Directed by Nahnatchka Khan and starring Ali Wong and Randall Park, Always Be My Maybe is a rara avis. It’s a romantic comedy with Asian-American leads, and that alone would make it worthy of attention. But this film does much more than just mechanically graft Asian-American faces onto a (quite sturdy) rom-com genre framework. Its specificity of detail regarding its setting (San Francisco) and its sociocultural milieu, along with the unforced, delightful interplay between its co-leads and the spirited performances of its supporting players, makes this film something truly special. A good number of the reviews that greeted its Netflix release this past May bizarrely knocked Always Be My Maybe for essentially being…a romantic comedy. Presumably, this was because it fails to radically reinvent the form, which caused some reviewers to declare it blandly conventional. Yes, the film does unabashedly regard When Harry Met Sally as its ur-text, and it more or less follows the familiar narrative contours of its chosen genre: the emotional push-pull between its central couple, extensive use of montage, the climactic public declaration of love. But in this case, these rom-com conventions are best regarded as a frame surrounding a picture, and getting too hung-up on the frame itself makes one miss the illuminating things happening within.
The beauty is in the details here: the deft weaving into its narrative fabric of commentary on locally specific Asian cultures, and its sharp lampooning of foodie culture, especially its exoticism of Asian cuisines for mass consumption.
Here’s what’s inside that frame: An opening montage establishes the growing friendship and budding romance between Sasha Tran and Marcus Kim (Ali Wong and Randall Park, as adults) in San Francisco, from the late 90s to the early aughts, spending much time at Marcus’s house since Sasha is a largely neglected latchkey kid. Sasha’s love of cooking gains much inspiration from Marcus’s mom, Judy (Susan Park), whom she shadows frequently in the kitchen. Judy’s sudden, accidental death finds the two, as young adults, finally consummating their union in a hilarious car-sex scene soundtracked to D’Angelo’s “Untitled (How Does It Feel).” Unfortunately, this upsets the delicate equilibrium of their relationship, causing some regrettable words to be exchanged, and contact broken off. The two reconnect, 15 years later — Sasha is now a globe-trotting celebrity chef and restaurateur, while Marcus is still in San Francisco, a stoner living at home with his dad and fronting a local nerdcore hip-hop band. Typical rom-com complications ensue, and it all gets resolved, more or less, how you’d expect. But again, the beauty is in the details here: the deft weaving into its narrative fabric of commentary on locally specific Asian cultures, and its sharp lampooning of foodie culture, especially its exoticism of Asian cuisines for mass consumption. The icing on this delicious cake is a hilarious, self-parodying Keanu Reeves cameo, by itself worth the price of admission. Though this being Netflix, that’s practically free anyway.
You can currently stream Nahnatchka Khan’s Always Be My Maybe on Netflix.