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‘Always Be My Maybe’ Is a Rom-Com for the Subtle Asian Traits Generation

Dir. Nahnatchka Khan — 3.5 STARS

'Always Be My Maybe' still
Randall Park and Ali Wong star in "Always Be My Maybe" (2019)

Sasha and Marcus (Miya Cech and Emerson Min), childhood friends in 1996 San Francisco, share everything, from Marcus’ mother’s kimchi jjigae to appropriately dated Wayne’s World Halloween costumes. Fast forward seven years, and a family tragedy brings Sasha and Marcus (now played by Ali Wong and Randall Park, respectively) closer than ever before — which, after some clumsy fumbling, culminates in the pair losing their virginity to each other in the backseat of his battered Corolla.

The ensuing awkwardness separates the best friends for 16 long years: 2019 sees Sasha celebrating a successful career as a prolific chef and restaurateur, while Marcus sticks around the circles of their upbringing, still performing in local venues with his hip-hop band Hello Peril (colonialist pun intended) and assisting his aging father (James Saito) with the family business. Yet when Sasha returns to the Bay Area for her latest restaurant opening, an unexpected — and yes, duly uncomfortable — encounter brings Sasha and Marcus together again. And again, and again, until they’re forced to reckon with the fact that they just might be destined for each other. Keanu Reeves be damned.

Like most rom-coms, there’s nothing “maybe” about their pairing. From the film’s opening frames, “Always Be My Maybe” clearly wishes to situate itself among the ranks of “When Harry Met Sally,” “Just Friends,” “Some Kind of Wonderful,” and other best friends-turned-lovers fare. Its setup is both admirably realistic, yet tinged with that whimsical caricature quality of classic romantic comedies. Sasha’s other paramours aren’t right for her, including her corporate-minded, Adidas tracksuit-clad manager Brandon (Daniel Dae Kim) and celebrity boyfriend (Keanu Reeves, in a bravura comedic turn). In turn, Marcus dates an equally ill-suited partner: Jenny (Vivian Bang), an environmentalist hippie so granola, she sports a head of unruly dreadlocks. “How does an Asian person even cultivate dreadlocks on their head?” Sasha asks, to which Marcus replies, “A crocheting tool is involved.”

Even though Sasha shoots for the moon and Marcus plays it safe, the film insists that they’re perfect for each other, but just can’t see it for themselves. Yet it’s hard to imagine Sasha and Marcus ending up together, even in the fictive world of Ali Wong’s creation (she penned the screenplay, along with Park and Michael Golamco). Maybe it’s because Wong, whose professional background is stand-up comedy, feels more like she’s in a cameo appearance as Ali Wong than a character role. Or maybe it’s because Sasha and Marcus’ lives have diverged too far: One smokes weed in his childhood bedroom, while the other wears evening gowns on red carpets and frets about Gubi furnishings. Match made in heaven, this is not.

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Reasonably, their lifestyle imbalance emerges as a point of contention in the burgeoning relationship that Sasha and Marcus try to pursue. “I just don’t want to be some dude on your arm, so you don’t have to show up to places alone,” Marcus says indignantly, to which Sasha counters, “What’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with you supporting me? No one would question it if it were the other way around.”

Sasha’s got a point there. Here, “Always Be My Maybe” smartly hints at the emasculation of Asian men, which last year’s “Crazy Rich Asians” handled by trotting out shirtless Asian bachelors with varying degrees of ab definition. Yes, that’s what Wong and Park get right in “Always Be My Maybe” — the appropriate counterpoint to emasculation is not objectification, but emotionality; not sex appeal, but depth. And like “Crazy Rich Asians,” “Always Be My Maybe” celebrates ambitious, driven Asian-American women: “I don’t need you to live my life, but I need you to understand that this is my life,” Sasha says.

Marcus eventually comes around, which isn’t much of a spoiler in a film that abides dutifully by genre formulas. There’s a last-minute rush to deliver a rousing monologue at a pivotal moment, a dénouement that reconciles Sasha’s careerism with Marcus’ ties to home. It’s a sweet conclusion, but it’s also unsurprising — it almost makes us wish for the signature raunchiness and originality of Wong’s stand-up shows. To that end, “Always Be My Maybe” bears the slight, bitter tinge of Netflix Original mediocrity, that banal air of capitalistically motivated art. It ends up feeling like the result of a series of algorithms on user-driven data, meant to galvanize the Subtle Asian Traits crowd. It’d be nice to believe that films embrace diversity not for the business case or the profits, but because it’s the right way to tell meaningful stories.

“Always Be My Maybe” works best not as a love story, but a love letter to the places that have shaped these comics, from city blocks to well-loved dim sum joints where the waitstaff know their clients by dumpling order. It’s an affectionate picture of middle class Asian America with all the signature touches: sneakers removed at the door, hand-folded mandu, scallions cut with a trusty pair of kitchen scissors. It’s also a clarion call to safeguard these traditions from encroaching gentrification, or as Marcus cynically terms one of its symptoms, “elevated Asian cuisine.” He continues to protest, “Asian food isn’t supposed to be ‘elevated.’ It’s supposed to be authentic.”

But in an era of marketing “diverse” stories to “diverse” audiences, which increasingly requires collapsing culture into consumable bite sizes, authenticity becomes a murky territory. What does it mean to make culturally “authentic” art? Who is it for? Marcus delivers the fatal blow: “You’re just catering to rich white people.” You can sense the production team straining to embrace authenticity like Marcus, while being slightly complicit in pandering to as broad an audience as possible, like Sasha. It’s the difference between high-concept Asian fusion and home-cooked dishes “in a big ass bowl”: slight, but discernible to the right palates.

— Staff writer Caroline A. Tsai can be reached at caroline.tsai@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @carolinetsai3.

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