Who would’ve thought Asians would be trending in Hollywood right now? Perhaps it’s thanks to the audience’s demand for more Asian representation on the big screen. Either way, casting agents are jumping at the chance to quench our thirsts, and frankly, I can see why – last summer’s Crazy Rich Asians became the decade’s highest-grossing romantic comedy. It’s a feat that’s been long overdue, and although hard to follow, it inspired more Asian stories to be told.
Sure, Netflix’s new Asian American rom-com Always Be My Maybe isn’t a $30 million production with gorgeous backdrops of Singapore, but I’m glad it isn’t. Finally, we have a movie set in America featuring ordinary characters fellow Asian Americans can really relate to.
Co-written and starring Chinese-Vietnamese American comedian Ali Wong and Korean American actor Randall Park, it’s a movie about two childhood friends reconnecting and falling in love as adults.
Ali plays Sasha Tran, a celebrity chef, who briefly returns to her hometown in San Francisco to oversee the opening of a restaurant. She has a chance encounter with her former neighbor and best friend, Marcus Kim (Randall), who is stagnant in life working for his widowed father’s HVAC company and performing in a talented but not well-known band on the side.
Their awkward meeting brings me back to the night they clumsily lost their virginities to each other as teens in the backseat of Marcus’ beat-up Corolla. If creaking seats and car mishaps weren’t funny enough, their conversation after their rendezvous is bound to ensue laughter. It begins when Sasha asks Marcus how he learned to put on a condom, which he got from seventh grade. Marcus answered, “This lady came to our school, taught us sex ed for a day, and she put it on a banana.”
Without missing a beat, Sasha asks Marcus if he practiced at home with a banana. To which he replied, “No, I didn’t need a banana at home.”
Despite their intimate moment, they fell out that same night and subsequently lost contact. After their unexpected reunion, the two leads take the opportunity to rekindle their friendship and reignite some romantic sparks. Along the way, they challenge each other to let go of their pasts – Sasha needs to give her absentee parents and the San Francisco Asian community another chance while Marcus has to break out of his comfort zone in order to grow as an individual.
It’s a familiar plot for Asian Americans – almost a carbon copy of our own lives. Like Sasha, many Asian American children are forced to care for themselves while their immigrant parents work hard to earn money.
In Marcus’ case, he felt the responsibility to be with his dad, although it has been many years since his mom passed away. Even though his father had already moved on, Marcus had no idea because they never communicated their thoughts and feelings to each other. His storyline is a reflection of filial piety values and the lack of communication prevalent between Asian parents and their children.
Watching Ali and Randall give depth to their characters by nodding at their Asian heritage was a smart move on their part. It allowed me to connect with the film in a way that I never did for any American movie before. Not only is Asian culture aptly and accurately celebrated in the film – with no shoes in the house and using scissors in the kitchen – but the actors’ American identity is recognized as well – hence Asian American movie.
With tributes to the hip-hop scene in 90s America and R&B in the early 2000s, Always Be My Maybe is not just for Asians. In fact, Ali and Randall’s strong comedic performances play a big part in appealing to beyond Asian audiences. Cue Ali passionately singing along to D’Angelo and Randall calling her out for not knowing the lyrics. The comedic elements ranged from physical (backseat sex) to cultural (fighting over bills) and observational (lack of ramps for the handicapped). It leads me to wonder if Asian humor is the latest genre to join ethnic humor programs trending on Netflix.
Admittedly, the movie does raise eyebrows at parts, but don’t all rom- coms? For example, Randall taking a piss on stage was uncalled for and hardly funny. Also, as cool as it is to have Keanu Reeves, who is part Chinese-Hawaiian, play himself in the film, his cameo got increasingly more and more absurd to me. Although funny at first – with his dramatic entrance at the restaurant and all – his bizarre actions to compete for Sasha’s attention with Marcus were so unrealistic that it was a turn-off.
Regardless, Always Be My Maybe is full of easy-to-digest humor mixed with cultural nods. And honestly, any movie with the flavor of an old-school romantic comedy is always worth my time.