John Hughes’ classic teen rom-com “Sixteen Candles” holds a place of honor in author Jenny Han’s novel “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.” Not only does it inform protagonist Lara Jean Song Covey’s concept of romance, but it also plays an integral part of her relationship with a boy. It’s only fitting that Susan Johnson (“Carrie Pilby”) also cites Hughes as an influence and inspiration when it came to directing the adaptation for Netflix.
“I grew up with the John Hughes movies, and those were very important to me as a teenager,” said Johnson in an interview with IndieWire. “I love the challenge of making a movie that wasn’t full of angst and judgment and anger.”
In “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” awkward teenager Lara Jean (Lana Condor) has a life-changing junior year when the boys she once had secret crushes on learn of her feelings. Without the guidance of her older sister, who has recently gone off to college, Lara Jean must contend with the sudden unexpected attention, keeping her younger sister in line, and even opening herself up to romance.
“I love the ‘face your fears’ version of it,” said Johnson. “I just thought that was a good lesson for not just teens but everybody. You can walk out and find something in that movie that you can relate to.”
And while those themes in “Sixteen Candles” might be echoed in “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” the latter is an improvement in one significant way: the portrayal of Asian characters. Hughes’ 1984 comedy has one of the most notorious stereotypes of Asian people seen in film with Gedde Watanabe’s portrayal of Chinese foreign exchange student Long Duk Dong, whose appearance was heralded by a gong in the movie. In contrast, more than 30 years later, Netflix’s rom-com stars three actresses of Asian descent playing sweet, everyday American siblings without a caricature in sight.
“It meant the world to me. It’s not an Asian rom-com; that’s not what we’re saying,” said Condor, who is of Vietnamese blood but adopted by white parents. “It just so happens that the family and the lead girl is Asian, but no one is trying to push that in your face. We’re not trying to be preachy. We just wanted to show the world a glimpse of normalcy. … Life isn’t just one color. I would love to see more of that in the future.”
Normalcy, in this case, is life in the suburbs with high school woes thrown in. It’s untouched by the usual Asian-American narrative of immigration or war and a welcome change for Condor, who has been portraying extraordinary, badass women in “X-Men: Apocalypse” and the upcoming “Alita: Battle Angel” and Syfy’s “Deadly Class.”
“I love that she’s just a sweet and beautiful, empathetic girl. Initially, I was really, really attracted to that because it’s a blessing to be able to play someone with a good heart,” said Condor. “That was what I initially was drawn to, and then of course I love her humor. I think she has an understated and amazing sense of humor.”
Part of that humor stems from Lara Jean finding herself in cringe-worthy situations, which Condor found “super easy” to portray. “I think I’m embarrassed all the time,” she said. “You just walked in on me, and I lost a nail, so I’m embarrassed here. It came pretty natural to me, feeling a little embarrassed and out of place because I think everyone feels that at times. I loved it.”
While Lara Jean’s story is universal, Han wanted to challenge the default image of a white protagonist. She wrote the Covey sisters as biracial children of a white doctor (John Corbett) and a Korean-American mother, who has died. Janel Parrish and Anna Cathcart, who play older sister Margot and younger sister Kitty, respectively, are both hapa or of partial Asian descent.
“I said to the publisher, ‘I really want a photographic cover, because I really want an Asian girl to walk into Barnes & Noble and see an Asian face and see herself,’” said Han. “I think that experience is so rare for young Asian-American girls. They were very much on board with that, and then what ended up happening was it was the first YA book to have an Asian person on the cover and hit the New York Times Best Sellers list. It was really fulfilling as a creator to be able to see people be really supportive of that. … What I was thinking about was to have that kind of a character where people go, ‘Oh, she’s so me,’ to really relate to her.”
As a young girl of partly Chinese descent, Parrish would have been the target audience for this movie.
“I wish that there were more Asian-American leads in films and television that as a young girl, I could look up to. … It was difficult for me to find a good representation where I said, ‘Oh, that looks like me. I identify with this person. I can do that, I want to be that,’” said Parrish. “For me it was actually a Broadway actress, Lea Salonga. This beautiful Asian-American woman was able to do Broadway as well as do film, the Disney princess [singing] voice of Jasmine and Mulan. I was like, ‘Wow, I can do that, I want to follow in her footsteps.’”
The actress is proud to star in a movie with an Asian-American lead and hopes this trend continues, beyond this film and “Crazy Rich Asians,” which is being released the same week in theaters. “There should be more of that, where diversity is normal, that you’re going to see more diverse leads in a film,” she said. “The movie is not about the fact that we are an Asian-American family. It’s about the fact that this girl is going through self-discovery and all the themes of the movie, with sisterhood and family and young love, but we just happen to be an Asian-American family.”
Trying to find that balance of how many Asian cultural elements to add to this American family wasn’t Johnson’s area of expertise. Instead, she went straight to the source to get insight into the Coveys. “I always love to go to the novelist, the original author,” said Johnson. “That’s important to me to understand what they were thinking and if it’s being developed in the way they wanted it to be. If she had told me, ‘I hate the script. I wish they weren’t making this movie,’ I probably wouldn’t have done it.”
In particular, Han consulted on what Korean touches would or would not be seen in the Covey household. In the opening scenes, it’s clear that the Covey home is far more Western in decor than Asian, other than a few portraits, some framed art, and a traditional Asian rice cooker in the kitchen. Nothing screams Korean in any way, and all the girls appear to wear their outdoor shoes in the house, which isn’t very Asian at all.
“We kept it pretty down the middle, except for the food, which [the father] can’t make very well,” said Johnson referring to the character’s failed attempts at cooking Korean cuisine. “A white guy making Asian food.”
“To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” is available to stream beginning Friday, August 17 on Netflix.