so that she would not become the "villain", even though she was the antagonist and the personification of the conflict.

There was another subplot in this film that I really liked. So far, I haven't really given any spoilers because I haven't mentioned any specifics and everything I've said is pretty clear from the trailers. But for this one, I am going to give some.

Nick has a cousin named Astrid. Being part of the family, she has access to the family money and doesn't even blink at a $1.2 million price tag for a pair of earrings. She marries a "commoner", a man of more humble beginnings and a military background.

Aware of the difficulty that comes from someone not used to her world marrying into it, Astrid does what she can to support her husband and to consider his feelings. She is aware of the immense privilege and power that she holds, and she tries to minimize her position and elevate her husband's.

But in spite of her efforts, her husband, Michael, is too wrapped up in his own toxic masculinity to accept what Astrid has to offer.

In the end, Astrid finally recognizes that all her efforts to make herself smaller can't help make someone who is fundamentally insecure feel bigger. While she still believes in loving and supporting a husband, she learns that this should not require losing herself in the process, that he needs to own his own shit and see his own value the way she always has instead of dismissing his value by comparison to her net worth.

In their final conflict-and-resolution scene, when Astrid finally stands up for herself, all the women in the audience applauded. She was not without empathy for her husband's difficult position, but as so many women have found themselves, she was done managing his emotions for him and done apologizing for who she is.

I found these three women characters to be the core of the film, with Rachel's mother, Nick's grandmother, and Rachel's friend to be terrific supporting characters.

Rachel is not our typical Born Sexy Yesterday ingenue, nor is she the cold-hearted bitch in desperate need of a makeover and a lesson in soft femininity. She is intelligent and resourceful and passionate and respectful and considerate.

Mrs. Young is a conservative, reserved, powerful woman who has made sacrifices, and those sacrifices show us where her humanity lies to prevent her from becoming a stereotypical Dragon Lady character. She is hard and unyielding, but not without reason, or without feeling. It is possible to be hard and feeling at the same time.

Astrid is quiet, nurturing, sensitive, and caring, with a sense of her own value and of the value of others. She sees the good in people, along with the bad, and accepts people for who they are.

Mrs. Chu is only seen for a short time on screen, but she is clearly a devoted, supportive mother, who manages to be the kind of mother who has made her entire life about raising her daughter without being overbearing or helicoptery. She is *friends* with her adult daughter, and yet still her mother, there to hold her when her daughter needs being held, there to tell her the things her daughter needs to hear but doesn't want to hear. She is strong and brave and loving and wants nothing more than for her daughter to find happiness.

Ah Ma (Nick's grandmother) is also only seen for a short time on screen. She is the revered matriarch of the family, the kind, hands-on parental figure who raised Nick and taught him the value and responsibility of family and tradition. She is also the woman who inherited the fortune and the shipping business that created it and married the world-famous doctor Sir James Young, giving the name to our current protagonists' and antagonists' family. She may not be very active in the Singaporean social life anymore, or in running the family, but her word is still law.

Peik Lin, Rachel's friend in Singapore, is new money, the source of most exposition in the film, and a member of a family that is perhaps the most 2-dimensional of the film and yet still manages to have some depth. She's crude and her family is tacky (with a delightful dig at Hair Gropenfürher), but she knows fashion (which is a *very* important skill among the über wealthy) in spite of (or perhaps because of) the outlandish outfits we see her in, and she genuinely cares about what happens to Rachel.

The acting of these woman portraying these characters was phenomenal, with nuance and tones giving them a realistic depth. Which is saying something, given that the movie is based on a book that others have said has enough material for a whole season of Netflix episodes but that was crammed into a 2-hour movie because the director felt strongly that we needed to see Asian faces on the big screen in romantic leads, in realistic representations, and in anything other than martial arts films.

The movie was not without its flaws. There is one scene in particular that was so cringey, where a guy does a creepy thing and the women laugh it off, that I actually said out loud in the theater when the laughter died down "that's not funny, that's fucking creepy".

Not all of the characters had enough screen time for the same amount of depth as the main characters, or even the 3 supporting characters that I mentioned. Peik Lin's family, for instance, were especially flat, as were some of the Mean Girls that Rachel had to battle during her Culture Clash.

The movie isn't perfect. But when we have so few examples of any given culture, the few movies that we do see can become All The Representation, either by design or by expectation, and it will always fail in that regard. When the last big all-Asian movie was 13 years ago (Joy Luck Club), having another one now has a lot to live up to.

It's like female-led superhero movies - when you only have one, it has to be "perfect" or else it's a failure. But, as one of the actors said of Crazy Rich Asians, movies with white male actors are so plentiful, that someone can make a crappy one, and Hollywood just throws more opportunity out there for more white male movies. Movies made with and by Asians should have the opportunity to be not-great movies without the fate of all future Asian movies resting on its success.

It's not a perfect movie. But the main characters who we are supposed to be rooting for actually like each other; the conflict comes from cultural pressures and not either incompatibilities that "love" is supposed to magically fix, nor foolish misunderstandings that could be cleared up if only the characters talked to each other; reprehensible behaviour is not rewarded with the prize of "a girl", of sex, of a relationship, etc.; the women are the real cores of the story; and the main women characters are realistic and nuanced.

That means that this movie is making it onto my *very* short list of all-time favorite romantic-comedies.

So, if you like romantic comedies, if you hate romantic comedies and want to see an exception to the tripe, if you like strong and diverse female characters, and if you supported any of the non-white big budget films to come out in the last 2 years in order to make a point about what kinds of stories Hollywood should be telling, then you should see this movie.
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