Tag: constance wu

Hustlers


Hustlers (2019)
★ / ★★★★

Inspired by a true story of strippers who became so desperate to lead financially comfortable lives that they decided eventually it would be an excellent idea to drug their clients unconscious and cash in, it is astounding that “Hustlers,” written and directed by Lorene Scafaria, is not a more savagely effective film. The reason is because elements are there to make compelling statements about the current economic state of America; how women are still considered to be the lesser gender—certainly one to be objectified; and how true upward mobility remains to be a dream for most working class Americans. It is like an essay with some good ideas sprinkled about, but these points are not tied together to make a strong thesis.

The work is not approached like a true crime story. On the contrary, the majority of the picture is composed of the strippers-turned-criminals celebrating their disgusting misdeeds: popping yet another bottle of champaign, going on shopping sprees, moving into another NYC apartment that is fancier than the last. It is necessary to show these peaks so that viewers may have an appreciation of how far these characters have fallen later on, but the intention from behind the camera must be clear as day—that the subjects’ actions are wrong and therefore must pay for risking others’ lives. Instead, during these celebratory scenes, we get the impression we are supposed to party right alongside the subjects. I felt sickened by it.

And so I wondered if this was the writer-director’s intention. I was not at all convinced; I think that because our current culture demands that we celebrate women, especially solidarity among women, Scafaria lost focus on the type of story that is begging to be told. Instead of exploring the nature of the crime, perhaps even the complexity of it, the screenplay spends so much time on Destiny (Constance Wu), a new stripper in 2007 just before the financial crisis hit, wishing to be close friends—sisters, even—with veteran stripper Ramona Vega (Jennifer Lopez). Notice how the role of cops and detectives who have discovered the scam is so conveniently brushed under the rug. As a result, there is a lack of tension during the final act. Resolutions are cobbled together in a most awkward fashion. For instance, the scene of a former stripper being held at gunpoint provides no catharsis whatsoever.

Despite watchable performances by Wu and Lopez, the more compelling angle of the drama remains just underneath the topsoil, rarely touched upon. I grew tired of the constant fashion show and slow motion. Clearly, Scafaria knows how to capture her stars’ faces and make them look breathtakingly beautiful. But we are not simply looking at pages of a magazine. This is supposed to be a rough and ugly story of people who are so tired of scraping by, so tired of feeling cheated by the current system, that one day they decide to come together and bet their morals and their freedom to reap big rewards. In a way, an argument can be made that the correct way to approach the story is through the perspective of a compulsive gambler. Perhaps then it would have embodied a certain intoxicating, self-destructive energy.

There is a compelling story in “Hustlers,” perhaps even an insightful one, but it is buried so deep precisely because the writer-director has failed to show her subjects under a critical lens. There is a constant disconnect between the movie and the viewer. We get the impression that she wishes to protect these women, or some vague feminist idea, that she ends up preaching to the choir instead of telling a specific story without all the flowery half-measures. Halfway through, I wished another filmmaker—one who is seasoned at seeing through the fog—helmed the project.

Crazy Rich Asians


Crazy Rich Asians (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

Let’s get it out of the way: As an Asian-American, it is wonderful to see a movie that showcases an all-Asian cast be released by a major American film studio, one that is widely released across the country. I have reviewed thousands of American movies for the past ten years and, despite some positive changes in terms of representation throughout the decade, sadly, generally speaking, Asians remain pigeonholed as token characters, often comic punchlines (i.e.: the best friend with a motormouth, the flaming homosexual, the nerdy/unsexy dweeb, the sex kitten/object), becoming invisible again once the joke is delivered. Thus, in some ways, an argument can be made that in American movies, Asians are simply gags to be recognized for a split-second and to be forgotten about just as quickly once the plot moves forward.

I wish I could report that “Crazy Rich Asians” were a better movie. Based on Kevin Kwan’s novel, the picture suffers from a lack of a captivating central couple. They look good together and the performers share cute chemistry, but there isn’t much else to the relationship. We have seen this familiar plot before: a woman (Constance Wu) is invited by her partner (Henry Golding) to meet his family (Michelle Yeoh, Lisa Wu) and she learns quickly that they think she is not good enough to be a part of the family. The twist here is that her boyfriend’s family just so happens to be extremely wealthy, known even amongst billionaires across Asia.

The material fails to introduce enough wrinkles in the plot to remain consistently fresh and interesting. Halfway through, I found myself feeling bored by Rachel feeling out of place in Nick’s highly materialistic world when she herself is more fascinating than all the glitz and glamour: she is an economics professor at NYU, the youngest in her department, who was raised by a single immigrant mother. Instead, my mind could not help but think of Nick’s sister, Astrid (Gemma Chan), who feels she must hide her expensive purchases and numerous charity work from her husband because he, having come from a more humble background, possibly similar to Rachel’s, struggles in coming to terms that his achievements are good enough compared to his wife’s. You tell me with a straight face that this subplot is less interesting than the main one. This is one of the film’s biggest letdowns: Rachel and Nick are not the most interesting characters in the story. And it should not be this way.

The first hour shows great potential in that the material almost satirizes the excess of wealth and what it does to people born into it. Couple this aspect with the fact that social media is right on our fingertips, it is a great opportunity to skewer a range of people across every generation. Rachel meets a number of these colorful figures, from the “aunties” who follow Nick’s mother like moths to a flame as if her wealth and influence could rub off on them to Nick’s friends, or friends of friends, who live to party and be regarded by others as high-class. Appropriately, not one of them is supposed to be worthy of examination—they must serve as decorations, really—but the screenplay by Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim fails to turn extreme behavior into anything substantial, let alone as pointed commentary regarding the subject to be satirized.

Most enjoyable for me are the performances: Michelle Yeoh as the very traditional mother and Awkwafina as Rachel’s college best friend. These performances cannot be any more different—the former is uptight, elegant, and constantly in control while the latter is like opening the floodgates and the water simply obliterates everything in its path. It is impressive how Yeoh is capable of communicating paragraphs by, for example, employing a deafening pause… and letting those eyes pierce through her enemy. She even says a lot when she chooses not to look at Rachel. Equally winning is Awkwafina’s riotous energy—she takes on the role of the audience in that she says precisely what we are thinking… and then some. (I would love to see her co-star with Kate McKinnon and Tiffany Haddish in the future.) Once again, the co-stars overshadow the leads.

Of course representation matters. It means a lot, especially for young people, to be able to look at the screen and think, “Hey, that person is me. This movie is telling my story, showing my struggles. I can relate to what’s happening here.” What many white Americans do not have to do is to pretend that a character with white skin has brown, or black, or yellow skin. It is a privilege that is ingrained in most American movies with major studio financial backing. Because let’s face it—most of these movies are told through a white perspective.

I would love to be proven wrong, but because what “Crazy Rich Asians” offers is mainly a generic romantic comedy coated with Asian colors, I’m afraid it may end up just like another token character, to be noticed for a blip and then forgotten about in a snap. To make a difference that lasts, I think—not one—but many films with an all-Asian cast, or a cast with mostly Asians, will have to be so special that their content are able to stand strong among the likes of Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” John Singleton’s “Boyz N the Hood,” Carl Deal and Tia Lessin’s “Trouble the Water.” Still, I suppose we must start somewhere.