My favorite hip hop rom-com has always been Brown Sugar (2002), even with the cheesy story line that paralleled falling in love with hip hop, with falling for your first love. I will always have a place for Brown Sugar, but I think Always Be My Maybe (2019) just usurped Syd and Dre. While the storyline of Always Be My Maybe wasn’t centered on hip hop, there is a Bay Area hip hop classic that ties Sasha and Marcus together:
Building atop the potent humor of Ali Wong and Randall Park, the very specific intersection of being an Asian American from San Francisco makes for an amazing insider lens for this film. Additionally, the storyline following on the concept of ‘home’ could not be more fitting at a time of cultural whitewashing and gentrification in San Francisco, and a time of rising Asian and Asian American diversity in entertainment. In this film, home is represented by a few things, such as a geographical location or city, as a person who provides a secure feeling of home, and as a food— kimchi jjigae.
They hit the mark on representing San Francisco in such intimate ways, capturing the lesser known streets of the Richmond district, poetry nights in the Mission, farmers market at the UN Plaza, eating fries and drinking Jarritos at a foggy Golden Gate bridge, rocking Amoeba and SF Giants gear, and even capturing San Francisco through the character of Jenny— the polyamorous, dreadlocked, underserved community youth group worker, hippie. (We all know at least one Jenny). They also hit the mark on gentrified San Francisco and the hipster— through Mr. Kim’s furnace installation at a new “artisan roast beef sandwich shop in an old record store,” during the double-date scene when Sasha explains to Marcus that the new fancy is “thousand-dollar t-shirts that look like they were stolen off the homeless,” and through Hello Peril’s commentary:
Welcome to the city that used to be free of suckers//
til the techies came in hummers and colonized the gutters//
If I see another hipster openin’ a coffee shop//
I’ll make a body drop with my signature karate chop//
Aside from paying homage to the Bay Area with classics like “’93 til Infinity”— including Too $hort’s “Blow the Whistle”— the film also boasted cameos by Asian American Bay Area music legends, like world-renowned DJ Qbert; Lyrics Born, who plays Quasar and penned lyrics for Hello Peril; and Dan the Automator, who produced the songs, “Hello Peril,” “Tennis Ball,” and “I Punched Keanu Reeves.” These cameos really added to the backdrop of the movie, not only as a location set in the Bay Area, but contextually as Bay Area cultural icons. And if you loved the sound and feel of 90s hip hop, then you will love Ruby Ibarra’s new track, inspired by, and titled after the film: “Always Be My Maybe.” The track matches up to the tone set by “93 Til Infinity,” and is reminiscent of Jurassic 5’s “Thin Line.” Ali Wong-and-Randall Park-approved. I so wish this was included in the movie somewhere, it would’ve been a great bookend for starting off the movie with 93 til. (Available now on iTunes and Spotify.)
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Always Be My Maybe flawlessly weaves in an Asian American experience that is relatable to a specific inside audience, and still leaves room for other viewers to catch on. Sometimes being Asian American means having moments when you’re neither Asian enough or American enough, or lumped together with other Asians, aka.. congratulations, now you’re Chinese. Like when they’re eating dim sum, and remark that they can’t speak Cantonese, but Marcus hilariously recites a greeting in shoddy Cantonese to impress the servers. These moments that poke fun at Asian American experiences are what makes this film so special.
“That’s what’s cool when you populate a movie with those characters… Then you’re not the Asian Person; you’re the insecure person, the artist, the [jerk]. You get to be somebody.” — Ali Wong (L.A Times)
Unlike other rom-coms where a character undergoes a makeover to become worthy or attractive, Always Be My Maybe skipped over these tropes, along with common stereotypical Asian tropes. When Marcus decided not to go to college, they didn’t force Marcus. He works with his dad, smokes weed, makes music with his band, and that’s ok! He didn’t need to stop doing any of this to become worthy of love. Marcus’ “makeover scene” may have included some skin-burning Tom Ford and champagne spit-takes, but it actually started when he decided to grow up and start taking initiative of his life. There wasn’t anything wrong with him, other than his projecting suppressed grief in “stealth asshole” ways; he needed to face his grief and move forward. In the same vein, Sasha didn’t need to give up her hella independent and goal-driven lifestyle in order to become worthy of love. There’s a sexist assumption that a womxn can only have a family or be a “good” mother if she gives up her career or personal goals, but whether or not there was a man in the picture, Sasha was going to build her own family anyway, even if it meant having a baby on her own— and that’s ok, too. “Don’t shame me for going after things, Marcus!”
Ali Wong and Randall Park are amazing onscreen together and are both a huge hit for Asian American representation, but they also made sure to credit the crew behind the scenes. Ali Wong shares a story of bringing her niece on set, meeting director Nahnatchka Khan, and seeing that “this is what a director looks like.. and that this world has so many options for her. There were so many interesting womxn behind the camera.. and see how many people it takes to make a project.” (KTVU the 9)
“As an Asian American, you’re always going to be interested in other Asian Americans from entertainment and the creative fields… So you’re always going to pay extra attention and you’re always going to wonder: If I meet them, will there be a natural sisterhood or brotherhood? I think some of us bringing those people in kind of came from that curiosity. And we felt it, and it felt good.” —Ali Wong (L.A Times)
And like all the Asian American Studies nerds, I loved the Asian American cultural references and easter eggs— from the “Stay Angry” t-shirts, to the band name, Hello Peril, which is a play on the term, “yellow peril.” If there was anything I took away from Asian American Studies and Ethnic Studies, it is the power of SELF DETERMINATION; Wong and Park wrote “a story of their own, for themselves to star in,” (Yamato). They didn’t wait for anyone else to tell their stories, and maybe that’s why this movie felt so good, and that’s why I felt so heard and so seen.
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Sources & Recommended Readings:
Angry Asian Man (Blog)
Jung, E. Alex. Vulture.
(1) “Lyrics to Always Be My Maybe’s ‘I Punched Keanu Reeves’ Rap, Annotated by Randall Park” Jun 05 2019.
(2) “Randall Park’s Small Town L.A” May 29 2019.
Nguyen, Hanh. IndieWire.
(1) “‘Always Be My Maybe:’ Here’s the Story behind that ‘Stay Angry’ T-Shirt.” Jun 01 2019.
(2) “Always Be My Maybe:’ Culinary Code-Switching and Removing Shame from the Asian Food Game.” Jun 05 2019.
Yamato, Jen. “‘Always Be My Maybe’s’ Ali Wong and Randall Park are Doing it for the Asians.” L.A Times. Jun 01 2019.
See SF Gate’s round-up of San Francisco locations featured in the movie.
This badass guitarist jamming to 93 Til Infinity: