By Lindsay Wang
Nearly a year after “Crazy Rich Asians” hit American theaters as a historic breakthrough for Asian representation in media, this oft-underrepresented minority group celebrates another significant forward step in the form of the Netflix original “Always Be My Maybe,” a realistic (often uncomfortably so) romantic comedy starring two Asian leads.
The film follows former childhood friends Sasha Tran (Ali Wong) and Marcus Kim (Randall Park), who fall out of touch after an awkward one-night stand shortly before their high school graduation. Flash forward to present day, and we discover that the two have pursued polar opposite paths: Sasha is now a celebrity chef who owns a hugely successful restaurant in Los Angeles, while Marcus continues to live in his childhood home in San Francisco, working for his father’s heating and cooling installation business.
The two cross paths when Sasha returns to the Bay Area to prepare for the opening of her new restaurant. They reconnect through a series of hilarious, emotional and downright ludicrous situations, including an iconic scene in which Keanu Reeves, playing himself, enters an up-scale, hipster restaurant in Matrix-esque slow motion.
“Always Be My Maybe” is hardly a masterpiece. The “childhood-friends-turned-strangers-turned-lovers” trope has been overdone by romcoms for years. The relationship between Sasha and Marcus isn’t particularly compelling; after all, why would the famous and successful celebrity chef Sasha fall in love with the stagnant and emotionally immature Marcus? The climax of the movie, a verbal clash between Sasha and Marcus, serves only to highlight the gap in characterization between the two. Regardless of its flaws, though, the movie works because it’s real.
“Crazy Rich Asians” boasts an all-Asian cast — the first Hollywood movie to do so in 25 years. I remember recognizing elements of my own Chinese upbringing on the screen: homemade dumplings, stumbling Mandarin and the overbearing presence of parents who only want the best for their children. As exciting as it is to finally see people who look like me in mainstream media, many Asians couldn’t fully relate to the movie’s characters.
This disconnect exists in the title itself: Crazy Rich Asians. The film exists on an entirely different socioeconomic plane: one where bachelor parties are held on cruise ships in international waters and nauseatingly rich families own grand real estate so secretive that satellite GPS can’t pinpoint its location. The average theater-going Asian can hardly relate to characters surrounded by this sort of wealth.
Additionally, the core conflict of the movie revolves around the cultural clash between Chinese American values and traditional Chinese values. The result is surprisingly profound — seen in the poignant mahjong scene, which still gives me chills every time I watch it — and incredibly important, but it isn’t necessary for meaningful Asian representation.
Though “Always Be My Maybe” has a significant Asian presence in its cast and production, screenwriters Ali Wong, Randall Park, and Michael Golamco chose to tell a love story rather than create a social commentary on Asian American culture. Instead, the Netflix original makes a statement about representation via the diversity of Asian characters presented on screen. Sasha is a celebrity chef rather than the clichéd lawyer, doctor or engineer. Marcus subverts the myth of the model minority entirely; he lives with his father and enjoys smoking weed while dancing in front of a mirror. Keanu Reeves, Sasha’s actor boyfriend, is overtly sexual, aggressive and comical. Jenny (Vivan Bang), Marcus’s Asian girlfriend, is a bubbly hipster activist wearing dreadlocks. Here is a film that doesn’t create caricatures of Asians or focus solely on a small fraction of the Asian population. Instead, “Always Be My Maybe” portrays the daily life of the average Asian American.
In recent years, Asian- and Asian American-centered stories have flooded mainstream media and culture. 2018 was a big year for people like us: “Crazy Rich Asians” was a box office success and “To All the Boys I’ve Ever Loved Before,” a Netflix original adaptation of the book by the same name that stars an Asian female lead, became one of Netflix’s most popular films of all time. In sports, Japan’s Naomi Osaka defeated American tennis superstar Serena Williams to become the first Japanese winner of the U.S. Open, Osaka’s first Grand Slam title. Meanwhile, Chloe Kim became a symbol of Asian American representation when she made history as the youngest female to win a gold Olympic medal in the snowboard halfpipe. Subtle Asian Traits, a Facebook group created in September, has become a global phenomenon with over a million members and counting. No longer are Asians designated to the role of one-dimensional nerd or greedy businessman; no more kung fu masters or invisible ninjas.
Halfway through 2019, the demand for Asian representation is only growing. “Always Be My Maybe” isn’t as revolutionary or historical as “Crazy Rich Asians,” but throughout the course of the film, we see eccentric, individual Asian characters carving out their own spaces in the world. For all its shortcomings, “Always Be My Maybe” pays homage to the multifaceted nature of an entire race. We are finally starting to be recognized as the people we are — as people with dreams and beliefs and passions that exist beyond the limits of preconceived notions about our culture.
Contact Lindsay Wang at lindsayzwang ‘at’ gmail.com.