Story Pile: Crazy Rich Asians

Crazy Rich Asians is a 2018 romantic comedy movie about an ordinary everygirl who finds that the boy she’s been dating has all along been one of the richest people in the world and part of a community of super rich people and what follows is a reasonably but not completely predictable story about finding acceptance and the struggles and demands of family pressure and all that stuff you expect to see in a rom-com about a fish out of water dealing with a class difference.

I guess one of the other details is to mention that this movie is about and involves almost entirely Asian people. I would have thought that was a detail that didn’t need mentioning, until this movie brought to my attention that, in fact, this might be the second prominent romantic comedy ever made primarily by, about, and starring Asians that came out of western movie studios. That is to say, in the history of cinema, this might be the second movie like this that western media’s made. That’s effed up!

That’s your lot, that’s your movie, and now you get to watch as I, magic-trick like, pull another eight hundred words out of my hat.

I guess as a first point, I should admit that there’s a reason I watched this movie that has nothing to do with Smooch Month or the like. You may remember in a previous Decemberween, I mentioned Calvin and Dee, and how they were people in the board game space I listened to and liked. Well, Calvin’s in this movie, as the extremely awkward PT. Calvin suggested I watch this movie, and I did. There’s your disclosure.

There’s a tiny irony in that normally we want to make these disclosures to make sure you know context for my opinion of the work. After all, I might be nicer to something a friend of mine worked on, right? Well, don’t worry in this case – PT makes me super uncomfortable! The rest of the movie has a lot of great stuff in it, I liked it a lot (spoilers for this review, I guess), but specifically, my friend played an awful dork.

Anyway, onwards!

Fact is this movie was going uphill for me because every word in the title is fraught. ‘Crazy’ is a word I try not to use much if I can help it, and that meant even mentioning this movie involved breaking that mental habit. It’s this weirdly infectious word, where thanks to years of use it’s come to mean – in a weirdly gentle way – ‘boggling’ or ‘mindblowing’ or even just as a positive, but it’s also a word that’s used to refer to lots of mental problems in a really gross, perjorative way. I don’t feel comfortable telling other people to stop using the word, but I used to use it a lot, and now, I try not to. That’s just me. Did create a momentary hiccup trying to mention this movie by name.

Rich is another problem too, because if there’s anything that gets me to lose sympathy for your characters quickly it’s being ostentatiously rich. Rich people aren’t inherently less sympathetic, I guess, except now I write that sentence I think, no, wait, no, they absolutely are less sympathetic, because there are so many problems that everyone has, that rich people are causing. This is about a family of real estate moguls in the most land-strapped part of the world after I guess Macau or Hong Kong, and I mean, I’m just not here for watching those people struggle with the difficulties of how hard their being so very rich make their lives. It’s not that they’re poison to a narrative, they just need to work hard to not poison it.

Then there’s Asian. Asian is a fraught word, in no small part because it’s an English word for a chunk of earth with something like four billion people on it. It’s a chunk of the world where I live and we spend as much of our culture as we can quietly carving lines around it saying ‘uhhh, we’re actually somewhere over in the Pacific, actually.’ ‘Asian’ feels like an imposed term, and every time I’ve spoken to an Asian person about the cultures they’re specifically from you learn fascinating things about what they think of one another.

Essentially, this movie had to do a lift to get me to watch it.

I was surprised as hell then to find that this movie is really pretty good. Oh, the rich people who flaunt their wealth and treat their wealth as defining characteristics of their life are absolutely assholes. It’s a repeated point of comedy that every single member of this rich and ostentatious lifestyle is pretty much entirely some variety of horrible dipshit, and the more they revel in being rich, the worse they are. There are a few people who are bound up in the obligations of being rich, and they’re all tense and complex, and then everyone else is Very Much About Being Rich and those people are the wooooorst.

Look, the actual plot itself isn’t thin, but it is familiar. If you’ve seen a fish-out-of-water romantic comedy you’re pretty much guaranteed to know more or less how it’s going to go, with true love triumphing in the end. It’s either going to wind up with the hero getting to be rich and in love or in love and not as rich any more, and the question then becomes in how well they execute that.

You know how I’ve remarked in the past about things in movies or stories where every scene is doing two things, so nothing feels inessential even if you aren’t tuned in to one element or another? This movie – a comedy that can normally just let people be funny in a space – does that. There’s almost no scene that isn’t doing two things at once, and sometimes to find the second thing you may need to actually google some stuff if you’re as white as me.

Still, this is me, this is my blog, this is a place about games, and this game features a scene where characters play a game.

I hope you were as excited as I was when that happened. I hope you stopped and went ‘oooo, Talen’s going to give this a kicking, isn’t he?’

I’m not about to give you a summary of Gina Bloom’s Gaming The Stage here (though I think that’s free to download if you want to), but it’s about how games and theatre have interacted. When you see a game being played in a piece of media, the game is an opportunity to demonstrate character, or plot, or all sorts of things. When Magneto and Xavier are shown sitting across from one another playing chess, the game is showing that they’re on the same level; that they’re the same just oppositional to one another; that one is black and one is white; that one has an advantage from being proactive and the other is reactive; that they’re both smart nerds who play chess because chess is for nerds – that kind of thing.

In Crazy Rich Asians there’s a fairly prolonged – maybe five minute – sequence built around two characters playing Mahjong. And you may play Mahjong but I don’t play Mahjong, certainly not enough to know how to specifically explain what they’re playing or how. For example, if I type ‘Mahjong’ into google, I don’t get a tile-laying matching game like they were playing, I get a single-player tile matching game that runs in a browser.

I don’t want to spoil or fully recount the scene, but there are two things to focus on when you watch it. The first is that you don’t need to understand the game to understand the scene, because they tell you what’s happening. The narrative that you’re being shown, and the narrative that the characters are expressing is 100% the narrative of the game on the board. Second, the main character doesn’t win when she gets up from the table.

This is an amazing scene, it’s choreographed excellently, and it breaks convention for this kind of scene. If you’ve heard me yell about Solo, you’ll know that I’m really mad about Poker-and-Poker-like scenes in movies where the victory of the protagonist is pretty much 100% just ‘I am the luckiest player.’ Knowing the game better makes the movie worse. In Crazy Rich Asians, knowing the game is unnecessary, the play of the game represents the play of the narrative, and if you know the game, and know what happened it makes the scene better.

This is what games can do in narrative and it kills me we don’t do it like this very often.

Anyway, while I absolutely think every last person in this movie deserves to be given a chance to surrender their money or get in a guillotine on an ethical level, if you pretend money doesn’t exist and it all happens in a fairy story and okay, yes, I am on the side of the college professor who teaches lessons on poker, what remains is a narrative that lives or dies on its execution. And Crazy Rich Asians executes exquisitely well, and part of that is by pulling in this enormous pool of great actors who have been working hard, pretty much nonstop, and puts them front and centre. It’s so weird that there were all these actors who never really got to lift major roles in movies together before, just playing off one another. Super weird. Don’t know why.

If you have any tolerance at all for the genre of romantic comedies, Crazy Rich Asians is probably the best one you’re going to see and definitely one worth your time, a hilarious movie, visually wonderful, a great push for diversity, front row seating for a wonderful performance by the exceptional Michelle Yeoh and I heartily endorse this movie as a thing to be enjoyed and also eat the rich.