While many Asian American critics celebrated the relatable characters and depictions of growing up as an Asian American in the Netflix movie “Always Be My Maybe”, Chinese audiences were less generous. In fact, the movie only garnered 6.2 out of 10 stars on Douban- the Chinese version of Rotten Tomatoes.
One of this summer’s highly anticipated movies, “Always Be My Maybe” is a friends-to-lovers rom-com. It is an Asian American version of “When Harry Met Sally”. The movie tells the story of childhood sweethearts Sasha Tran (comedian Ali Wong) and Marcus Kim (Randall Park of “Fresh Off the Boat”) who reunite in their hometown of San Francisco, 15 years after having a falling out during their teenage years.
Asian American critics highlighted that compared to “Crazy Rich Asians,” a contemporary fairy tale which focuses on people of the Chinese diaspora and the Singaporean ultra-rich social circle, “Always Be My Maybe” is more groundbreaking in capturing the wide variety of Asian American experiences and personalities.
The movie looks at a Korean American and a Vietnamese American working-class family. Their happiness and sorrows are more familiar to the audience and the characters defy the traditional “model minority myth” associated with Asian Americans. There are no doctors and math geniuses, but an underachiever and a chef who is more than upfront about her sexuality.
Instead of falling back to the common trope of “East vs. West, tradition vs. assimilation” ― strict parents with a heavy accent vs. rebellious, Americanized children ― the parents in “Always Be My Maybe” have distinct personalities that resonate with the audience’s common experience: the stereotypically hardworking and frugal ones, but also the fun and effable parents who are far from the “Tiger Mom” image.
Like Chinese American journalist Jiayang Fan of the New Yorker, critics relished the film’s respectful and attentive take on the mundane details that many Asian Americans share growing up in America. Seemingly ordinary acts, such as “the inviolable ritual of removing shoes before entering a house” or eating stinky soup out of a thermos at school, echo with Asian American audiences. Scenes like these are innovative not simply because they reflect the lived experience of Asian Americans, but also because these allegedly “un-American” acts that once ostracized Asian American kids at school are now incorporated into a mainstream American movie. This not only represents an advance in Hollywood’s portrayal of Asians, but also a big step in resisting the perpetual foreigner image attached to Asian Americans.
Yet, the advance in cultural representation in American media and the cute little details that Asian American critics cherish hardly register let alone impress audiences in China. Critics across China’s online platforms, including Douban and Weibo, concentrated their critiques on the plot and the acting of Wong and Park. Few Chinese pay attention to or recognize the cultural significance of the film.
Zi Xi Ye, a Douban user from Guangzhou, calls the film a “mediocre comedy” with “no logic and too few punchlines." Zi Xi Ye's comments are representative of many reviewers who criticize the film’s “unoriginal plotline” and “awkward jokes.”
Critics were also disappointed in Wong. They lamented her acting, which they considered hardly different from her standup personality, and the lack of chemistry between her and Park.
The sharp contrast between Chinese and Chinese American reactions to “Always Be My Maybe” reflects the vast difference between the two groups and their experiences and contemporary cultures.
Chinese Americans have had a very limited presence in American cinema historically. They have often been reduced to the roles of sidekicks and stereotypical caricatures manifested in oversexualized female characters and emasculated male characters (for example, the nerdy, sexless Asian character Han Lee in “2 Broke Girls”).
On the other hand, China has a long, rich history of filmmaking catering to its largely Han Chinese audience. Subsequently, the cultural specifics and Asian representation that Chinese Americans celebrate in "Always Be My Maybe" are not a novelty in China. Why marvel at the scene where a kid takes off her shoes at home when it has always been portrayed on screen?
Although most Chinese audiences are uninformed on the movie's cultural significance in the U.S., a few critics are aware of the long-standing stereotypes and lack of representation that Asian Americans have endured. A Douban user from Beijing praised the film for its recognition of Asian American sexuality and its sophisticated take on stereotypes. Another critic appreciated the film for demonstrating “the immense possibility of interracial fusion between Asians and non-Asians,” especially beyond the more familiar stories of Asian women marrying white men.
Despite the apparent differences between Chinese people and Chinese Americans, these empathetic comments show that there are not only connections among people of Chinese descent, but also a common desire for greater cross-cultural awareness and interracial solidarity.
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