Warner Bros.’ adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s bestselling novel is being seen as a coup in Hollywood. Crazy Rich Asians mostly does right in its representation of Asian and Asian-American characters (there will always be criticisms), and the hope, if not the expectation, is that we’ll be seeing more all-Asian casts from big studio movies while also getting a further renewal of the romantic comedy genre — and that these things won’t just be mutually inclusive. At the very least, there will likely be sequels based on Kwan’s other novels.
While Crazy Rich Asians is a rare mainstream Asian-cast movie from an American studio, the new rom-com has roots in other Hollywood productions as well in Chinese cinema. For this week’s list of recommendations, I’ve selected a mix of titles going back almost 100 years and including works from and about modern Singapore. I held myself back from spotlighting director Jon M. Chu‘s surprisingly great documentary Justin Bieber: Never Say Never (but I do highly recommend it). As always, I’d love to hear others’ picks for what to see next, too.
Laborer’s Love (1922)
Also known as Romance of a Fruit Peddler, this short silent comedy is believed to be the oldest surviving complete film made in China. Perfectly fitting to the themes of Crazy Rich Asians, it’s also an early rom-com involving a couple from different socio-economic backgrounds. The main character (played by Zheng Zhegu) is a struggling carpenter who changes professions by setting up a fruit stand — hilarity ensues as he uses his carpentry tools at his new job, such as his cutting a watermelon with a saw. He then falls in love with a doctor’s daughter (Yu Ying).
The difference in status between the two lovers is not that great, especially given that the doctor (Zheng Zhengqui, who also wrote and produced the film as one of the founders of the Mingxing Film Company) is struggling in his practice and can’t afford his rent. But he still sees the fruit peddler as not being good enough for his daughter. But he does offer the young man a challenge: help the doctor get more patients and win the daughter’s hand in marriage. I won’t spoil how the fruit peddler does it, but as in Crazy Rich Asians, the climax here also involves a mahjong parlor.
Long Live the Wife (1947)
This classic (but very modern for its time) Chinese comedy, also known as Long Live the Missus (and I’d say erroneously listed in some places as Long Live the Mistress), comes to mind with Astrid’s subplot in Crazy Rich Asians. It’s about a devoted housewife whose husband is having an affair. While not the first film of its kind — early Chinese cinema had a history of progressive works focused on women and their family drama within the patriarchal society — it’s one of the more notable examples for being scripted by author Eileen Chang, mostly known to Western readers and audiences now for “Lust, Caution” and its 2007 film adaptation by Ang Lee.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and How to Marry a Millionaire (1953)
In case you couldn’t tell from tone and soundtrack of Crazy Rich Asians, Jon M. Chu is heavily influenced by old musicals. He even initially made his mark with his 2002 short student film When the Kids Are Away, which is a musical depicting what stay-at-home moms do during the day when their husband is at work and kids are at school (think The Secret Life of Pets but with mothers and not animated). From there he had been hired to helm a remake of the musical Bye Bye Birdie for Sony, but that didn’t work out.
However, his musical influence continued to show through in his first features, both of which were sequels in the Step Up dance film series (Step Up 2: The Streets and Step Up 3D — he also produced the Step Up: All In). Chu also made two Justin Bieber music docs and the music-based Jem and the Holograms movie, and he’s set to helm the movie adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway hit In the Heights. I assume his planned adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” would have looked as much like a musical as Baz Luhrmann’s takeover. In fact, I saw a lot of that movie in Crazy Rich Asians, too.
Growing up in America, Chu likely was exposed more to Hollywood musicals than anything that looked like Crazy Rich Asians. In an interview for Birth.Movies.Death, he cites the movie musical How to Marry a Millionaire (pictured) starring Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall, and Betty Grable as women who, unlike Rachel in Crazy Rich Asians, are gold diggers trying to snag a wealthy beau. Chu says:
“I was taking from old musicals like ‘How to Marry a Millionaire’ – old Hollywood films, and I love the idea that we could have been in those movies, but we weren’t. We had the same style and swag. So to be able to nod to that in our score, our costumes, was really nice…”
While you’re at it, go ahead and watch Marilyn Monroe’s other hit musical from the same year, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. She plays a golddigger in that movie, too, and famously sings about her love of diamonds in a musical number that inspired the video for Madonna’s “Material Girl,” which is on the Crazy Rich Asians soundtrack as covered by Sally Yeh.
Mambo Girl (1957) and Air Hostess (1959)
Chu does pay direct homage to Chinese musicals in Crazy Rich Asians by having four songs by Grace Chang, aka Ge Lan, on the soundtrack (with only two of them appearing on the soundtrack album). It’s likely that each of them originally appears in an old Hong Kong movie starring Chang, but I’ve only confirmed the location of two of the tunes. “Wo Ai Qia Qia,” which isn’t on the album, is from a number she performs in Mambo Girl. And “Wo Yao Fei Shang Qing Tian” is the first song she sings in Air Hostess (pictured).
The earlier movie is much more of a musical, compared to Air Hostess just featuring a spattering of moments where Chang sings songs at parties. It’s about a young woman searching for her birth mother after learning she’s adopted. The songs, as the title would indicate, are mostly Latin-influenced, with “Wo Ai Qia Qia” being a cha-cha number, and not only did it then break out Chang as a movie icon, but it’s also a good gateway to her work for today’s audience with its accessible Hollywood influence and familiar melodrama plot.
Air Hostess features the catchy “Wo Yao Fei Shang Qing Tian” in its opening sequence. And it’s a good one to follow with especially if your favorite scenes in Crazy Rich Asians are the ones on airplanes. The movie follows Chang and other young women as they become flight attendants at a time when South Asia was beginning to boom financially enough that holidays and travel were more common to parts of the population. Singapore does feature as one of the destinations of the airline, too. It’s given a nice travelogue montage including the home of Cathay Organization (the Hong Kong arm of which produced the film) and some romantic-setting scenes for Chang.
Chu brings up Chang while continuing to discuss the influence of musicals and the soundtrack in the Birth.Movies.Death interview:
“…it didn’t come out of nowhere; that was something I witnessed when someone shared with me this old Chinese song ‘Wo Yao Ni,’ which is in the movie when they go eat in Singapore. And it was this fun, great song and my mom, when I played it for her, she went, ‘Oh my gosh! This is what we used to dance to in China!’ She knew all of the words, and said, ‘We used to jitterbug to this.’ And there’s a video online and it’s so cool — the people in it look like the Rat Pack, they’re so awesome. And the more research I did, the more I saw.”
“Wo Yao Ni,” a cover of the Louis Jordan jump blues staple “I Want You To Be My Baby,” is in at least one other movie that I’m aware of. Tsai Ming-liang’s The Hole features the tune and among others sung by Chang during fantasy musical sequences, with Chang’s own vocals used while actress Yang Kuei-mei lip-syncs the lyrics. The fourth song, “Chun Feng Chui Kai Wo De Xin (Spring Breeze Opens My Heart),” I’m thinking might be in the Carmen-inspired 1960 musical The Wild Wild Rose, but I’m not positive. Either way, if you like Chang, see that and others, including the Eileen Chang-scripted 1960 film The June Bride. Then go back and also watch classic Chinese films starring her idol, Zhou Xuan, such as 1937’s Street Angel.