Sound & Colour: Katherine Ho’s “Yellow” in ‘Crazy Rich Asians’
Sound & Colour is a new column where we talk about specific musical moments in films. Think “Ride Of The Valkyries” in ‘Apocalypse Now’, and “Mrs Robinson” in ‘The Graduate’. We will be doing brief breakdowns of the music used and how they made their scenes memorable. It’s also an excuse for Matt to write about music.
Spoiler alert for ‘Crazy Rich Asians‘.
As much flak as Crazy Rich Asians got back in 2018, I didn’t think it was a terrible film. Sure, it represented Singaporeans just as well as Apu from The Simpsons represents Indians – that in itself is troubling – but I couldn’t associate the film with Singapore when its boujee world is so removed from the country we know.
With its setting becoming a non-factor, what was left of Crazy Rich Asians was an okay Cinderella story that did its job well enough – at least I wasn’t bored. The film was engaging enough with me sighing and groaning through most of the plot. I just couldn’t relate to lead Rachel Chu’s (Constance Wu) arduous journey to be a rich tai tai and film’s insistence to check off every cliche in the book.
Yet, I still found myself holding back tears when she finally says yes to love interest Nick Young (Henry Goulding).
So how did I go from being confused and tired to trying my best not to embarrass myself in front of my army friend sitting next to me? This question has been bothering me ever since I left the theatre, trying my best to join in the chorus of hate (“Yeah! That was the worst movie I ever saw, man!”). I suspect a huge reason why is because of how well that scene was constructed, especially with how it was paired with Katherine Ho’s ethereal cover of Coldplay’s “Yellow”.
And I don’t even like Coldplay.
The Music – Katherine Ho’s Cover of Coldplay’s “Yellow”
If I could solve any of the world’s most critical problems today, it would be Coldplay. Chris Martin’s high-pitch voice and the band’s dull music has assaulted the ears of innocent bystanders since the band’s formation in 1999. It wasn’t until their debut LP Parachutes a year later when their music went from being misdemeanors to a global security issue.
Parachutes was a mega-success that launched the band to the stratosphere, spawning radio hits such as “Shiver”, “Don’t Panic”, and – of course – “Yellow”. Since then, the song has pretty much become the millennial’s “Wonderwall” – an instantly recognisable staple that has been helplessly abused by boys and their guitars trying their best to charm teenage girls for the last two decades.
All hyperbole aside, I still do enjoy “Yellow“. It’s just been difficult to separate the band’s tendency to belch out abysmal wallpaper music from its initial few solid outputs. In a vacuum away from its overplayed status, “Yellow” is one of the great love songs of contemporary pop, with its perfect juxtaposition of mellow strings and widescreen riffs creating a sound that is as boundless as it is intimate.
For a song titled “Yellow” to be featured in a film with an exclusively East Asian cast is iffy to say the least, especially with its association as a derogatory term. Not content with violating the Geneva Conventions with every new album, Coldplay was also accused of cultural appropriation prior to Crazy Rich Asians with their music videos for 2012’s “Princess of China”, and 2016’s “Hymn for the Weekend”.
Nevertheless, despite an initial rejection from the band and concerns from the studio, Coldplay did eventually give permission to director Jon M. Chu to use the song. In an interview with Quartz, Chu shared that the band’s rejection prompted him to reply with a letter, sharing with them that the song “described the colour in the most beautiful, magical ways” to him.
The film’s Mandarin version of “Yellow”, sung by Chinese-American singer and YouTuber Katherine Ho, really does reflect what the song means to Chu. While this version shares the melody of the song, its lyrics are not a direct Mandarin translation. Technically, this version is a cover of “Liu Xing” by Zheng Jun (for the soundtrack of Meteor Garden, the OG of Chinese teen dramas), which in itself is a Mandarin cover of Coldplay.
Nevertheless, Katherine Ho’s cover is a beautiful rendition of the song, skyrocketing to the top of Spotify’s Viral 50 chart in the US, Australia, Malaysia and Singapore shortly after the film’s release. It’s a gorgeous cover of an already stunning song that effortlessly brings across emotions that transcends its Mandarin language barrier. When paired with the film’s closing sequence, the effects are outright magical.
The Sequence In Question
Despite Crazy Rich Asians being packed with raucous twists and reimaginings of both classic Chinese songs and not-so-modern American pop hits, Chu caps off his carnival of a film by soundtracking it with a comparatively modest tune.
Ho’s cover kicks in while Rachel packs her bags and looks to head back home to New York with her mother after being embarrassed and forced by Nick’s meddling family to break up with him.
Running parallel is the conclusion to Astrid’s (Gemma Chan) arc, where she finally decides to leave her cheating husband and start anew. The accompanying cover starts off with gentle guitar plucks and Ho’s soft – but far from understated – singing. Much like these two characters, the music sounds exhausted but far from defeated, disappointed but so sure that something beautiful is just around the corner.
Both Rachel and her mother get on the plane and just as the song rises to put a definitive full stop to her journey, Nick shows up. He squeezes through the crowded gangway and the music takes a backseat. The world shrinks. Nick gives his proposal speech – and it’s a charming one.
While buying an air ticket just to get to Rachel probably doesn’t mean much for the mega-rich Nick, Goulding still delivers the speech with impromptu urgency, as if it’s the last chance he can ever be with the love of his life. Despite the stakes, he still can’t help but make time to show off his goofy and loveable side, taking pauses in between to help out the passengers, apologise to the crowd, and make Rachel feel like she’s the centre of the world.
So of course, she says yes once Nick goes down on one knee to propose to her. I mean I would. Geez.
The music rushes back in as the couple embrace, now with stinging violins topped in to really tug at the heartstrings. Ho unsubtly belts out “幸福 (happiness)” as they kiss but I doubt anybody needs to know a lick of Mandarin to understand what she is trying to say.
They go on to an extravagant party filled with people that Rachel will probably never see again to celebrate their engagement and the film caps off with cheers and fireworks. The song soars, soars, soars, finally settling down into a comforting and conclusive end.
Bringing It All Back Home
While covering a song popular amongst twenty-somethings for a movie that is aimed at twenty-somethings puts the cover in a prime position to be a hit, to say that Ho’s version relies on Coldplay’s goodwill would be unfair. With the pipes to back it up, Ho twists the original from a cheesy mellow love song to an outright celebration.
The way the film uses the track is nothing short of spectacular, effortlessly nailing Rachel’s emotional highs and low with Ho’s emotive voice smashing the language barrier to heartily share the joy embedded into its lyrics.
It’s no Say Anything or When Harry Met Sally but I would go out on a limb and say that this ending sequence is pretty underrated. I don’t remember anything about the film’s plot (something about Singapore, I think?) but I won’t be forgetting the last few minutes of Crazy Rich Asians and Katherine Ho’s cover of “Yellow” any time soon.
The film is available for streaming on HBO Go.