Never in my life have I had so much of an urge to watch a romcom — and yet here I am, several months post-break-up, drinking red wine in a mug and slurping inevitably melting chocolate chip ice cream to Ali Wong and Randall Park’s newly released movie, “Always Be My Maybe.”
Is it a low point in my life? Absolutely not. And in fact, this movie represents the most optimistic I’ve been about Asian American representation in Hollywood since “Crazy Rich Asians” and “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.”
“Always Be My Maybe” is Wong and Park’s brainchild from their college years, the answer to the question: What if we made our own version of “When Harry Met Sally”? “Always Be My Maybe” welcomes familiar Asian American faces to familiar American tropes, without explicit intentions to diversify Hollywood or color a white-washed industry. Rather, it is genuinely and simply a film made by Asian Americans with Asian Americans for Asian Americans. Although Nahnatchka Khan (creator of “Fresh Off the Boat”) directs the film, “Always Be My Maybe” elicits a completely different conversation and tone than the one found in “Fresh Off the Boat.”
In the movie, we meet Sasha Tran (Ali Wong, played by Miya Cech and Ashley Liao in childhood) preparing dinner for herself, her food placement indicating her early interest in cooking. Sasha is a latchkey kid, found more often at the home of her best friend Marcus Kim (Randall Park, played by Emerson Min and Jackson Geach when young) than her own. We see them lapse through elementary and middle school together, before being dropped just around the end of high school to witness them explore the boundaries of their relationship in the back seat of a Toyota Corolla. Things get awkward between the two of them after that, but not more awkward than a full 16 years later when Sasha returns to San Francisco. By then, Sasha is a celebrity chef planning to launch her debut in the Bay Area, while Marcus is still working for his father’s AC company, still playing with his band in the same grungy club, and still driving that same damn Toyota Corolla. Our protagonists’ journey to self-realization and romance begins there. Their story takes us through a fun and lighthearted plot and, despite the many obstacles our characters suffer, delivers our destined lovers their happily ever after.
As trope-ful as the movie was, my heart warmed to see Asian Americans playing parts they long should have been featured in. It was especially refreshing to see Asian American characters just simply living life without extra emphasis on their “otherness,” as usually is presented in shows that advertise as “diverse” and “culturally competent.” I noticed the unmistakable mooncake box on top of the fridge, the rice cooker tucked between the coffeepot and the blender, the compilation of brand name sauces and oils next to the knives. But these things that define the characters as third culture stayed in the background instead of playing parts larger than their story.
In fact, there’s no East vs. West dichotomy, no tradition-and-custom vs. assimilation-and-integration dynamic, no parent vs. child dissension illustrated in the movie. That’s not the focus. The conflict of the movie is truly between the characters and their own insecurities; the characters never battle their culture. It’s alleviating to see Asian Americans that are proud of their heritage, rather than embarrassed of our food, our parents and our tendency to not wear shoes in the home. And when Asian culture is brought up, it hits deep and personal. Toward the end of the movie, Marcus criticizes Sasha for conceptualizing “elevated Asian cuisine” in order to make it more palatable to White culture, sacrificing authenticity for acceptance. This was a next level conversation that I haven’t seen in mainstream shows or films trying to “diversify” and “expand” their themes.
I also absolutely loved the acknowledgement of different Asian ethnicities and cultures in the movie. Hearing Marcus Kim’s mother tease Sasha by asking, “Are you sure you’re not Korean?” was more than just humor. It reminds us that being grouped into the same racial categories means nothing about the differences between the people filtered into the same skin, and it reminded me of my own personal experiences being in another Asian family’s home, learning the practices of their home and helping in their kitchen. Watching the movie felt like interacting with other fellow Asian Americans that also understood what it meant to be Asian American, yet also in their own unique ways.
One thing I did not expect, but very much appreciated, from the movie was seeing how Asian parents were portrayed. Marcus’s father Harry Kim (James Saito) and mother Judy Kim (Susan Park) did not have accents and were well-adjusted to their American lives. Sasha’s mother and father, although rarely in the picture, didn’t reinforce helicopter parenting stereotypes so often thrust upon Asian families on screen. Not to mention all the other different kinds of Asian characters: hippie Jenny (Vivian Bang), entrepreneur Brandon Choi (Daniel Dae Kim), and well… Keanu Reeves. Seeing a diversity of personalities and backgrounds among faces typically categorized into one box made the film feel more real and believable to me and ultimately made me more invested in all the characters.
Most of all, I love that “Always Be My Maybe” broadens the definition of what Asian American romantic comedy is. For a very long time, I thought all we were going to have was “Crazy Rich Asians,” and I was hyperaware about what having that single narrative of tradition and affluence might mean during the many years I believed were going to pass until another Asian American-casted romcom would come around. (A quick reminder that “Crazy Rich Asians” is about… well, crazy rich Asians.) But this? This movie coming out so soon is more than I have ever hoped for in Asian American representation — complete with corny and tongue-in-cheek humor, movie-specific original tracks, and two people that really truly love each other and belong together.
Sure, romcom may not always sway me, but “Always Be My Maybe” almost made me a crybaby. It’s a well-done narrative with interesting characters — written by, with, and for Asian Americans. Wong and Park’s work is inspiration for Asian American creatives and an affirmation to Asian Americans raised here — and at least for me, feels much closer to home.