Of all the recent success stories in Asian-American cinema, focusing on Asian diaspora characters (usually Chinese-American, but there are people of Singaporean, Korean, Malaysian, Hong Kong and Vietnamese extraction, amongst others, mixed in here), none has been more notable than the romantic comedy. Of course there are cinematic precedents, like Alice Wu’s touching and likeable Saving Face (2004). However, following Kumail Nanjiani’s well-received The Big Sick the year before, last year’s high-profile cinematic success of Crazy Rich Asians has been matched on the small-screen by the Netflix films To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and this year’s Always Be My Maybe. I expect we’ll be seeing plenty more, and that can only be a good thing.
To All the Boys I’ve Before (2018)
Like any genre, the high school-set teen romcom is responsible for a lot of terrible films — and, more to the point, a lot of terrible messages about how you should be when you’re young, and what you should be doing. A lot of them seem to have been distributed by Netflix in recent years, too, so it’s excellent that finally there’s one that feels just wholly delightful and not problematic. Lana Condor is perfect to play the central character Lara, with just enough self-consciousness about fitting in combined with a winning personality (cue many fine reaction shots destined to become widely-circulated gifs in future, I hope). The film too is keen not to push its romance too far, or indeed to stay too conservative either (there’s a lovely scene with the dad trying to broach sexual health, which is pitched just right). The leading man has a hint of a young Mark Ruffalo to him, which makes his progression from foolish jock to sensitive leading man somewhat easier to take. Sure, there’s still a good amount of suspension of disbelief required (like that these three sisters are actually related), but on the whole this is a winning teen romance… a rare thing on Netflix.
Director Susan Johnson; Writer Sofia Alvarez (based on the novel by Jenny Han); Cinematographer Michael Fimognari; Starring Lana Condor, Noah Centineo; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Friday 17 August 2018.
Crazy Rich Asians (2018)
This big-budget all-Asian cast Hollywood movie is fluffy, silly likeable fun, and even if it does seem to conflate a lot of disparate cultures, it’s obviously done by people who know that Asia is a vast continent, so I don’t think they need the likes of me pointing that out. It’s a film that takes its romcom form from that classic situation of two people who fall in love from across either side of the tracks — if we accept that these are tracks are very far from anything even approaching poverty, and seem to divide being merely wealthy with being extremely wealthy (that much is clear from the title). The film is dripping with decadence, especially once we move to the Singaporean setting of Nick Young (Henry Golding) and his family, though even Awkwafina and Ken Jeong’s poorer neighbours seem to be fairly indistinguishably well-off (and somehow Awkwafina’s character keeps dresses that perfectly fit Constance Wu). Mostly this coasts by on the likability of the cast (pretty much all of them), and the fantasy of unimaginable wealth.
Director Jon M. Chu 朱浩偉; Writers Pete Chiarelli and Adele Lim 愛黛兒林 (based on the novel by Kevin Kwan 关凯文); Cinematographer Vanja Cernjul; Starring Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Gemma Chan, Michelle Yeoh 楊紫瓊, Awkwafina, Ken Jeong; Length 121 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Saturday 15 September 2018.
Always Be My Maybe (2019)
There’s a lot to enjoy about the performances in this film, which in retrospect I think I may have been a little unfair towards in my rating*. There are plenty of interesting characters, clearly drawing from a wealth of Asian-American acting talent, all put to fine use here — my favourite was Charlyne Yi as Ginger, drummer in the film’s band Hello Peril (fronted by leading man Randall Park as Marcus Kim), whose music harks back to 90s alternative hip-hop and, rarely for a film band, are actually quite good (in my opinion). Some of the jokes occasionally landed well too, although I’m sure it would’ve had far more depth to those who come from that background. So basically what I’m saying is there’s plenty to enjoy. Sadly, however, I didn’t think the writing always did these characters justice, and there were too many scenes which seemed rather clichéd even within this over-familiar genre, with some big clunky emotional journeys. Still, great cast and top use of Keanu Reeves.
* UPDATE January 2020: I have since rewatched the film, and I don’t know why I was so harsh originally, as I couldn’t recall any of my previous objections on this occasion. It’s light, dominated by strong and likeable performances, and has an ease and charm to it which I found held up well. Plus, of course, that Keanu supporting role.
Director Nahnatchka Khan; Writers Ali Wong, Randall Park and Michael Golamco; Cinematographer Tim Suhrstedt; Starring Ali Wong, Randall Park, Daniel Dae Kim 김대현, Keanu Reeves; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Sunday 2 June 2019.