Netflix’s ‘Always Be My Maybe’ a groundbreaking film for Asian Americans and Hollywood

Randall Park and Ali Wong star in Netflix’s ‘Always Be My Maybe.’
photo courtesy of Netflix

Sometimes the media revolution hits not with a bang, but in a sweet and subversive romantic comedy.

Make no mistake. “Always Be My Maybe,” a recently released Netflix original starring Randall Park and Ali Wong, is one of the most culturally authentic mainstream films yet on Asian Americans.

At the same time, “Always Be My Maybe” boasts universal appeal. Park and Wong play a likable, believable couple, and diverse preview audiences praise the film. This is equal opportunity entertainment, not a diatribe on diversity. Everyone is invited to the party.

“Our intent was to tell a really good, really funny story with a lot of heart,” Park said during a recent San Francisco media tour to launch the film. “Everyone can identify with that.”

Slowly but surely, Asian American-related films keep rising.

Forty years ago, I interviewed Pat Morita (“Happy Days,” “The Karate Kid” movies) and other pioneering Asian American actors for a Rafu Shimpo story on minorities in the media. They sketched a bleak picture for media artists of color, but stayed optimistic.

Then, in 1991, visionary scholars Russell Leong, Linda Mabalot and Renee Tajima wrote in the seminal “Moving the Image: Asian American independent filmmaking 1970-1990” anthology that a cadre of independent artists at Visual Communications and elsewhere were building the groundwork and “a cultural matrix” for Asian Americans in film.

Around the same time, I wrote in the Los Angeles Times that a new wave of media artists and Academy Award contenders were emerging and gaining wider exposure. Filmmakers Wayne Wang (“The Joy Luck Club”) and others spoke of hybrid styles and cultural values that influenced their work.

Today, Asian American media artists clearly are leaping to the next level. The best proof: The recent canon of well-made movies and shows featuring Asian American actors and filmmakers. A sampling: “Always Be My Maybe,” “Crazy Rich Asians,” “Gook,” “Fresh Off the Boat,” “Everything Before Us,” “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” and the “Fast and Furious” movie franchise.

The new generation of Asian American media artists defies labels. They come in many voices and sensibilities. They stay true to their experiences, creating many worlds. They embrace a traditional American ethos, or Asian-style values, or a fusion of both. They invent and reinvent themselves. Their perspectives cannot be walled in.

For a mainstream romantic comedy, “Always Be My Maybe” is a bold step forward. Asian Americans created, wrote and star in the film. There are no cringe-worthy stereotypes. No white power brokers appear to have dictated content in their images.

Most strikingly, Asian American viewers see our lives and cultural values reflected faithfully, in scene after scene, by fellow yellows who know us well. Call it the shock of recognition.

The film’s creators — Park (“Fresh Off the Boat,” “The Interview”), Wong (“Ali Wong: Baby Cobra,” “Ali Wong: Hard Knock Wife”) and playwright Michael Golamco (“Grimm”) — are old friends from an Asian American theater group co-founded by Park while they were University of California, Los Angeles students.

Director Nahnatchka Khan, a rising Hollywood powerhouse, is an Iranian American and lesbian media artist. Khan brought ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat” to millions of primetime television viewers, and she recently signed a four-year production deal with Universal Television.

In “Always Be My Maybe,” Park and Wong’s characters grow up as best childhood pals in San Francisco. One night, they leave the teenage friend zone and clumsily have sex, to their regret. Their friendship fizzles.

Fifteen years later, Sasha Tran (Wong) is a hot Vietnamese American celebrity chef in Los Angeles. Marcus Kim (Park) still lives in his family home and works with his father, installing heaters and air conditioners.

Sasha returns to San Francisco to open a new restaurant, and the pals rekindle their friendship. But when she moves to Manhattan to launch another upscale eatery, an insecure Marcus refuses to join her. Will their budding romance survive?

“Always Be My Maybe” is a groundbreaking mainstream film in many ways, including its:

Portrayal of Contemporary Asian America
The shock of recognition first struck me years ago. Films such as “Cruisin’ J-Town” (director Duane Kubo), “Boulevard Nights” (writer Desmond Nakano) and “Hito Hata: Raise the Banner” (co-directors Robert Nakamura and Kubo) portrayed the Little Tokyo and East Los Angeles of my youth.

Then I saw “Boyz N the Hood” by the late John Singleton. As a native son of the multicultural Crenshaw district and South Central Los Angeles, I soaked up every image. My childhood streets were reflected in a big-time Hollywood movie by a filmmaker of color.

I felt a similar rush with “Always Be My Maybe.” In this case, the familiar geography is contemporary Asian America, a shape-shifting, ever-changing mélange of bronze-skinned people, classes and cultures.

Marcus’ bar band is a pan-Asian crew of funky misfits. Sasha’s movie mother and father are not strict dragon parents, but absentee parents of a latchkey kid. Marcus’ onscreen father (James Saito) is a fun-loving dad who cuddles on the couch with a Diana Ross impersonator.

Some of the cultural references and imagery are so truthful and evocative that I wish “Always Be My Maybe” lasted longer.

In one recurring theme, the film — with the consulting help of Los Angeles chef Niki Nakayama — pays homage to the Asian diaspora’s favorite obsession: Food. Soulful comfort food. Fancy fusion food. Or any food scooped from “a big-ass bowl,” as Marcus says in the film.

In the movie’s opening scene, a young Sasha comes home after school to a cold, empty house. For her snack, she gingerly plates a Hawai‘i-style dish of Spam, rice and furikake, or Japanese dried seaweed and sesame seeds.

