In To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before romantic tropes unfold right on cue, and our heroine, 16-year-old Lara Jean Song Covey, played by Lana Condor of X-Men Apocalypse, is witty and believable. She’s also Asian American.
That’s significant to other Asian American teens, yes, but what’s most striking about it is how mainstream the film is. Like the wildly successful Crazy Rich Asians, it’s aimed at a broad audience of rom-com lovers, of any race. The themes around teenage romance are universal, and in the movie, there is no reference to how Covey’s love life is affected by her ethnicity. There are no stereotypes about being a nerdy Asian, or a quiet and submissive Asian girl. To All the Boys normalizes and translates into film what we’ve always known: All races fall in love, and it’s about time Hollywood shows it.
With Vox calling To All the Boys the “best teen romance of the decade,” and a 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, its story is clearly resonating widely. And while Netflix doesn’t release its viewership or revenue numbers, we now have tangible proof that Asian American rom-coms can be huge commercial successes: the triumph of Crazy Rich Asians, whose $25.3 million box office weekend was the most for a rom-com in three years.
Based on the first book in a bestselling young adult series by Jenny Han, To All the Boys starts with a premise that would make any teenager squirm: Covey’s secret love letters, which she wrote to the five great crushes of her life so far, get sent without her knowledge. Rom-com shenanigans break loose thereafter, and the romance novel-loving Covey manages to be awkward and charming at the same time.
Representation was always at the core of this movie adaptation. Han told The New York Times that she was adamant about keeping Covey Korean American, and only one production company agreed to cast an Asian American lead. Admittedly, Condor is Vietnamese American, and there has been discussion around casting different Asian races in the roles of her two sisters, as well as the lack of an Asian male love interest. But the film remains a win for diversity without singling out any character by it, and the significance of that should not be underplayed. “Because when you see someone who looks like you, it reveals what is possible,” Han wrote.
Asian-led rom-coms have certainly existed before this—but largely in Asia. Stateside, it was seen as groundbreaking when an Indian American woman took the romantic lead in a sitcom, Mindy Kaling in The Mindy Project, and when the first all Asian American family sitcom appeared, Fresh Off the Boat. In 2014, John Cho was cast as the main romantic interest in ABC’s Selfie, but the show was scrapped after one season, just as it gained what AV Club called “creative momentum.” Despite the profusion of Asian American meet-cutes on screens this past week, before this summer, Asian-led rom-coms were still a novelty.
That’s despite the fact that Asian Americans love going to the movies: The Motion Picture Association of America found in 2016 that Asian Americans are the demographic with the highest movie-theatre attendance per capita. The #StarringJohnCho movement, which petitions for Hollywood to cast an Asian leading man, argues that there is a huge demand that’s far from being met—and Crazy Rich Asians supports that notion.
Chu has told E!News that the likelihood of sequels to Crazy Rich Asians (the book series is a trilogy) would depend on box-office success. Indeed, after a hugely successful opening week, Hollywood Reporter reported that the next movie is already in early development. And more Asian-American rom-coms are on the horizon. Always Be My Maybe, an upcoming Netflix movie, is set to debut in 2019, starring Fresh Off the Boat’s Randall Park and comedian Ali Wong, whose Baby Cobra standup special was a huge hit.
There’s still a long way to go for diversity in film, but love stories are a nice way to get there.