Reunited after 15 years, famous chef Sasha (Ali Wong) and hometown musician Marcus (Randall Park) feel the old sparks of attraction but struggle to adapt to each other’s worlds in Netflix’s latest romantic comedy Always Be My Maybe.
Sasha (Ali Wong) is a celebrity chef, whose pan-Asian diffusion restaurant is beloved for its modern, eccentric dishes. But, except in one very memorable scene featuring a cameo from none other than Mr. Keanu Reeves himself – more on that later – that’s not the kind of food that is eaten onscreen in Always Be My Maybe.
In the Netflix rom-com, childhood friends Sasha and Marcus (Randall Park) kickstart their relationship over a tureen of fiery kimchi jjigae. They reconnect after 15 years of estrangement – something to do with a one-night stand in Marcus’s Toyota Corolla and blistering grief over the death of his mother – through steamers of prawn dumplings. When things are good between the pair, they eat together. When they’re not, the dishes dry up. At one point, Marcus strikes about as vicious a blow as he can muster when he tells Sasha that her cooking isn’t ‘authentically’ Asian. “Asian food shouldn’t be served in a shot glass, it should be served in a big ass bowl,” Marcus says. “You’re just catering to rich white people.”
Always Be My Maybe is a movie about food, and about the ways in which food can be an essential love language, one that, sometimes, will break your heart. And, in that sense, it is one of the best movies yet at crystallising the experience of growing up Asian.
I want to tell you a story, variations of which every Asian daughter has of their own. I grew up in a mixed race household with an Australian mother who loves to cook and a Chinese father who loves to eat, but who – like Marcus’s dad in Always Be My Maybe – is so ill-acquainted with cooking that he has no idea where anything is stored in our family kitchen.
My mum, desperate to ensure that my brothers and I received an adequate Chinese cultural education, would prepare dish after dish for us growing up: oily, soy-sauce slick beef noodles, big vats of won ton soup, slices of poached chicken with bok choi fanned out over the top, languid as a duchess. They were delicious, all of them. But my dad always complained that they were “not authentic”. That they weren’t like the real Chinese dishes his mother could make.
In fairness to my dad, my grandmother is a fantastic cook. (And in fairness to my mum, shut up dad!) One of my earliest memories of her is the weekly banquet that she would produce from her tiny chocolate box of a kitchen in Hong Kong, plate after plate of salty steamed fish, zingy with ginger and spring onions, pickled vegetables, chicken with celery and cashew nuts and crispy pork belly, all served on her precious chrysanthemum-painted china.
Always Be My Maybe, like Crazy Rich Asians and To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before and The Joy Luck Club and The Wedding Banquet and so many other Asian-led movies before it, understands implicitly that the Asian experience is irrevocably tied to the concept of food. For families in the Asian diaspora, as for many other immigrant cultures, food is not only a thread tugging you back to your homeland, but it’s also a sign of devotion, loyalty and love.
In Always Be My Maybe, Sasha and Marcus first connect over food. Sasha is a latchkey kid by necessity as her parents work overtime in their store to provide her with a better life. While on her own, she prepares her own meals – boiled rice and spam, for example – until she befriends Marcus who invites her over for a soup dinner with his parents. It’s there that Sasha watches Marcus’s mother preparing the Korean dishes of her childhood, and begins to understand the power of food.
But no matter how mouthwatering, the food – and the romance – is merely a foil in Always Be My Maybe for exploring a much bigger question of diversity and the power of representation.
Every main character in the movie is a person of colour. The three romantic leads are all Asian men, a pointed piece of commentary from Wong about reframing Asian men as desirable and sexy. And how! From Park’s Marcus, who gazes at Sasha with such sweet adoration to Sasha’s ex boyfriend Brandon (an impressively chiseled Daniel Dae Kim, exuding powerful fuckboy energy in an Adidas tracksuit) and, um, Keanu Reeves as… himself.
That cameo alone, a delightful amuse bouche of meta-comedy, is worth whatever the Netflix version of the price of admission is. Reeves is so playful and gauche, so willing to make fun of his own Reeves-ian persona of a man who might ask a waiter if their restaurant serves any food that “plays with the concept of time”, it’s impossible to watch his, sadly, all-too-brief scenes without a huge grin on your face.
The film is also studded throughout with small details that will give any Asian viewer a gasp of recognition, from the way Sasha slips off her shoes when she enters her apartment to her parents’ plastic-covered furniture and their aversion to taking taxis.
And, through these details, this movie – destined to be watched by a good slice of the 148.8 million people in the world with Netflix memberships – explores what it means to be Asian, exploring the sacrifices of immigrant parents and the fact that none of the leads in this film could be written off as the token Asian. Because they’re all Asian.
The film has plenty more to say on subjects other than diversity, too. Sasha is a successful, ambitious woman with a demanding career, one that requires a lot of heavy-lifting and support from whoever she ends up spending her life with. Someone who, she says, will hold her purse on the red carpet when she has to have her picture taken. When her and Marcus have their blistering fight – the one in which he calls her food inauthentic – Sasha blasts Marcus for using her ambition against her.
“Don’t shame me for going after things,” she says. “What’s wrong with you supporting me? No-one would question it if it was the other way around.”
Always Be My Maybe resolves that conflict in such a perfect way that I don’t want to spoil for you. Suffice to say it draws on the grand gestures in Notting Hill and When Harry Met Sally, two movies whose rom-com DNA is stitched into Always Be My Maybe, while simultaneously updating them for modern audiences.
In the end, it all comes back to food. In this movie resplendent with good jokes and great kisses, the real heart is in a “big ass bowl” of something piping hot, something salty and spicy, something that tastes good. Because, as Sasha tells Marcus, the best kind of food – and the best kind of love – is the one that makes you feel at home.
Hannah-Rose Yee is a writer, podcaster and recent Australian transplant in London. You can find her on the internet talking about pop culture, food and travel.
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