Amanda Zhang: More than just a teen romance

Wednesday, September 5, 2018 - 10:14am

More than just a teen romance

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The summer of 2018 marks the revival of the romantic comedy, or rom-com — a genre once often overlooked as artistically lazy and trite. With major box office hits like “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” and “Crazy Rich Asians,” it seems as though Americans have finally admitted to themselves an architect racing against time to stop his one true love from boarding a plane is both exhilarating and satisfying. As a lifelong fan of the classically cheesy tropes native to the rom-com, I was not particularly shocked by the genre’s return to the spotlight, but I was pleasantly surprised to see the influx of Asian representation, especially in the Netflix original film “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.”

Adapted from fiction author Jenny Han’s young adult novel and starring Vietnamese-American actress Lana Condor, “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” follows Lara Jean Covey, an endearingly awkward half-Korean, half-white teenage girl, after five of her privately written love letters are unexpectedly mailed out. To avoid confronting a recipient of one of the letters, Covey begins a fake relationship with recently single Peter Kavinsky, and teenage romance ensues.

On its surface, the film is light and lovable—the ideal late-night Netflix indulgence. But as an Asian-American girl who grew up watching countless rom-coms in which none of the female protagonists had skin, hair or eyes like mine, “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” is much more than a jovial tale of young love — it is a stark reminder that until very recently, Asian-Americans have had virtually no leading roles in Hollywood.

As much as I value what actors like Jackie Chan and Ken Jeong have done for the Asian community, I would prefer the representation of my entire race on the big screen were not limited to kung-fu masters and Mr. Chow from “The Hangover." Enter Covey, a relatable 16-year-old girl who just happens to be half Korean. That’s it. Covey does not embody any classic Asian stereotypes. She is not timid like that freakishly quiet beatboxer Lily from “Pitch Perfect” or saddled by an overbearing tiger parent like Lane from “Gilmore Girls." Instead, Covey is articulate and actually funny. Her primary concern in life is a fake relationship with a cute boy and, before leaving for her school’s annual ski trip, she endured a painfully uncomfortable sex talk with her father.

Covey is the classic female rom-com protagonist. Yes, she is half Korean, but it is the subtlety with which her ethnicity is incorporated that makes “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” such an important work. This film represents an extraordinary moment for Asians in Hollywood, not because it blatantly censures deeply rooted racism in the film industry, but simply because the lead is Asian and her ethnicity is neither a statement nor a punchline.

Despite the fact that Covey’s Korean heritage is never a central plot point in the film, it does not go completely unrecognized. “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” includes a number of refreshingly subtle scenes that introduce aspects of Korean culture. In one of my favorite moments, Kavinsky is picking up Covey and her little sister on the way to school and asks what her sister is drinking. She is drinking a Korean yogurt called Yakuroto commonly found in Asian grocery markets. The charming love interest gives the yogurt a try and playfully strikes a deal with the sister, promising to take her to school every day in exchange for a bottle. The scene is an endearing moment in which Kavinsky begins to win over Covey’s precocious little sister, but it is also a delightful example of open-mindedness and cultural exchange.

Growing up as a child of Chinese immigrants, I was always slightly hesitant to reveal aspects of my culture. Out of fear of appearing unconventional, I used forks instead of chopsticks around my white friends and always suggested going to other people’s houses to hang out. While I have since overcome this anxiety, Kavinsky’s immediately positive reaction to the yogurt and the casual manner with which they discuss it are a gentle reminder that exposure to different lifestyles is the key to promoting a more integrative and inclusive society. The film’s subtle nod to a common Asian household item offers a powerful message that Hollywood thus far has largely neglected — our different backgrounds are not meant to be tucked away at home, but instead shared with others.

Though Asians have seen a rise in Hollywood representation this summer, there are still massive strides to be made as the film and television industry is still replete with archaic standards of beauty and worth. When she was first approaching production companies to convert her novel into a film, Han reportedly turned down multiple offers after producers pressured her to whitewash Covey. This is not particularly surprising, considering it took a quarter-century for a major motion picture to anchor a predominantly Asian cast with this summer’s box office hit, “Crazy Rich Asians.”

Needless to say, these films featuring Asian leads were not produced without their fair share of adversity. “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” is a momentous film for the Asian community, but it is not enough for the little girls like me who grow up believing only white women deserve to be fantastically swept off their feet. Hollywood needs to do better.

Amanda Zhang can be reached at amanzhang@umich.edu