I realize I’m a little behind the curve with this one, but I had enough I wanted to say about this film that I decided to write about it anyway. I was excited for this film based on the fact that the representation of Asian and Asian-American actors in Hollywood is lackluster at best. For the same reason I was hyped to see Chinese talent like Daniel Wu finally make it over to the west in last year’s Tomb Raider, it was just really refreshing to see Asian actors take the headline for this film. That said, it would be rather surprising to see a film with this premise headlined by anyone else, and more on that later.
From a technical standpoint, the film surprised me in how solid it was. At heart, it is a rom-com after all, so I wasn’t expecting anything too out of the ordinary, but it ended up with an almost whimsical and very cleverly used visual style. It was used sparsely, which I think is preferable to the opposite, but it only appearing heavily in the first part of the film did make it feel a little inconsistent. The performances, both dramatic and comedic, were fantastic too. A couple of the jokes here and there didn’t quite land for me, especially those from Ken Jeong’s character, but even despite that, I found myself very content with the writing and performances. In fact, there was something that this film captured that I haven’t really seen before in this type of film. That being the characters and situations feeling like they were normal situations comprised of actual people. Obviously, it wasn’t completely natural because it’s a film and of course it won’t be, but everything from the writing to the really subtle editing during scenes in which multiple conversations are going on at the same table made for a refreshingly real feeling.
The story is not horribly complicated, but it was handled well. Rachel Chu (played by Constance Wu), is a professor at NYU, and her boyfriend, Nick Young (played by Henry Golding), invites her to come back home with him to Singapore to meet his family and attend his best friend’s wedding. As one might assume, that is not an entirely smooth process, and a whirlwind of culture shock and more run-of-the-mill romantic hijinx is complemented by some solid performances from the leads. The characters of Nick’s mother and cousin, played by Michelle Yeoh and Gemma Chan respectively, I found particularly compelling as well.
Now, remember that “more on that later” from the first paragraph? This film has, perhaps unsurprisingly, been looked upon with a political eye throughout the entirety of its production and has been hailed as a kind of homecoming for Asian cinema in the west. I think that is perhaps a generous sentiment, but I by no means say that to downplay how fantastic it is to see a film with a properly handled story about differences in culture, particularly learning to both honor those ties but also not let them control you- all made by amazing Asian and Asian-American actors and an Asian-American director. However, I wish it had really gone for it when it came to those kinds of topics in the film. It goose-stepped it’s way into making points about the inequality of wealth and privilege of the 1 percent, which I think would have benefited from either less timid writing or the removal of their inclusion altogether. The kind of half-hearted attempt just left any of those points feeling particularly unimpactful. At the same time, I think the topic of cultures clashing between Rachel and her mother as Asian-Americans and Nick’s family being of Singapore’s highborne was handled particularly well, and a couple of other side-plots I was worried might resolve in kind of troubling ways halfway through were actually wrapped up very deftly. I said something last year about wanting more badass Asian ladies in Hollywood, and damn, does this film deliver in that regard.
At heart, I’m a sucker for romance, but I’m not usually someone who actually watches rom-coms, and certainly not in theatres. That said, I far from regret seeing it in theatres, though if you’re interested, I might suggest reading the book first. Both are really good on their own, but I think that’s definitely the optimal order as far as entertainment goes. If a distinct visual style, really proficient filmmaking and some really smooth Shanghai jazz are things you’re really passionate about, I’d suggest you try and catch this film while it’s still in theatres. The big screen is certainly not a requirement for this one though, and if this type of film is at all on your radar, I wholeheartedly suggest giving it a go whenever it comes across your streaming service of choice.