Written and edited by Katie Constantine & Tiffany Chan
All images property of Netflix
On the last day of AAPI Heritage month this year, Netflix released Always Be My Maybe, co-written and starring Ali Wong, directed by Nahnatchka Khan. The film tells the story of former childhood sweethearts, taking inspiration from the iconic 1990s Nora Ephron film, “When Harry Met Sally”. Ali Wong plays celebrity chef Sasha Tran opposite Randall Park’s Marcus Kim, a HVAC repairman and musician. After a falling out in their early adulthood, the two recconnect when Sasha comes back to San Francisco to launch a new restaurant.
In addition to featuring an all-star Asian American cast, Ali Wong remarked in several interviews, Always Be My Maybe is also notable for the women on and off screen who made the production possible.
As a romantic comedy starring two Asian-American leads, people will inevitably draw comparisons to last year’s rom-com box office success, Crazy Rich Asians.
Tiffany: Both films are fun but I’d like to think that there is enough media space for both to exist, since they achieve different goals. If Crazy Rich Asians was a love letter to Singapore, this film is a love letter to California, specifically the Bay Area. Crazy Rich Asians was a story about culture clash between the Old World and the New, whereas Always Be My Maybe speaks to the heterogeneity of the Asian American experience. It is a more grounded film than Crazy Rich Asians in several ways, with a lot of the source material being drawn from Ali and Randall’s real-life experiences
The film also shows a spectrum of Asian American success, rather than focusing on how beautiful and luxurious the lives of the exceptionally wealthy are. This is really refreshing because it shows that you don’t have to be rich and famous just to make it to the screen. I think audiences in general may feel that they can identify more with the characters in this story.
Katie: From a film perspective, if they both fall under the romantic comedy heading, then they are housed in two completely different subheadings. One of the great things about Nora Ephron and Rob Reiner was their ability to use generic life experiences to connect to the masses, which is what made When Harry Met Sally a timeless film. Ali Wong and Randall Park used this same strategy when writing Always Be My Maybe. The mass relatability comes from the coming-of-age story that the movie is centered around. Everyone knows that one guy who has so much potential, but doesn’t seem to want to grow up, or that girl who is left to fend for herself when her parents prioritize work over her. These are very common experiences. On the flip side, how many people can say they fell in love with an international billionaire who is set to inherit his family’s business, but only if he abides by certain rules? I would guess not many. If Alway Be My Maybe is today’s When Harry Met Sally, then Crazy Rich Asians is today’s The Prince and Me. These are all romantic comedies, and there’s certainly room for them all, but their storytelling tactics are on opposite sides of the spectrum.
Let’s talk about character arcs. Who is the protagonist, Sasha or Marcus? Were you satisfied with how the characters were developed over the course of the film?
Katie: The protagonist in any movie is the character who goes through the biggest change due to the conflicts in the plot. Therefore, I think Marcus is the protagonist. By the end of the movie, he learns to grow up by moving out of his father’s house, managing his band successfully instead of sabotaging it, and figuring out what he wants in life all so that he can win Sasha back. Sasha on the other hand has a more subtle change. She learns how to forgive people instead of shutting them out, which is shown when she forgives her parents and Marcus, which in turn allows her to keep the door to her past open while maintaining who has come to be in the present. It’s no longer an either-or situation.
Tiffany: I feel like both characters’ arcs are related to the struggles between Asian and American identity, respectively. Marcus is deeply rooted in his community. He stays in his hometown to take care of father but ultimately stagnates professionally. Sasha is the prototype American dream. From humble beginnings, she has risen through the ranks in the culinary world by looking out for herself and becoming very successful. She is always trying to innovate and keep looking forward, but at the expense of forgetting her past (as evidenced by the dim sum scene). As an aside, I’m not 100% convinced of their romantic chemistry but they absolutely nailed being best friends. (No surprise there, since Ali and Randall have known each other for many years.)
Sasha does supporting Marcus throughout his life, during his mother’s funeral, by going to his concerts, and by buying merchandise. The writers probably could have included a gala-equivalent for Marcus but I wonder if the decision not to was intentional.
I don’t view Sasha’s story as a drastic change or quest so much as a homecoming. I view her ending as reconnecting with her roots and the first recipes she cooked and the reason she became a chef. Marcus makes the point that she seemed to view everything from her childhood as Bad but by the end, she has learned how to reconcile haute cuisine with the home-cooking she was raised on. The issue of “authentic food” has been a discussion that has been at the forefront of Asian American content (as long as I have been engaging with it). The food Sasha was making at the beginning of the food was decidedly NOT for consumption by the people she grew up with. She is playing a role and she even acknowledges as much with her decision to put her menu on rice paper.
Much ado has been made about the cameos in this film, specifically Keanu Reeves.
Tiffany: Keanu Reeves is a gem and we don’t deserve him. I think it’s funny how starstruck and surprised Ali and Randall are in interviews because they didn’t think he would do the film! But he is hilarious and adds a lot of levity into the story.
Katie: When there’s a strong female character, it’s great to have a known action star play a ridiculous role next to them because it flips the script a bit. Usually the self-absorbed arm candy used to make someone jealous is a female, but Keanu took on this role masterfully. It reminds me of Chris Hemsworth’s role in the all-female Ghostbusters movie. He played the ditzy secretary who everyone wanted to sleep with, which, once again is another role normally held by a woman. The support of these macho men in flipping the script sends a strong message of support to women in film. Hopefully it will lead to more interesting female characters.
Tiffany: I will emphasize the same sentiment that we had with Crazy Rich Asians. Appreciating representation and hoping for more the next time around are not mutually exclusive feelings.Some might not feel like this film represents them. I personally don’t share any of the exact life experiences of Marcus OR Sasha. But it is too much to ask of one film to ask that it represents all people at all times. We can still acknowledge that seeing this particular story onscreen is a Big! Deal! It feels good to know that those experiences are still worth portraying on screen, even if the protagonists aren’t beautiful, rich, and somewhat exotic (as seen in Crazy Rich Asians). And regardless of your own personal experiences, I think the film does a good job of hitting several topics any Asian American has likely had conversations about. I think the film hit a great balance of funny and more serious and was a big step forward to see (somewhat) regular Asian American experiences. If you still feel as though you want to see a different experience portrayed, I invite you to write your own films and books as well.
Katie: Taking up space is not the same thing as taking other people’s space. This is made clear by how different Crazy Rich Asians and Always Be My Maybe are while remaining in the same genre. No consumer has one interest because real people are complex. And people like diverse stories that reflect their world. Sometimes that’s with a more romantic or fantastical view, and other times it’s with honesty, but it can’t be done without diverse storytellers. There is room for everyone in the entertainment industry, and the more inclusive it is, the better we will be for it.
Always Be My Maybe is now streaming on Netflix