While watching Crazy Rich Asians, Warner Brothers' explosive new romantic comedy, my thoughts kept returning to Sessue Hayakawa. At one point, Hayakawa was one of the top sex symbols of the silent screen, a gorgeous homme fatale whose excellence in villain roles made him the object of cult fandom, especially among white women. He became rich and famous and eventually founded his own successful studio, but a surge of anti-Asian racism between the World Wars cut short his career, and Hays-era censorship of interracial romances mandated his casting as a leading man opposite only other Asian stars, like Anna May Wong, who faced her own brutal career obstacles in an era when white actresses could win Oscars in yellowface. Hayakawa left Hollywood in 1922, re-emerging on screen only occasionally, in supporting roles, and he has subsequently been nearly forgotten.
I mourn for Sessue Hayakawa here because we are arguably still working our way back from his premature forced retirement and the subsequent erasure of Asian-American romance from the big screen. A hundred long years have passed since Hollywood studios last placed an erotic lens on an Asian leading man, and very rarely has an American studio film asked its audience to identify with an Asian woman's point of view. But this is what happens in this loud, luxurious movie, and its revolutionary qualities lend themselves to our delight and pleasure. At the preview I attended, you could hear the excitement, especially in the hoots of joy whenever the camera lingered over a muscular male torso. It felt like an important moment, like the beginning of a new chapter. What took them so long?
This new chapter begins with a sensational opening sequence - which I will not spoil - before landing us in Manhattan, where we meet Rachel Chu, a game theorist and NYU professor who has been dating Nick Young for a year. Their easy-going romance revs up when he invites her to his best friend's wedding in Singapore. They are smitten with each other, and we are in love with them too, because they are played by Constance Wu and Henry Golding, who have irresistible chemistry. In her first leading film role, Wu makes a strong case for herself as the natural successor to Julia Roberts and Meg Ryan: She's relatable and adorable, with expressive eyes and perfect comic timing. She's the kind of actress who makes you wish for a rom-com renaissance. She'll be an international star in about five seconds.
Now, as you might have guessed, Nick Young is not just crazy hot and crazy charming. He's secretly crazy rich, the bachelor son of a famous family of Chinese Singapore billionaires. We never meet his father - he's always working - so for all intents and purposes, the Youngs are led by a succession of formidable women, the most commanding of whom is Nick's mother, played by the peerless Michelle Yeoh.
This is a movie which stays closely within the bounds of rom-com formula - makeover montage and all - but the inevitable feud between our protagonist and her future mother-in-law is handled beautifully and infused with a savvy and complex cultural clash. There are a lot of characters here, and one subplot too many. But overall, the script rises to the challenge of disguising its indispensable genre tropes, ingeniously weaving in cunning sociological commentary and a fair share of genuine emotional heft.
Now, it's true that this movie contains a capitalist hellscape the likes of which we haven't seen since Sex and the City 2, but I won't hold that against Crazy Rich Asians, because for goodness' sake, that's the name of the movie, and to the filmmakers' credit, it replicates this ultra-lavish financial fantasy world beautifully without once tipping off its safe-zone mid-range budget: Here's the rare movie that looks like it cost three times the announced budget. (Wait until you see the wedding! To die for!) It also comes with a dose of healthy skepticism about the whole enterprise. Like Dakota Johnson did as Anastasia Steele, Constance Wu is always swerving between sincerity and irony, keeping us in on the joke without ruining the reverie, and as Rachel's ridiculous bleached-blonde sidekick, the frenetic comedian Awkwafina provides a priceless commentary on the preposterous proceedings. And anyway, it's fun to play "Vive l'aristocratie" for an hour or two when the fashions are this eye-popping. If this were a silent film, it would play like a 3-D September issue, but with far better casting than any American fashion magazine.