‘Always Be My Maybe’ came into this world on the butterfly wings of social media, not unlike the way someone in Cleveland tweeted at Weezer urging the musicians to do a cover of ‘Africa’ by Toto, and so they did. The movie began with an offhand remark comedian Ali Wong made in a 2016 New Yorker article about how she and Randall Park had always wanted to do their version of ‘When Harry Met Sally’ but had never gotten around to it.
By this point, their careers were rising fast. ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ had been renewed by ABC for a second season, and Wong’s first Netflix special, ‘Baby Cobra’, which she filmed while eight months pregnant, with a belly so swollen she looked structurally unsound, had become a smash hit, turning her from a gigging stand-up comic to a breakout star. Fans saw the magazine quote and demanded that the movie get made, pronto, and because this is how Hollywood works now, Wong and Park were suddenly swamped with offers for a script that did not exist.
They sold it to Netflix anyway. When they finally got down to it, they hewed loosely to the structure of ‘When Harry Met Sally’ — a friendship that blooms into love over time, lots of parental involvement, lots of meals. The final version, though, wound up owing nearly as much to another of their favourites, ‘Boomerang’, the barrier-breaking 1992 comedy about hot black advertising professionals starring Eddie Murphy, Robin Givens and a young Halle Berry as the plain one.
“It was a movie about black people in this elite business world, but it wasn’t harped on. It was just the reality of their lives,” Park said. “And I think that spoke to us.”
For Wong in particular, ‘Boomerang’ was a brightly coloured vision of sophisticated adulthood filled with women she’d never seen on-screen before — not just women of colour, but also women who took control, who were ambitious and funny, who had enthusiastic sex lives and whose taste in men, with all due respect to ‘When Harry Met Sally’, ran a little more mouthwatering than Billy Crystal.
The women “were so strong and weird and eccentric but confident and, like, hot and sexy,” she remembered. “There’s so many different ways women are funny in that movie that you’d never seen before and haven’t seen since then.”
That’s what Wong and Park wanted to do. A ‘Boomerang’ for them. A ‘When Harry Met Sally’ for them. For them, as in specifically for them to star in and get paid for, but also as in for people who look like them. A movie where two Asian-American nerds get naked in a car to D’Angelo. The back-seat part was also ripped from real life. Park’s life, in this case.
“I’m trying to think,” he began, staring at his salad. “Should I talk about this?” His body language said no, but Wong’s eyes said yes. It felt like something that happens often in their friendship. “The actual story,” he said gingerly, “came from ... elements ... of an experience” — he paused and sort of swallowed — “that I had.” Wong looked delighted. “I mean, it wasn’t as clunky as our movie,” Park quickly added. “I was way smoother. Way smoother.”
‘Always Be My Maybe’, the movie in question, stars stand-up comic Ali Wong and the ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ lead Randall Park, old friends in real life who also wrote the film together and then brought in his sitcom’s creator, Nahnatchka Khan, to direct. Those facts alone — a pair of Asian-American stars, an Iranian-American female director — make it something of a unicorn in Hollywood, even in the era of ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ and ‘To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before’, and to top things off it’s a romantic comedy for grown-ups. Asian-American men rarely get to be the hero in mainstream Hollywood movies and Asian-American women rarely pick the Asian guy at the end.
Growing up Asian-American, with the effects rippling into adulthood, isn’t the subject of ‘Always Be My Maybe’, but it’s not exactly incidental either. What elevates the film from a well-executed if conventional romcom to something more resonant is the breadth of Asian-American experiences it documents, starting with the people who made it.
Khan is the daughter of Iranian immigrants, born in Las Vegas, raised in Hawaii. Park, who is Korean-American, grew up in middle-class West Los Angeles. His father ran a Fotomat, and his mother is a painter. Wong, meanwhile, is half-Vietnamese, half-Chinese and went to private school in the affluent Pacific Heights neighbourhood of San Francisco. In the film, she plays a celebrity chef whose immigrant Vietnamese parents run a convenience store.
Wong’s real-life father was born and raised in San Francisco, and he does not speak with an accent, nor does Park’s on-screen father, a tiny but radical detail — a grey-haired Asian-American who speaks unaccented English — that almost imperceptibly calls out decades of Hollywood depictions. “Not that an accent is bad,” Wong said, “but it’s like... To me, his dad is one of my favourite parts of our movie. He’s cool, he’s a friend, he’s grounded. It feels real.”
In ‘Always Be My Maybe’, the predictable on-screen Asian-American parent-child dynamics — East vs West, tradition vs assimilation, pride vs shame — are inverted. The parents are fine. They’re happy, well-adjusted, American. It’s the kids who are a mess.
Park’s character, Marcus, is another kind of movie unicorn: the stay-at-home stoner. Not like Harold or Kumar — a grown Asian-American man who wakes and bakes, plays in a band and has no intention of rethinking his priorities. This person exists, of course. Wong dated him for like two years. “I loved his integrity,” she said — the sheer purity of his drive to do nothing. “He was a really good guy. He was just stuck.”
Park was that guy for a while. Marcus, he said, is based “to a degree” on himself and his wilderness years. And yet, no matter how plentiful guys like Marcus are in real life, they simply don’t exist in movies, and they certainly don’t get to bed the girl, ever. The movie’s conventionality is part of why it feels like such a breakthrough. It’s genre on the surface, subversive in the details — the way the kids kick off their shoes before they scamper into the house, the boxes of Pocky, the mean waitresses at dingy-delicious Chinese restaurants.
“It was very important to get those details right,” Khan said, “especially in the beginning with the childhood stuff. Those things matter. It’s like, ‘Someone is seeing me!’”
Don’t miss it!
‘Always Be My Maybe’ is now streaming on Netflix.