Rachael Leigh Cook has done all that: She’s been a teen breakout star in an iconic high school comedy (“She’s All That”), transitioned to cringe sponsored movies (“Spirit Halloween”), and made the leap to Hallmark Christmas queen (“Tis the Season to Be Merry”). Now, she’s deftly parlayed her everywoman likability into the sweet made-for-Netflix movie “A Tourist’s Guide for Love.”
Yes, “made-for-Netflix” is a category all on its own. While “The Irishman” is considered to be a Netflix Original, “made-for-Netflix” separates the mass-produced movies like the nearly-perfect “Falling for Christmas” and calming background noise of “Murder Mystery 2” from the real Oscar contenders. It’s a sliding scale of quality under the streaming titan’s content umbrella, and Cook’s latest film, “A Tourist’s Guide to Love,” feels like an adaptation of a sweet viral BookTok romance novel — in the best way possible.
Cook stars as tightly-wound Los Angeles career woman Amanda, who is assigned to go undercover in Vietnam to scope out whether the tour travel company she hires is worth buying out. Just before she jets off to her dream vacation, Amanda is slapped with some unsavory news: Her predictable and practical boyfriend (Ben Feldman) puts their relationship on “hiatus” as he relocates to Ohio. Worse? He doesn’t pop the question like Amanda had expected in her planned-out perfect scenario.
Cue up the steamy Vietnamese tour guide Sinh (Scott Ly), and soon enough, Amanda’s rigid rule-following goes right out the window, much like her neatly-packed luggage that went missing at the airport. And while that sounds predictable, other beats of the film take their own path. “A Tourist’s Guide to Love” could have easily opted for Americanized, voyeuristic quality when it comes to capturing the lushness of Vietnam, or even exoticizing Sinh’s character as a local craving Amanda’s sensibilities while in turn teaching her own to loosen up.
Thankfully, “A Tourist’s Guide to Love” is smarter — and more tasteful — than that.
Amanda does do some “Eat, Pray, Love”-ing during her trip — one that is doomed already by her deceptive reason for the vacation, which could involve buying out Sinh’s family business — but rather, it’s Sinh’s excitement and passion for Vietnamese culture that roots the film, not just the characters’ budding romance. “A Tourist’s Guide to Love” is a road map for how to love adventure abroad, with dashes of Vietnamese trivia and spiritual facts along the way.
Director Steven K. Tsuchida (“Younger,” “Cobra Kai,” “Resort to Love”) doesn’t shy away from shooting the rich cuisine of Vietnam like a CNN travel show reminiscent of Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown.” Rom-com touchstones are woven in with cultural traditions; a night market scene is used to adorably show Sinh teaching Amanda how to properly bargain, all while he’s slyly imparting wisdoms like if the vendor doesn’t lower the price, purchasing a symbolic phoenix rising scarf just wasn’t meant to be.
Sure, there’s an inherent eye roll here and there — the traffic tip to jet across the street sans crosswalk is to “always move forward, never back” — but Sinh’s effortlessness translates nicely and makes Amanda learn life lessons by way of local customs. As Sinh warns, their trip and impending romance is not a list of tourist attractions or relationship milestones to be checked off; rather, it’s letting the spontaneity of a life-changing adventure come naturally.
A third act love triangle throws a realistic wrench in the wanderlust romance, with Amanda realizing she was too comfortable and therefore too complacent in her “little corner of the world.” This is a rom-com, albeit “made-for-Netflix,” but one that has an important message that more streamers need to hear.
Eirene Tran Donohue penned the script, with Cook producing the feature, along with Joel S. Rice for Muse Entertainment. “A Tourist’s Guide to Love” is the first U.S. film to be almost entirely shot in Vietnam, and marks the first international production to film in Vietnam since the global pandemic. The winning production make a case for more films to be set in Vietnam, hopefully opening up Netflix’s international production presence just as it deepens Cook’s rom-com roots extend far past the Hallmark Channel to more roles (and parts!) unknown.
“A Tourist’s Guide to Love” is now streaming on Netflix.