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Movie review: The world of 'Crazy Rich Asians' is as crazy in real life

The film, out on August 15, is the first major Hollywood project since The Joy Luck Club, in 1993, with an all-Asian or Asian-American cast

Kim Bhasin | Bloomberg 

'Crazy Rich Asians' is based on a 2013 novel by Kevin Kwan that sent up the absurd opulence available in Singapore and how differently the divided factions of its upper class behave.
‘Crazy Rich Asians’ is based on a 2013 novel by Kevin Kwan that sent up the absurd opulence available in Singapore and how differently the divided factions of its upper class behave.

The characters in are not your regular rich folks. They’re next-level, unreasonably, preposterously wealthy. They have bachelor parties on tricked-out container ships in the middle of the ocean. They not only rent out the Sands rooftop, they also hire the national synchronised swimming team to perform in its infinity pool. They own mansions, Bugattis, and gems the size of small pets.

The film, out on August 15, is the first major Hollywood project since The Joy Luck Club, in 1993, with an all-or cast. It’s based on a 2013 novel by Kevin Kwan that sent up the absurd opulence available in and how differently the divided factions of its upper class behave.

Those in the older group, now in their 50s and 60s, are spending dynastic wealth built up from Southeast real estate and banking businesses. They host swanky parties and wear expensive jewellery, but it’s a sophisticated show of understated glamour only for those closest to them. The younger set, born in the 1980s, has no problem flaunting for the camera. Having acquired much of their wealth through family trusts, they happily pose for their social media followers at members-only clubs such as 1880, which has a reception desk made from a 1.5-ton hunk of quartz.

It’s in these vaunted milieus that Kwan throws his hero, a young Chinese woman named (played in the film by Constance Wu) who accompanies her longtime boyfriend, Nick (Henry Golding), to a friend’s wedding in She’s shocked to learn that his family, the Youngs, are wildly affluent and, yes, a bit crazy.

In the book and the movie, old money is represented by the Young clan, who accumulated their fortune from a real estate empire dating to the colonial era. They expect respect. It’s a view familiar to many who, like me, are from there. Although my family wasn’t rich, my mother loved to take tea at 4 pm at the Raffles Hotel on special occasions. Every once in a while, I’d catch the occasional vintage Rolls-Royce cruising down one of the city’s immaculately clean streets. My parents still spin tales of lavish galas from the late 1960s, after independence but before the skyscrapers.

Fifty years later, is a poster child for wealth in Southeast Asia. What began as a trading port and shipping hub has become a global financial capital, thanks to a torrent of investment in its banking industry, now the fourth-most competitive worldwide, according to the Global Financial Centres Index, which surveys business leaders.

This newer money is represented by many of the other characters, such as Rachel’s best friend, Goh Peik Lin (played by Ocean’s 8 breakout star Awkwafina), her flashy family, and the gossiping, ladder-climbing crew of socialites who make up this upper crust of society.

Crazy Rich Asians, movie review

For director Jon Chu, it was the “different tiers of rich” that interested him. For the very richest, “it wasn’t about flash,” he says. “It’s about subtlety and class. It’s about how you were raised, and you can’t tell those things by the label.”

Some spots transcend the generational divide. Bustling Hermès and Cartier boutiques flank Orchard Road, a commercial thoroughfare that attracts tourists and well-heeled shoppers. The city’s food scene caters to a high-end diner: Thirty-nine Michelin-starred restaurants cover almost every cuisine. At the two-star omakase temple Shoukouwa, chefs promise to “caress your palate in elegant finesse”. Odette, in the National Gallery, has an ever-changing $240 tasting menu featuring dishes such as pigeon roasted with hay and foie gras from Rouilly, France.

Events are held at extravagant venues such as the Shangri-La Hotel and the Sands, whose three towers come together to resemble a giant ship, making it one of the most recognisable buildings in the skyline. The resort hotel’s rooftop infinity pool — almost 650 feet above the ground — really shows off the nation’s new-money grandeur.

On the other side of the spectrum lie the remains of the colonial outpost that served as a trading port for the British East India Company in the 1800s. You see it in the classical architecture of courthouses, hotels and museums. In the film, Chu wanted to give a nod to Singapore’s past and present, places that the scions of different epochs would identify.

The wedding ceremony takes place at Chijmes, in the Caldwell House, built in 1840 and one of the oldest structures in Singapore. But for an afterparty following the reception at the Supertree Grove, the whole squad heads to the observation deck of the Sands. (A fireworks display concludes the revelry.) In another scene there’s a DJ booth made out of the front of a Rolls-Royce.

“For the super rich, it’s not about what you can buy, it’s about how creative you can be with your money,” Chu says. “Anyone can pay for stuff, but to have that idea and pay for it is another thing.”

A similar fantasy is at work among the various goods and experiences illustrated in the movie. To get to one party off the coast, the boys take a squadron of $8 million AS365 N3 Dauphin choppers — a vehicle usually used as an air ambulance by emergency rescue services — over the Singapore Strait.

This move isn’t far-fetched: Singapore has one of the largest midsize- to large-cabin private jet fleets in Asia, totalling 45 last year. Those on private jets tend to go through the Seletar airport, which will open a S$80 million terminal in December. The primary airport, Changi, is no slouch, either: It features a butterfly garden and indoor nature walk and has a stand-alone, premium terminal for VIPs called the JetQuay.

Crazy Rich Asians, movie review

The most opulent swag of all in the Crazy Rich universe might just be the cars. At one point, the main characters cruise the city in a custom Land Rover Defender 6x6. And when Peik Lin, Awkwafina’s newly rich character, rolls up to a party in a hot-pink Audi R8, its audaciousness is made more glaring by the comparatively subdued Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost, Bentley Mulsanne, and Jaguar XJL parked nearby. (She’s still classy enough to always keep a Gucci cocktail dress stashed in the trunk for emergencies.)

Now consider this: in real life, Singapore meticulously manages quotas on the number of private vehicles allowed on the island, updating the limit every three months and charging onerous fees. Car owners pay tens of thousands of dollars just to get a certificate, which are sold off at a monthly auction. It’s one of the most expensive places in the world to buy a vehicle. Still, there’s enough ultra-luxury thirst that Lamborghini, which opened a showroom here in June, has already collected 40 orders for the new $200,000 Urus. To attract attention to the opening, the carmaker held an elaborate, 120-supercar-long parade.

In Singapore the latest styles are available at luxury malls such as the new Ion Orchard or Mandarin Gallery, where you can buy a $5,000 velvet dress from French label Saint Laurent or a $6,100 cashmere bomber from Loro Piana.

Michelle Yeoh, in her role as Nick Young’s tiger mother, pulls off this polish. She wears Carolina Herrera and Elie Saab and classical brooches and earrings that look like they were once owned by royalty. “Michelle said this character would never wear fashion jewellery , she would only wear real jewellry,” Vogt says. “Fortunately, Michelle has her own very beautiful jewellery collection, and she lent us a few pieces.” One such item was a stupefying emerald ring — Chu describes it as just “a big freakin’ ring” — that plays a key role in the story.

Spoiler alert: The centrepiece of the film’s fashion wasn’t brand name at all. When the bride walks down the aisle, she’s wearing a custom dress created by Vogt. Sewn in Kuala Lumpur by a local dressmaker, it’s a gold-beaded concoction with flowing layers of pink and white.

Oh, and it’s waterproof. During the bride’s processional, the aisle slowly fills with water, transforming into a stream as guests gasp in awe. Because that’s what you do if you’re that rich, and that crazy.

First Published: Fri, August 10 2018. 21:37 IST