Aline Dolinh is Bitch Media’s 2019 Writing Fellow in Pop-Culture Criticism
Ever since I first saw When Harry Met Sally, the film has become the most vaunted and oddly specific blueprint for all my romantic fantasies. Despite the fact that I was a Vietnamese American girl growing up decades after its original release in 1989, I proudly identified with high-maintenance Sally Albright (Meg Ryan), saw the chunky white cable-knit sweater once worn by Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) as a symbol of male desirability, and believed their reluctant, slow-burn longing was the pinnacle of grown-up love. Naturally, when I learned from a 2016 New Yorker article that comedian Ali Wong was attempting to make “our version of When Harry Met Sally” with her longtime friend Randall Park, my heart was on board long before I knew any of the specifics.
Three years later, I’m delighted to report that Netflix’s Always Be My Maybe—brought to life by the all-Asian American writing team of Wong, Park, and Michael Golamco along with Iranian American director Nahnatchka Khan—goes far beyond that simplistic pitch. One of the foundational comforts of the romantic-comedy genre is its ability to provide near-infinite variations on the experience of watching two people form a meaningful connection with each other. In-universe competence is defined not by the spectacular displays of brute strength or puzzle-box deduction of most action blockbusters, but by the more modest metrics of sincere communication and emotional intelligence. The best rom-coms make their predictability feel not like a weakness, but like a giddily essential pleasure.
Indeed, there’s little doubt that protagonists Sasha Tran (Wong) and Marcus Kim (Park) will ultimately end up together, but the film navigates familiar tropes—rom-comically unworthy suitors to familial neuroses— with a particular deftness that makes its swooning finale feel inevitable and yet utterly distinctive. Always Be My Maybe’s undeniable “Asian Americanness,” far from being a stab at inclusivity or a surface-level gimmick, is simply a material reality of the lives these characters inhabit. The film’s version of culinary San Francisco—from the “elevated Asian cuisine” of Saintly Fare, Sasha’s posh restaurant, to a neighborhood dim-sum parlor—feels as recognizable as the New York City of Katz’s Delicatessen and the Café Luxembourg. The film’s funny, contemporary, and uniquely tender take on the friends-to-lovers formula is further bolstered by its cultural specificity.
Wong’s Sasha grows up as a Vietnamese American latchkey kid in 1990s San Francisco; while her parents work at the store they own, she’s left to lovingly improvise her meals from ingredients like rice, Spam, and the Japanese seasoning furikake. Sasha spends most of her time with her sweet, eager next-door neighbor Marcus, whose mother, Judy (Susan Park), teaches her how to cook Korean recipes like the hearty stew kimchi-jjigae. The bond between Sasha and Marcus is idyllic up until Judy’s tragic death, which occurs when they’re both teenagers. Shortly afterward, in a moment of grief-addled horniness, they have sex for the first time in Marcus’s rickety Corolla.
The ensuing awkwardness is enough to drive a wedge between them for 16 years, during which Sasha’s life ascends into an exceptional vision of second-generation immigrant success: She’s now a resolute, sharp-dressed celebrity chef engaged to Brandon Choi (Daniel Dae Kim), a restaurant-development magnate with aggressively perfect bone structure. In contrast, Marcus still lives at home with his widowed father, Harry (James Saito), and works for his HVAC company. He spends his non-work hours getting high in his childhood bedroom and performing with his struggling rap-rock band Hello Peril. The laws of rom-com narrative inertia dictate that Sasha’s seemingly flawless life must contain a vague yet undeniable void that can only be set right with some unexpected chaos. In this case, she finds herself back in San Francisco to oversee a new restaurant opening alone after her noncommittal fiancé postpones their wedding so he can pursue a business venture (“It’s just that this opportunity has come up for me to go to India with José Andrés,” he explains apologetically).
