In its broad strokes, Netflix’s “Always Be My Maybe” is a fairly conventional rom-com, featuring Ali Wong and Randall Park as two old friends, Sasha and Marcus, who realize they were the ones who got away. Witty repartée and grand romantic gestures ensue, among other familiar beats and perennial features of the genre.
Wong and Park, who co-wrote the film with Michael Golamco, set out to make a “When Harry Met Sally” for Asian Americans, drawing details from their own lives. Composed almost entirely of Asian characters, “Always Be My Maybe” represents another step in the right direction for pop culture representation of Asians because the central tensions of the characters aren’t necessarily related to their Asian identities, and could happen in any rom-com.
But it doesn’t ignore their culture and heritage either, acknowledging their importance in the characters’ lives. The film is packed with nuggets of specificity, especially in its use of food that will feel familiar to Asian American viewers, such as the kid versions of Sasha and Marcus eating Pocky while hanging out; or adult Marcus lamenting that he didn’t get to fight Keanu Reeves (playing a hilariously exaggerated version of himself) for the bill at a trendy restaurant.
In its three-dimensional representations of Asians, the film subverts many stereotypes and tropes typically applied to Asians — making Asians feel seen in subtle but powerful ways.
Marcus and his dad Harry, who work together on Harry’s HVAC business, are working-class Korean Americans. It’s a refreshing contrast from a lot of pop culture depictions of East Asians, who are often portrayed as the “model minority,” working in highly lucrative careers.
Unlike the trope of Asian parents as cold and unaffectionate, Harry is warm and fun, like when he accepts Marcus’ dance battle challenge (though he rejects Marcus’ offer to smoke weed together) and when he expresses exuberant support for Marcus’ band, Hello Peril. (Without acknowledging it, Hello Peril is composed entirely of Asian members. Its name is a play on the concept of “yellow peril,” racist fear-mongering against Asian immigrants during the 19th century, which fueled the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882.)
Conversely, Sasha and her parents have a strained relationship because they were largely absent during her childhood — which, in some ways, is the inverse of the trope of Asians as overbearing “tiger parents.”
In both sets of parent-child relationships, the tensions are not always tied to the cultural differences between immigrant parents and their American-raised children, a fixture of many stories about Asian Americans. In fact, the film does not explicitly acknowledge whether Marcus and Sasha’s parents are immigrants — for example, in flashback scenes, Marcus’ parents don’t speak with accents.
Even in its peripheral characters, “Always Be My Maybe” transforms the ways Asians are portrayed on-screen.
Marcus’ girlfriend, Jenny, is an overly effervescent hippie, dreadlock-wearing slam poet, who describes herself as “married spiritually” to Marcus, and teaches performance art at a community youth group.
Sasha’s several Asian male love interests, in addition to Marcus, subvert the trope of the emasculated, desexualized Asian male.
All of these elements (and many more) are a welcome sign that it’s possible to see Asians of many stripes on-screen, and can help chart a course for fuller representation of Asians in mainstream pop culture.