It’s rare that I see a movie that grabs my attention in the first scene and has a stranglehold on it ’til the last. . .but I saw one just recently: Crazy Rich Asians. I found it to be the most perfectly executed movie I’ve ever seen. . .except for one thing: the point-of-view crafting in an early scene of the film.
This movie chronicles the adventures of Rachel Chu, a young economics professor at NYU, as she accompanies Nick Young, her boyfriend, to Singapore for the wedding of Nick’s best friend. The fact that Nick never talked about his family had Rachel suspecting that he might be from a poor background. But when she boards the flight for Singapore, she discovers that Nick has booked a luxury suite on the plane. She asks Nick if his family is rich, to which he responds, “comfortable.” Their plans have Rachel meeting Nick’s family their second day in Singapore, and she uses some of the free time before that to visit with a friend from college. When Rachel mentions she’s dating Nick Young, her friend is blown away, and proceeds to explain how the Young family are extremely rich, and one of the leading families of the region. And Rachel gets a first-hand experience of just how rich they are when she attends a party that evening at the opulent estate of Nick’s grandmother.
Actress Constance Wu does a great job of portraying Rachel’s growing sense of wonder as she proceeds through this sequence of experiences. However, the point-of-view crafting in one of these scenes actually works against the viewers feeling this growing sense of wonder along with her.
Director Jon M. Chu uses an in-flight conversation between Rachel and Nick about a few of his relatives to provide the viewers with a sense of the extent of the family’s wealth. As Nick talks about these relatives, the viewers are treated to short vignettes of them engaging in the privileges of being “old money,” but Nick’s actual commentary on them comes nowhere close to reflecting just how rich they really are.
As noted in Who Knew What When?, a character and the viewers possessing the exact same information contributes toward the viewers having a subjective experience of the character, resulting in the viewers feeling along with whatever the character is feeling. On the other hand, if the viewers possess information the character does not have, they will have an objective experience of the character. They will take on a mere “observer” status, watching to see what the character is going to do upon becoming privy to the missing information. And that is what happens in Crazy Rich Asians. As a result of having seen the series of vignettes on Nick’s relatives, the viewers know that the Youngs are filthy rich, whereas Rachel does not, leaving the viewers waiting to see how Rachel will react upon discovering this fact.
Now, consider what the viewers’ experience would have been if director Chu had not included those vignettes. Upon seeing the luxury suite on the plane, the viewers would have concluded along with Rachel that Nick’s claim that his family was “comfortable” was just the type of thing a rich person would say. And when Rachel was informed by her friend of the actual status of Nick’s family, the viewers would have experienced the same surprise that Rachel experienced. And as Rachel was on her way to the party, and started to catch glimpses through the trees of the opulent estate of Nick’s grandmother, the viewers would have been feeling the same sense of wonder that Rachel was feeling. They would have been subjectively feeling along with her. And that’s what I, as a viewer, would have liked to have felt.
But that didn’t happen, because the early vignettes had already provided hints of the true extent of the Youngs’ wealth. This being the case, I wasn’t surprised. And I wasn’t filled with wonder upon getting my first glimpses of Nick’s grandmother’s estate, for all this was pretty much what I expected, given what I had seen in the earlier vignettes. To be clear, this is not to say that the point-of-view strategy chosen was flawed. I fully recognize that what director Chu executed is a totally legitimate point-of-view move to make in a situation like this. But, being a big fan of “becoming absorbed into a character’s psyche” while watching movies, I was left lamenting on missing out on what had the potential of being an exceptionally good example of that.