To her credit, Sasha doesn’t take long to realize that he never truly loved her. When he calls her out of the blue to deliver a clearly unsentimental revelation (“I finally realized … that we need to think bigger in terms of your global branding”), she breaks it off with him on explosive terms, and with Wong’s own viciously focused, slightly absurd raunch. (“I hope you get malaria and shit yourself to death, you shitty piece of shit” she hisses.). It’s a quick joke, but it’s still bracing to see a contemporary romantic heroine—especially an Asian American one, refreshingly detached from the legacy of Madame Butterfly or Miss Saigon—embrace her own capacity for rancorous anger rather than assuming a blandly likable martyr role in response to being wronged in love.
Romantic comedy is one of the few genres in which our human capacity for empathy and vulnerability always triumphs over cynicism and selfishness, and it’s worth celebrating the extension of that empathy to those who have rarely enjoyed the luxury of being seen as default subjects in American culture.
Sasha’s resolute intensity and Brandon’s sincere smarminess are just a couple of the film’s many affectionate variations on established rom-com clichés. Obligatory best friend Veronica (Michelle Buteau), who also answers to Sasha in a professional capacity as her assistant, has to deal with a pregnancy and marriage of her own, rather than merely functioning as a sensible sounding board for the protagonists’ woes. As Sasha’s second decoy suitor, Keanu Reeves plays a gloriously larger-than-life parody of himself who gamely smashes a vase over his head and urges Marcus to fight him, but the audience never doubts why Sasha fell for him.
Wong has confirmed that casting Reeves, who has spoken about his Chinese Hawaiian heritage, was a deliberate decision meant to claim his Asianness as an intrinsic part of his icon status. She always envisioned the role for someone “Asian American who would also be Marcus’s worst nightmare.” Indeed, his loose-cannon charisma seems inseparable from the way he disdainfully utters lines like, “I’m very familiar with Chinese dignitaries, Marcus,” and then proceeds to list their names with increasingly intense enunciation (“Xin Jinping! Li Keqiang! Yu Zhengsheng!”) In turn, Marcus’s disposable girlfriend, Jenny (Vivian Bang), sports cringeworthy locs and teaches performing arts to underprivileged children. She’s eventually revealed as an inadequate match because of her transparently self-serving approach to social justice. It’s arguably almost a little too easy to include one misguided character with locs as shorthand for the broader phenomena of political myopia and ambient anti-Blackness within the Asian American community—yet it’s nonetheless an efficient characterization trick for a fundamentally fluffy story. These figures clearly play a secondary role to the central romance, but also feel lived-in; it’s understood that they have motivations to exist outside the narrative service of the protagonists.
Many of Always Be My Maybe’s most satisfying moments center on financial negotiations. We know that when Sasha’s formerly remote parents show her a receipt for dinner at her new restaurant—with all dishes paid for in full, since they’ve deliberately voided the special treatment they could have received (“Daddy and I even ordered extra shrimp,” Mrs. Tran says with a smile)—that’s a statement of their love for her. Keanu surreptitiously foots the bill for a $6,400 dinner in a scene that feels like a nod to both his own reputation for magnanimity and the way dining out with Asian families inevitably ends with a ridiculously performative battle over who gets to pay the check. Sasha resents the way her parents’ pursuit of financial stability required them to overlook her own care—but she has also internalized their ethic of capitalist striving, initially championing a definition of “trans-denominational” cuisine that has no meaning beyond a marketing buzzword and printing upscale menus on rice paper solely because “white people eat that shit up.”
However, the script is careful to object to Sasha’s perceived lack of integrity rather than her professional ambition in general. It’s clear that she’s an inventive, passionate cook and finds real joy in managing the fast-paced operations of an upscale kitchen, a kind of gratification that the film portrays as necessarily demanding and yet never attempts to characterize her as a deficient woman for pursuing. It’s a refreshing departure from the way most mainstream rom-coms of the 1990s to mid-aughts portrayed their heroines in relation to work. Films like Sleepless in Seattle, 13 Going on 30, and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days were all anchored by young women whose careers in media were shallowly drawn and easily cast aside in favor of love.
Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) in You’ve Got Mail owns an independent bookstore that’s put out of business by a competing chain run by the manipulative Joe Fox (Tom Hanks), a plot point that’s ultimately framed as a necessary, affirming development because she truly loves him. In The Devil Wears Prada, striving assistant Andy (Anne Hathaway) falls out with her boyfriend Nate (Adrian Grenier) over her perceived over-commitment to her job at prestigious fashion magazine Runway, and yet in the end she admits that he was justified. In contrast, Always Be My Maybe vindicates Sasha’s go-getting rather than pathologizing it. During their eleventh-hour fight, Marcus basically calls her a sellout for “catering to rich white people” rather than serving Asian food the way he grew up with it—i.e., familiar, homey, and in “big-ass bowls” rather than trendy shot glasses. Other writers, notably Jenny G. Zhang at Eater, have thoughtfully criticized the film’s treatment of “authenticity” in Asian dining as a “polarity of morality”—as if Asian cuisine is somehow possessed of mythical qualities that render it inherently more “authentic” and yet undeserving of the upscale prices that Western cuisines like French food regularly demand.
In the end, though, the way Sasha and Marcus reconcile isn’t as much an absolute concession to that attitude as it is a simple acknowledgment that those familiar culinary experiences deserve attention in their own right. Sasha doesn’t need to shutter her existing California restaurants in order to earn a happy ending; instead, she opens a new one in New York and names it Judy’s Way, in tribute to Marcus’s mother and the communion they once felt in her kitchen. There are lots of things to adore about how Always Be My Maybe leads Sasha and Marcus back into each other’s arms, notably its undeniable positioning of Asian American men as charming, sexy, and magnetic romantic leads.
Yet to say it’s noteworthy only because it has an Asian American woman falling in love with a man who looks like her also misses the point. In assessing reactions to To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Laura Sirikul rightly observes that, at worst, this kind of superficial analysis ”reinforces the misguided notion that Asian women ‘belong’ solely to Asian men” and would frame Always Be My Maybe as superior solely because women like Sasha can only be claimed as worthy, self-actualized Asian American heroines vis-à-vis their sexual associations with men. A better reason to champion Always Be My Maybe is that its attention to the nuances of the Asian American experience make its romance feel earned. After all, It’s Marcus who chases Sasha all the way to New York; it’s he who realizes that he needs to transform his life in order to be with her, rather than the other way around.
The film is candid about the way almost all contemporary expressions of devotion are expressed through capital—Sasha secretly supports Hello Peril by placing bulk orders for their merch without revealing herself as their benefactor to keep their pride intact, and Marcus wears a clearance-rack suit to their heartfelt reunion after realizing he can’t afford a Tom Ford one. His public declaration of love comes not in the form of a reckless proposal or even a plea for Sasha to take him back, but as a modest request to hold her purse. Their love isn’t an individualistic victory—it’s inseparable from the realization of Marcus’s selflessness, Sasha’s empathy, and the interdependent networks of family on which they’ve both relied. The rom-com is one of the few genres in which our human capacity for empathy and vulnerability always triumphs over cynicism and selfishness, and it’s worth celebrating the extension of that empathy to those who have rarely enjoyed the luxury of being seen as default subjects in American culture.
I watched Always Be My Maybe with my own mother, sprawled out across the couch where we’ve spent countless hours watching rom-coms. But I’d never had quite the experience I had while watching this film, of being able to nudge her while noticing Sasha make herself a bowl of congee or Marcus protest not being able to fight over a restaurant bill while saying, “Ha, we do that!” I’d never considered that quiet warmth of recognition to be a comfort that had ever been available to me. It’s that sense of reciprocation that makes Always Be My Maybe such a wholly rewarding romance for the current moment.