I have to start with a disclaimer.
Being born and raised in Hong Kong has been a truly rewarding experience that I would not trade for anything. It has allowed me to look into things from two very distinct ways – the traditional Asian in me, and the more international metropolitan view that I have from being exposed to a lot of different cultures.
The last time I was really proud of an Asian film production, probably minus the Stephen Chow classics you can now find on Netflix, was when “Infernal Affairs” got remade into “The Departed” by Martin Scorsese.
Things have changed.
Netflix’s new original film “Always Be My Maybe” struck right at the middle of the Asian and romantic comedy tropes for me and won me over.
The movie has gained steam in mainstream media with positive reviews coming out, and it looks as if Netflix has struck gold again. The latest production starred Randall Park and stand-up comedian Ali Wong, who wrote for the movie alongside Michael Golamco. Nahnatchka Khan, who worked with Park on his hit TV show “Fresh off the Boat,” directed the project.
The movie is a romantic comedy that touched all the right notes – both in the rom-com department and regarding the Asian production part.
The writers surely went to town on the romantic comedy front. The two main characters, Marcus Kim and Sasha Tran, were inseparable throughout their childhood. An awkward experience and different future paths at 18 years old drove them apart. When they reconvened 16 years later, sparks flew again.
To me, that feels like literally every romantic comedy. The almost merciless jokes between each other, some inherent differences in outlooks in life and the will-they-or-won’t-they relationship after time apart resembles and pokes fun at “When Harry Met Sally,” which is the original prototypical modern romantic comedy.
But I am here to write about the Asian stuff, and the movie did start out on the right foot by showing the kimchi jjigae, Sasha’s SPAM rice with Furikake and, of course, the Pocky sticks hammering the nail in.
This movie also draws an unavoidable comparison with the past Asian blockbuster hit, “Crazy Rich Asians,” despite that it’s a bit like comparing apples to oranges. “Crazy Rich Asians” gave the audience a peek into the glitz and glamour, and the theatrics within it definitely worked very well.
However, I do prefer “Always Be My Maybe” because of its modesty and the sometimes hard-hitting scenes I feel appeal to the Asian population worldwide.
Marcus’ dad, Harry Kim, stole the show in this movie. He went from being a comedic relief — from one scene blatantly questioning Sasha’s monetary worth, to another where he somehow ends up posing a dance-off against his adult son — to moving the plot along, encouraging Marcus to rekindle the relationship with Sasha again.
An “Asian family conundrum” came into play for both Sasha and Marcus’ lives. They became best friends as children because of the constant absence of Sasha’s parents. The Trans always worked in their store and neglected their daughter, and it was almost too late when they tried to overcompensate and make up for it.
On the other hand, Marcus and Harry have been somewhat overcompensating for each other as well after the death of Judy Kim, the mother of the household. They might have an unbreakable bond, but Marcus kept using filial piety (basically respecting your parents and everyone who came before you in the family) as an excuse to be content of where he is – living with his dad and playing in the same band at the same dive bar for 16 years.
The familial plot in the movie revealed a very prominent Asian problem, one I am actually struggling with to some degree now. Many Asians, being very career-oriented, often lose touch on something as simple as work-life balance. When you stir in the more communal sense of living and filial piety Asians have deeply ingrained in them, it just gets messier.
This is accentuated when a lot of the pressure on the children’s careers actually originates from none other than the parents themselves. Sometimes, a family dynamic can be like Sasha’s situation, when her parents wanted to provide her the best, yet did not prioritize her. The inclusion of generally complicated Asian family relations elevated the movie in the way it resounded with the audience.
All the heavy, familial tropes explored aside, the movie did have some “we’re Asians, we can joke about that” moments — Harry asking Sasha about her worth as an obvious one. Marcus also learned Cantonese specifically to pander up the ladies working at the dim sum place, and that is totally me when I hear Cantonese around State College.
The one that got me the most, though, is when Keanu Reeves, who plays himself, sneakily went to pay for the $6,400 bill on the double date scene, and Marcus spoke about how Reeves did not even let him fight to pay for that bill. In my mind, that had to strike a chord on every Asian out there as that happens every family dinner.
I found watching “Always Be My Maybe” to be a pleasant surprise in a boring afternoon. In the past, I personally didn’t find myself extremely disheartened by the lack of Asian inclusion and appropriations in Hollywood, due to an inherent superiority I hold on Hollywood over other productions. “Always Be My Maybe” might just have changed my mind, though.
It is by no means a masterpiece, but I think it works just fine with the intention of poking fun at tropes while still resonating with Asian populations. Different voices can add variety, while making the competition better.