In the film’s closing scene (spoiler alert!), Marcus and Sasha reunite in New York, and Sasha surprises her beaux with another restaurant opening. But this time, it’s a down-home Asian diner like the dim sum restaurants that the two loved in San Francisco.

The eatery is named after Marcus’ late mother, played by Susan Park, whose home-cooked Korean recipes fill the menu. The restaurant’s signature dish? The steaming kimchi stew that she lovingly taught the young Sasha how to make before her death.

“I love that scene,” Khan says. “It feels real, and everybody has that connection to their past and that history.”

Only cultural insiders can give us these glimpses into Asian America.

Multifaceted Asian American Characters
For viewers weary of caricatures, the flesh-and-blood characters in “Always Be My Maybe” are a revelation. They’re happy, angry, witty, confident, humble, pretentious and more — the whole range of emotional traits and states.

Park’s character, a blue-collar worker and lead singer in a rock/rap band, is an Asian American everyman. He reminds me of guys of all colors that I grew up with in urban and suburban Los Angeles.

Best known for his comedy, Park plays with perfect pitch a tough-talking but unsure minority guy who is neutered by white society. This multi-talented performer deserves more dramatic lead roles.

Wong’s hard-charging chef character resembles the CEOs and entrepreneurs I’ve profiled as a business writer. A standup comic, Wong shows Robin Williams-like range in her feature film debut. She’s smart, sexy, funny, strong, vulnerable — the complete package.

For much of the movie, Wong is a force of nature. But in one poignant scene, she prepares an exquisite dinner in her rented hillside mansion, then sits and eats silently alone.

Other cast members also excel. Vivian Bang (“Sullivan & Son,” “White Rabbit”) is hilarious as an animal-rights activist and coffeehouse poet in dreadlocks. Daniel Dae Kim (“Lost,” “Hawaii Five-O”) plays a smooth-talking, globe-trotting financier. And action star Keanu Reeves (“John Wick” and “The Matrix”) steals a chic restaurant scene in his funniest role since “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.”

Gender and Class Storytelling
“Always Be My Maybe” isn’t a sermon on social issues, or a racial comedy of manners. The filmmakers and writers focus on the art of storytelling, not the politics of Asian American representation.

But when they do handle explosive topics, they do so with gentle, funny jabs. Or they seamlessly weave those issues into the plot.

For one, you don’t notice, until well into the film, that the writers have flipped the class and gender roles of Hollywood and Asian stereotypes. The scared, unambitious lead character is the guy, while the aspiring professional is the woman.

The film even pokes fun at the code-switching by racial minorities who navigate the white corporate world. “Don’t use your phone voice on me, bitch,” barks Sasha’s best friend, played by talented Caribbean American comic Michelle Buteau.

A Comic Scene Of Asian Americans Doing It
Japanese American actor James Shigeta made film history in 1959 by playing a romantic lead who kissed a white woman in “The Crimson Kimono.”

More than half-a-century later, Park and Wong make cinematic history by bonking in the backseat of a junky Toyota Corolla. He gives tongue. She yanks off his underwear. Marcus practiced for the clumsy tryst by putting a condom on a banana.

Even in a lighthearted romcom, it’s an act of cultural resistance to see Asian Americans doing what horny white teens have done in countless movies.

“I think it’s really powerful and important to see two Asian American people (making love) on the screen,” Wong says. “I hope that teenagers grow up and love watching this movie the way I watched John Hughes films.”

For sure, “Always Be My Maybe” symbolizes progress. But there’s a long trek before Asian Americans come close to equality in Hollywood. The bamboo ceiling still blocks the rise of executives and filmmakers, and many Asian American actors and writers struggle for visibility.

Much depends on how films such as “Always Be My Maybe” perform in the crowded media market.

Netflix, a $14 billion Internet giant in Silicon Valley, rules the streaming video realm. But it faces fierce competition from Amazon, Comcast, Disney, HBO, NBCUniversal, Time Warner and others. Some of the rivals may end licensing agreements that allow Netflix to show their TV series and movies.
If so, Netflix must produce more of its own original content.

Netflix believes that great stories transcend borders, so “Always Be My Maybe” seems to be a good fit. The company is racing into Canada, Europe, Latin America, Japan and other markets, and it’s working on original movies in different languages.

Without box-office revenue, Netflix measures the success of its films and shows by critical acclaim, by hours viewed and by the new online subscribers it draws. Based on the early reaction to “Always Be My Maybe,” many of Netflix’s 150 million worldwide subscribers will enjoy the film in the coming years.

Money talks, and global and cross-cultural consumers are the future. Demographic diversity in the U.S. market has exploded, with Asian, Latino, black and Native American consumers wielding $4 trillion in spending in 2017, according to the University of Georgia’s Selig Center for the Economy. That’s 20 percent of the $20 trillion U.S. economy.

Another sign of change: the 2019 UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report found that films with the most diverse casts — from “Black Panther” to “Wonder Woman” and others — earned some of the highest box office revenues and returns on investment in recent years. Ka-ching, ka-ching.

Khan is optimistic. She believes that more opportunities exist today for all artists, especially given that Netflix has “upended the traditional studio system” with its global Internet model.

No doubt, we’re at a cultural tipping point. We’ve made vast strides from the centuries-old stereotypes in art and culture that historian Edward Said called “Orientalizing the Orient.” If media trends continue, we’ll edge closer to a post-colonial era of more authentic media portrayals.

Let’s hope that Hollywood truly gets the message — and that “Always Be My Maybe” and other films raise the bar and boost the cachet of Asian American media artists.

We’ve waited long enough for the revolution.

Edward Iwata is a freelance journalist in Silicon Valley and the author of “Fusion Entrepreneurs: Cross-Cultural Execs & Companies Revolutionizing the Global Economy.”

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