Just like everyone else, I was curious about the Hollywood blockbuster Crazy Rich Asians. So when the movie hit the screens, I went along with the craze and watched with my friends. Many movie-goers would probably dismiss this as another romcom movie. Of course! Who wouldn’t? I did! It marked all the boxes in a romcom checklist--including, of course, the quintessential wedding proposal scene.
On the surface, it would seem like your typical chick flick. But it’s a bonafide blockbuster. You might ask: “What makes it so different?” Look closer, and you’ll find that the movie made use of tried and tested love story formats and innovative story techniques.
So I made some notes on the storytelling techniques I saw in the film. Here’s a rundown:
Larger than Life Stories with Relatable Character Struggles
Crazy Rich Asians shows the lives of the top 1% of Singapore, something most people won’t ever get to see or experience. Movie goers just love getting sneak peeks into the lifestyles of the rich and the famous. Wouldn’t you? But aside from the crazy rich moments, there was no denying that the characters were so relatable. Nick and Rachel’s love story is universal, something every couple can relate to.
Then, there’s Astrid. She’s smart, beautiful, rich, and kind. Astrid seems like she had it all figured out. But her husband cheated on her--a story shared by many, empowered women across the globe. And the movie’s main girl, Rachel, is constantly being judged by her fiance’s family. It’s another narrative that’s very relevant to people trying to win the approval of their loved ones. Their dilemmas are so real and relatable. Audiences always root for characters they can relate to, simply because they’ve gone through the same experiences. They are able to connect with these personas and become emotionally invested.
When people become emotionally invested in the characters, they become more engrossed in the story. Remember Blair (Gossip Girl), Harry Potter, and Daenerys? These characters may live in their respective fantasy worlds, but audiences identify with them because the characters’ struggles reflect their own.
Adding a Fresh Take on Classics
Seasoned romantic comedy watchers will watch the movie from the get-go. But as romcom stories sticked to the same format time and time again, moviegoers started to looked for fresher content. The question now becomes: “What else?” So, they added a lot of elements from Asian Dramas. Do the “Rich vs. Poor” or the “Duty to the Family” angles sound familiar to you? You feel you’ve seen it somewhere? Think: Meteor Garden.
The story reflected the writer’s own experiences. The author, Kevin Kwan, had a deep heritage from traditional Asian families made unique because of his life in the U.S. Mixing stories from Asia and storytelling elements from the west resulted in a box-office hit.
Combining Universal Themes with a Niche
What are the two of the most common themes found in art form? Love and family. It’s such a common narrative that romcoms for this past decade have used them over and over again. While it’s a tried and tested formula, stories got sappier and stale over the years. So It’s no surprise that people began losing interest in Hollywood’s formulaic romcoms. The genre once known to produce box-office hits such as When Harry Met Sally and Pretty Woman has slowly been replaced by the flashier and more action-packed superhero films--hello Avengers and Transformers sequel!
But, enter Crazy Rich Asians. The movie had the classic themes and structure of a romcom. Both partners falling in love with each other in the beginning? Check. Misunderstanding between the two for most of the movie? Check. A declaration that love trumps all at the end? A big check!
The theme of family, however, is quite unique. Especially in a sea of romcoms focused on couples dealing with very American stories. You have an Asian family with Oriental family dynamics. What’s the difference? For starters, parents have so much control over their children’s lives. What was at stake was tradition. Turning your back on family is socially unacceptable in Asian culture. The story becomes riskier, adding tension, keeping the audience glued to the screen. People who weren’t familiar with this dilemma became curious and intrigued.
The Devil is in the Details
The mahjong scene is a perfect example of why detailed storytelling is great storytelling. The scene transformed the showdown of the protagonist and antagonist into a brilliant metaphor for Rachel’s position in Nick’s life. Jeff Yang explained in his article how Rachel gave up the winning tile to Nick’s mother, Eleanor. But protagonists often ignore society and get everything in the end, no matter what. At least, they are supposed to, in most Western romcoms. This genre is especially guilty for emphasizing themes of independence and the strong will to fight for what you love. But Crazy Rich Asians broke all conventions when it didn’t follow the mainstream ending. In the movie (major spoiler alert!), Rachel gives up Nick’s proposal so he wouldn’t have to sacrifice everything for her.
The writers didn't try to explain the mechanics of the game on purpose. Tension filled to the brim as Rachel revealed her deck. She lost the game, even if she had the upper hand. Rachel’s sacrifice and sentiments showed that she was just as much Asian as she was American. She was triumphant in showing Eleanor that she understood Asian family dynamics even if she was raised in the States--a narrative that many Asian Americans can relate to: not being too Asian, but not quite American.
It’s not just a romcom with Asian faces. The story and the characters’ actions were driven by Chinese and Singaporean culture. Asians in the US will laugh at all the cultural nods while non-Asians will see new perspectives in terms of family dynamics.
Because the movie focused on the Asian community, the support from audiences became cult-like. Its strong narrative was echoed by minorities in the US.
So what did Crazy Rich Asians accomplish that no other romcom was able to in the past ten years? Well, the movie sticked to what worked but somehow updated it. Stories don’t have to be the most unique thing ever. Think about giant brands like Coca-Cola and Mcdonalds; they have repeatedly used the themes of youth and family for their marketing over the years. People love them. What keeps people interested, however, is how the stories are told with the problems and unique mindset of today.
So now, I turn the question to you: how would you tell your story?
About the Author
Kimberly Ramos is is a writer for M2.0 Communications, Inc. She mainly writes about storytelling, culture, and her observations of the world. She also delves in fantasy fiction stories and poetry. Her oatmeal cookies are divine.