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The Rise of the Asian American Rom-Com

Between the upcoming ‘Always Be My Maybe’ and ‘Crazy Rich Asians,’ Asian-American ensemble romcoms are having a big moment right now.
Crazy Rich Asians
By  · Published on June 1st, 2018

Between the upcoming ‘Always Be My Maybe’ and ‘Crazy Rich Asians,’ Asian American ensemble rom-coms are having a big moment right now.

When Ali Wong first described the project that would become her upcoming film Always Be My Maybe (co-starring Randall Park) to The New Yorker in 2016, she called it “our version of When Harry Met Sally.” In the nearly 30 years since its release, the latter film has become cultural shorthand for a specific brand of smart yet unquestionably feel-good romantic comedy — and for good reason; Nora Ephron’s script captures the rituals of human relationships in a way that still feels delightfully genuine and empathetic. But it’s also a reference that reveals that Asian Americans generally haven’t had any comparably iconic rom-com to call their own. At least, not until now.

Two years after Wong first broke into the mainstream with her Netflix comedy special Baby Cobra, Always Be My Maybe is now being produced by the streaming service and boasts an impressive lineup of Asian American talent. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Wong and Park will be joined by the certifiably dreamy Keanu Reeves and Daniel Dae Kim, along with Deadpool 2′Karan Soni and writer/performer Charlyne Yi.

Always Be My Maybe‘s plot, like that of When Harry Met Sally, seems sweetly predictable. Wong and Park are Sasha and Marcus, respectively, a pair of childhood sweethearts who have a falling out and don’t speak for 15 years — only to reconnect as adults when Sasha, now a celebrity chef opening a restaurant in San Francisco, coincidentally crosses paths with Marcus, a “happily struggling” musician still living at home. “The old sparks are still there, but can they adapt to each other’s world?” the film’s hook asks, as if we don’t already know the answer.

Indeed, the joy of a film like this lies precisely in its predictability. Audiences have already watched enough glossy studio rom-coms to know that Sasha and Marcus will somehow find a way to make things work. What we really care about is the mechanics of it all: the fraught emotional odyssey of how they get there, the way a sharp screenplay can believably capture the process of transforming from estranged friends to awkward acquaintances to a couple. And since the rom-com is usually free from the somber weight of life-and-death stakes, we’re free to direct our passion into more lighthearted and speculative outlets outside Sasha and Marcus’s will-they-or-won’t-they — like the potentially weird charm of the B-plot couples caught in their orbit, in which Reeves and/or Kim would be exquisitely cast as eccentric best friends or loathsomely dashing professional rivals.

But arguably what makes Always Be My Maybe most exciting is the concentrated, unapologetic Asianness of its cast. In this regard, it’s similar to the highly-anticipated Crazy Rich Asians, which stars Constance Wu (coincidentally Park’s co-star in Fresh Off The Boat) as Rachel Chu, an intelligent, grounded Everywoman-type NYU economics professor who discovers that her boyfriend Nicholas Young (Henry Golding) belongs to a fabulously wealthy Singaporean family. The setup is deliciously packed with rom-com archetypes that feel freshly animated by Asian faces and voices — rapper Awkwafina plays Rachel’s quirky best friend and international treasure Michelle Yeoh plays Nick’s gloriously icy mother. While the Asian American-led rom-com is by no means an entirely new concept (last year’s Oscar-nominated The Big Sick and the 2004 indie gem Saving Face come to mind), the sheer opulence and scope of a film like Crazy Rich Asians feels unprecedented.

Given Hollywood’s long history of sidelining Asian Americans, from the explicit mockery of yellowface to the more insidious phenomenon of “unconscious” whitewashing, the existence of two upcoming rom-coms with predominantly Asian ensemble casts feels momentous. The choice to cast Asian Americans as viable and fully realized romantic leads worthy of empathy and emotional investment still feels like a big deal — particularly in the context of pop culture’s shameful history of dehumanizing Asian American men and women alike by designating the former as objects of disgust and emasculation, while the latter were often positioned as either servile “lotus blossom babies” or hyper-sexualized “dragon ladies.”

Even the legacy of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, long considered a classic of the rom-com genre, feels slightly yet unmistakably marred by Mickey Rooney’s bucktoothed, squinty-eyed caricature of Mr. Yunioshi. But by rendering Asian Americans as people in possession of both sex appeal and emotional interiority, and existing not just on the margins but as the protagonists of their own lives, films like Always Be My Maybe and Crazy Rich Asians are forging a new path forward.

It’s true, of course, that media representation alone will never be a solution in and of itself to structural inequality, and it’s a little too reductive to claim that watching a big-budget studio movie is inherently a radical move. After all, Crazy Rich Asians is essentially fun, frothy escapist fare that allows the audience to revel in the Youngs’ extreme wealth; it’s hardly claimed to be an act of pan-Asian liberation or even solidarity.

But these stories shouldn’t have to function that way to matter, and the scrutiny and pressure to provide “worthy” representation for a broad demographic often feels like another exhausting double standard in itself. While middling rom-coms like Confessions of a Shopaholic and Bride Wars aren’t exactly enlightening works of art, no one would seriously presume that their earnest materialism or questionable gender politics are damaging white Americans’ collective standing; Asian Americans simply don’t have a comparable variety of cultural touchstones to identify with, and thus it constantly feels like any media we can call our own has so much more at stake.

Case in point: during a 2002 Sundance screening of Justin Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow, which centers on a band of affluent Asian American teens who turn to petty crime out of boredom, one audience member asked Lin, “why […] would [you] make a film so empty and amoral for Asian Americans and for Americans?” The question famously drew the ire of Roger Ebert, who declared in response that “Asian American characters have the right to be whoever the hell they want to be. They do not have to ‘represent’ their people.”

In presenting their Asian American characters as three-dimensional individuals who get to fall in love and make mistakes and simply be human on screen, projects like Always Be My Maybe and Crazy Rich Asians are doing vital work. The latter is the kind of glittering, epically scaled family pageant that follows in the grand tradition of works from Pride and Prejudice to Downton Abbey; in contrast, the former feels groundbreaking in its happy ordinariness, its willingness to let Asian Americans — so often stereotyped as perpetual foreigners or comically robotic figures — inhabit positions of familiarity and warmth as culinary hotshots or lovable slacker musicians.

In an interview with Allure, Wu herself articulates that same kind of longing to see Asian American culture “demystified” onscreen. “A lot of times people think of Asian culture as some mythical world, instead of modern people with modern occupations with modern problems, modern tools, and modern occupations,” she says. “Like we’re not all just talking Taoism and kung fu — some people are just trying to get over their breakup with their boyfriend, and they’re Facebook stalking.”

We’re still waiting for the next big Asian American rom-com to deal with martial arts and ex-boyfriend drama in equal parts (though the Disney Channel Original Movie Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior admittedly covered this ground fairly well 12 years ago). Until then, we’re hoping that films like Always Be My Maybe and Crazy Rich Asians can expand this moment of visibility into a more permanent legacy for Asian Americans onscreen.

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Aline is a writer and student. She is very passionate about campy period dramas, female-driven horror films, and obscure Star Wars lore.