During a public talk at Sundance 2017, Korean American actor Jon Cho, in conversation with Kumail Nanjiani, made a profound suggestion about Hollywood’s historic resistance to portraying Asian characters in romantic relationships with other Asians. “Is it the old narrative that love is the antithesis of our own culture…that if an Asian character falls in love he or she must break from their family? It doesn’t compute for us to see two Asians in love, because they look like one another.”
In the two years since there have been at least two examples of films about Asians who fall in love with other Asians without abandoning their families: Jon Chu’s 2018 hit Crazy Rich Asians and Netflix’s latest rom-com Always Be My Maybe, from Nahnatchka Khan (Fresh Off the Boat) in her feature directorial debut.
In Always Be My Maybe childhood best friends Sasha Tran (Ali Wong) and Marcus Kim (Randall Park) reunite as adults in their hometown of San Francisco after taking very different paths in life. Sasha is a successful chef who hops from coast to coast opening new restaurants and makes red carpet appearances as a celebrity chef. Marcus’ life, however, is still pretty much the same as it was in high school: He lives in the house he grew up in with his Dad (James Saito); drives the same beat up Corolla; and plays in a hip-hop rock band he started in his youth.
When Sasha returns to San Francisco to open her next restaurant, her assistant Veronica (Michelle Buteau) orchestrates a surprise reunion with Marcus, and from that moment onward, we’re on a journey that is an earnest, predictable celebration of Asian love.
While Crazy Rich Asians is a Cinderella-esque story of an Asian American woman from humble beginnings who meets her Asian prince from abroad, Always Be My Maybe is about middle-class characters. In San Francisco circa 1996 the middle-class families of Sasha and Marcus both operate local mom-and-pop businesses and are able to afford to buy a house, raise a family and live a decent life in a city (today considered trademarks of a long-lost era in San Francisco).
Wong and Park both shine in their roles. Their longtime friendship in real-life dates back to when they were both students at UCLA and their comfort with each other translates nicely to the film. Although the script is uneven, there is hardly a moment where we don’t believe in these two. Indeed, they topline a refreshingly strong ensemble cast where it’s hard to identify even one throwaway performance from a group of mostly lesser-known actors. Both Vivian Bang (White Rabbit) as Marcus’ free-spirited hippie girlfriend and Saito as Marcus’ father, Harry, are some of the most memorable examples.
Since it’s an unofficial requirement that someone be seven months pregnant in an Ali Wong production, Buteau’s Veronica conveniently fills that role. But she doesn’t really escape the black best friend trope and Buteau’s usual style of boisterous and raunchy comedy sadly is noticeably absent here. Add to this what often feels like a random use of black music to anchor the film’s transitions and key plot points — D’Angelo’s bedroom classic “How Does It Feel,” Too Short’s Bay Area anthem “Blow the Whistle” and even the film’s titular reference to Mariah Carey’s “Always Be My Baby” — and at times the movie falls into the trap of splashing in blackness for superficial entertainment value, to signify cool. It is in these moments that you wonder what the film would be if it had leaned a little more into its Asian-ness.
The movie is an unabashed rom-com of the Netflix variety (Set it Up, To All the Boys We’ve Loved Before, The Incredible Jessica James) that is starting to crystalize as its own sub-genre. Yet it also feels like someone forced comedy onto a story that actually wanted to be more of a drama. Wong and Park move seamlessly between the serious and the silly, but even with their comedic chops the jokes often feel like an afterthought. Except for a few nice match cuts in the edit, Khan’s touch doesn’t do much for the film either. The visual language is generic and underdeveloped, and where it is most conspicuous — a sped-up shot of a city exterior, an offbeat split screen transition — it feels random.
And then there’s the elephant in the room: the complicated task of countering harmful images and stereotypes of Asian male sex appeal. The movie is definitely trying to break the unfair curse of the Asian guy in the friend zone without looking like that is what it’s doing. For example, in the scene where grown-up Sasha and Marcus finally make it to bed, Khan skips over the hot sex and moves abruptly to postcoital bliss, and it’s perplexing. At my screening, with an audience of almost all young Asian American filmgoers, the disappointment was palpable.
But so, too, was the joy of watching these characters move through a world that has been seen all too rarely on screen: a young Sasha arranging slices of spam on a plate, two sets of Asian parents who love and support their children’s life choices even though they aren’t doctors or lawyers and a clever, fun rap song by Marcus about tennis balls called “Bounce Back.”
The last scene feels like an episode of Chef’s Table meets When Harry Met Sally, and here the film is operating at its tonal best. There’s also an earlier scene in a Cantonese-style diner that hits this same delightful note. The choice to make Sasha a successful chef who cooks Asian food is a brilliant one given how few Asian women are visible in this space — despite the fact that Asian women home cooks around the globe have perfected and maintained these cuisines for centuries.
Ultimately, the movie feels like the cinematic equivalent of your first time hosting a holiday meal for a huge extended family in a home you just bought: You’re juggling and trying to impress until the end of the night when you finally sit down to eat something yourself. In shouldering the weight of representing Asian love Always Be My Maybe doesn’t quite allow its capable leads to do what has made them stars: just be themselves.
Cast: Ali Wong, Randall Park, Keanu Reeves, Daniel Dae Kim, Michelle Buteau, Susan Park, James Saito, Vivian Bang, Karan Soni, Charlyne Yi, Miya Cech, Ashley Liao, Emerson Min, Jackson Geach
Director: Nahnatchka Khan
Screenwriters: Ali Wong, Randall Park, Michael Golamco
Executive Producer: Brendan Ferguson
Producers: Nathan Kahane, Erin Westerman, Ali Wong, Randall Park
Director of photography: Tim Suhrstedt
Production designer: Richard Toyon
Editor: Lee Haxall
Costume designer: Leesa Evans
Rated PG-13, 101 minutes