As their first first viral video attests, Wesley Chan and Philip Wang have made it their life’s mission as filmmakers to prove one thing: Asian men are sexy. With Harry Shum Jr. (“Glee”) as the leading man in their new mini-series, “Single By 30,” the point is moot. In the series, Shum plays Peter, a nice guy living in Los Angeles working for the family business. With his thirtieth birthday approaching, and his parents thirsting for grandkids, Peter decides he needs to step up his dating game. When his party-loving friend Mark (Eric Ochoa) makes a Facebook event for what was supposed to be a quiet celebration, Peter’s high school crush shows up.
The recently single Joanna (Kina Grannis) reminds Peter of a pact they once made: If they were both still single when they turned 30, they would get married. Joanna turns 30 in five months, and suggests they use the pact as motivation to get back into the dating scene. Peter agrees, though only as a ruse to spend more time with Joanna. It’s a simple plot; one that leaves room for character development and plenty of knocks on dating apps and millenial phone addiction (ironic, coming from two YouTube creators). When Peter tries to pick up girls in real life (or “IRL” as Mark says), he is met with incredulous reactions. One girl asks: “Why don’t you be a regular person in 2016 and just be on an app?”
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Lackluster jokes aside, “Single By 30” represents a step forward for creators Chan and Wang, who wrote, directed and produced the series. Together they have made hundreds of online videos as Wong Fu Productions, which they run with a third creator, Ted Fu. On their YouTube channel, the Asian-American creators tackle subjects like race and dating from a “nice guy” point of view. One of their early viral hits, “Yellow Fever,” addressed the question of why so many white guys date Asian girls, but white girls don’t date Asian guys. In a follow up video published this year, the creators address some more nuanced ideas in “Yellow Fever 2,” adding in a feminist perspective and calling out some of the first video’s simplistic thinking. Romance is a favorite topic for Chan and Wang, but they do also well exploring cultural issues, such as in the charming “What Asian Parents Don’t Say…” short.
Their short films often revolve around a simple idea — a smart play on YouTube — but the execution sets their videos apart from the typical online fare. Shum and Grannis co-starred opposite each other in “The Last,” a short romance about how one man’s past loves led him to his current one. In “Strangers, Again” and “She Has a Boyfriend,” Chan and Wang explore the transient nature of love through the eyes of their sensitive male protagonists.
“Single By 30” lacks the structural playfulness of Wong Fu’s short films, which often jump in time or begin with a seemingly simple question that gets turned on its head. In their first long-form series, it makes sense to play it safe, even if it does not pay off. Peter and Joanna’s romance unfolds rather predictably, and the many digital media references (“Who is Nancy Drew? Is she verified?”) fall flat as jokes. For two creators whose films have always transcended the digital space, “Single By 30” feels very much stuck in it.
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The two leads have good chemistry, and it is refreshing to see Shum in a more substantial acting role after his turns in the “Step Up” franchise (but not to worry — he does dance). Like all Wong Fu films, the world of “Single By 30” is populated — much like Los Angeles and the world — with people of color, many of them Asian American. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Chan and Wang said they started putting their films up online after development executives told them a feature with two Asian leads would never sell.
With over 2.7 million subscribers on YouTube and their top three videos amassing over 10 million views each, Hollywood is taking notice. “Single By 30” is the Wong Fu’s first studio-funded project, produced by New Form Digital and airing on YouTube Red. New Form green lit the project to series after producing the pilot in 2015 as part of the company’s incubator series. Many incubator series pilots have since turned into successful series for New Form Digital, such as “Miss 2059” and “I Ship It.”
“Single By 30” may not be Wong Fu’s finest work, but as these promising filmmakers take on bigger and bigger opportunities, Wong Fu nails yet another nail in the coffin of white Hollywood.