If you had told me five years ago that in 2018 I would watch a romantic comedy specifically about a half-Asian heroine, I would have laughed in your face. For years, romantic comedies have been largely homogenous spaces for white men and white women to find each other accidentally, strike up instant flirtation and fall in love in the most complicated way possible. At best, Asian women like me were quirky best friends. At worst, they were offensive stereotypes.
Enter: To All the Boys I've Loved Before, directed by Susan Johnson and now streaming on Netflix.
Lana Condor stars as Lara Jean Covey, a hopeless romantic who writes love letters to her crushes when her feelings get too strong to ignore. The catch: She keeps them hidden away, never to be read. But through a series of unexpected circumstances, the five letters she penned end up in the hands of the former objects of her affection — including a boy she met at camp and her older sister’s (Janel Parrish) boyfriend, Josh (Israel Broussard). To convince Josh that she isn’t actually in love with him, Lara Jean agrees to fake-date handsome lacrosse player Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo), who also received one of her letters. Of course, this fake relationship turns out to be a lot more than Lara Jean and Peter bargained for.
Jenny Han, who wrote the novel the movie is based on, shopped the rights to the book around, and only Netflix agreed not to whitewash it.
“One producer said to me, as long as the actress captures the spirit of the character, age and race don’t matter,” Han wrote in an essay for the New York Times, “I said, well, her spirit is Asian-American.”
It’s easy to say that race doesn’t matter when you grow up watching girls who look just like you get their happy endings. As a child, I latched onto movies like Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior for no other reason than seeing myself as a hero. But as I got older and discovered romantic comedies, a genre of film that I absolutely loved, I only saw myself in side roles who delivered sassy one-liners.
It's a surreal experience to watch Hollywood finally embrace stories where someone like me falls in love. I never imagined I'd see Asian women in nuanced roles that incorporate race without erasing every other aspect of their identities. But here we are, basking in the glory of To All the Boys I've Loved Before and Crazy Rich Asians.
It's not a happy ending yet, but it's most definitely a happy something.
Better yet, To All The Boys I've Loved Before breaks barriers while still indulging in the lifeblood of romantic comedies: tropes. The film instead adds flavor to classic rom-com tropes, and it executes them so well you forget you've seen a variation of this situation at least six times before. For example, Lara Jean and Peter's fake relationship (a la The Proposal or My Fake Fiancee) quickly morphs into a friendship build on honest communication and mutual trust. They talk about their fears and insecurities, and they share more than a mutual attraction. Peter is smitten with Lara Jean because she is honest with him, and Lara Jean falls for his sensitivity. And in her time of need, he stands up for her instantly. It's a refreshing spin on the "jock with a heart of gold" trope, but even more refreshing? Peter doesn't treat Lara Jean like some silent Asian fetish. In their relationship, fake or not, they are equals.
John Corbett plays Lara Jean's widower father, who endearingly attempts to emulate the cooking prowess of Lara Jean's late mother by cooking Korean dishes. Lara Jean and her two sisters hold onto their Korean heritage in other ways; the movie is sprinkled with Asian foods, Asian-inspired clothing and the all-too-familiar experience of watching Sixteen Candles with a mix of horror and "oh, wow, look at Jake Ryan!"
There's still room for more representation in Hollywood, especially for darker-skinned Asian men and women, who are just as deserving of representation as lighter-skinned Asians. But the fact that we can have these conversations at all is a step forward.
My heart sings for little girls who get to grow up idolizing characters like Lara Jean. They can see themselves as heroines who deserve to be treated special, the main characters in their own narratives. There's a special kind of magic in that, a magic that empowers and emboldens them in a way that only cinema can.
Hopefully, this is just the beginning.