In Asian-led 'Always Be My Maybe,' ethnicity is secondary
The newly released Netflix movie "Always Be My Maybe," is an Asian American rom-com with a twist: Ethnicity isn't central to the plot.
It's just stand-up comedian and actress Ali Wong and "Fresh Off the Boat" actor Randall Park playing best friends and soul mates who happen to be Asian, which may be the most refreshing part of all.
"It wasn't the type of thing where we sat down and said before we wrote it, 'OK, we got to represent and make sure we're making the perfect Asian American movie,'" Park told The Associated Press. "It was more like, 'Let's make a really heartfelt and really funny romantic comedy, a movie that we'd really love to see.'"
In the flick, best friends Sasha (Wong) and Marcus (Park), who grew up next door to each other in San Francisco, lose touch after a night of passion. They are reunited 15 years later when Sasha, now a celebrity chef, temporarily moves back home to launch a new restaurant.
Meanwhile, Marcus works for his father's air conditioning company while playing in a band. Despite both of them being in relationships and having opposite lifestyles, it's clear the more-than-friends feelings are still there.
Like "Crazy Rich Asians," the film showcases an all-Asian ensemble and it's romantic and funny. But that's where the similarities end.
Wong, Park and Michael Golamco, who met doing theater at the University of California, Los Angeles, in the late '90s, co-wrote the screenplay that has more in common with "When Harry Met Sally" than "Crazy Rich Asians."
While the cast is Asian American, there's no prominent East-meets-West culture clash story line like in "Crazy Rich Asians."
Park, who plays a sweet-natured father of three on TV's "Fresh Off the Boat," has always wanted to play a romantic lead.
"I never really got afforded the chance by the industry. So it was the type of thing 'Well, I guess I got to write it,'" said Park, who is Korean American.
First-time movie director Nahnatchka Khan, who is also the creator of "Fresh Off the Boat," said it was thrilling to watch him embrace playing a romantic leading man.
"He just pulls off the emotion," Khan said. "I think everybody has seen him be really funny in all of his TV and movie work. But to have him kind of carry this movie on his shoulders, you feel for him and you're rooting for him."
Wong, who is Vietnamese and Chinese American, is courted by two other characters played by Keanu Reeves, who is part Chinese and Native Hawaiian, and Daniel Dae Kim, who is Korean American. To see men of Asian descent playing the rivals is significant because those roles could have easily been cast with non-Asian American actors.
"What I find interesting about this particular film is that the three main romantic rivals ... they're all playing different types of Asian American men," said Keith Chow, creator of online pop culture website The Nerds of Color.
The characters are seen doing activities commonly associated with Asians, like eating dim sum or going to a Korean spa. But, there are also subtler nods to Asian culture, like people taking off their shoes when they enter homes.
The filmmakers strived for authenticity, like using a working dim sum restaurant and its servers in a scene.
"It just made the experience even better," Park said.