With the third and final installment of Jenny Han’s “To All the Boys” trilogy scheduled to premiere this week on Netflix, the author has what feels like an entire era to look back on.
“My hope was just to be able to explore teenage girlhood and have her be Asian American, but not have that be the whole point of the thing,” Han told NBC Asian America of the main character, Lara Jean Covey. “And to be able to just show that look, we can fall in love, we can be a hero, we can be somebody who's desired.”
The first of the trilogy, which came out in August 2018, alongside other culturally influential projects like the blockbuster rom-com “Crazy Rich Asians” and the psychological thriller “Searching,” helped usher in a new age of representation for Asian Americans. It was, in a sense, a debutante summer for the community on screen. Now years later, the upcoming film, “To All the Boys: Always and Forever,” is being released in a different environment. And Han has come away with a few insights about what genuine representation truly means.
For the author, representation shouldn’t be manufactured for it to make a difference.
“I think as a storyteller, and a creator, I have to be servicing the story and thinking about those characters and what feels really true to the story.” she said. “I would venture to guess that most people who are creators are not thinking first and foremost, ‘Let me do some representation right now.’ I think they're thinking, ‘What kind of story can I tell that feels really real and authentic?’ and then you hope that people will connect to it."
Han added: “If you're going into it with this agenda, I don't know that you're going to be able to tell something that feels it can stand on its own, and not just be prescriptive or trying to solve problems of the community you want. I think it's a beautiful byproduct of this thing that you're trying to make and I think that, first, you need to be thinking about servicing the story.”
“I think I just wanted her to have that experience without the center being about her struggling with being Asian,” Han explained. “I think that's usually what we see, when we see stories about people of color, it's really about the struggle.
In the final installment, Lara Jean, played by Lana Condor, wrestles with an uncertain future surrounding her relationship with Peter Kavinsky, portrayed by Noah Centineo, as the pair reach the imminent end to their high school years. While there is conflict in the movie, so much of the film is filled with sweet moments, like the pair’s many romantic gestures toward each other, the bonding within Lara Jean’s blended family, and the lovely displays of friendship between young women. Ultimately, it centers on joy, a concept that people of color are not always afforded in the representations before us, Han said.
“I think I just wanted her to have that experience without the center being about her struggling with being Asian,” she explained. “I think that's usually what we see, when we see stories about people of color, it's really about the struggle.
Han’s observed how, in the past, stories about people of color are given different treatment. Often they’re shelved differently, relegated to tables for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, for example, and carry sad experiences like the infamous “lunchbox moment” of being embarrassed by pungent ethnic food or an inability to fit in at school.
“I think that is a relevant and genuine experience. But I also think that there's so much more to being Asian American than just that experience," Han said. "So while I think it's important to show that it is real, it's also important to show just humanity and, yes, we're all different, but that we’re also very much the same, too. And some things are universal, like falling in love for the first time.”
Through the books and the film adaptations, Han said she’s also been given the opportunity to subtly reclaim many of the cheerful aspects of her Asian American upbringing and normalize elements of her own heritage without making identity the entire focus of the series. Small details, like making sure there’s a rice cooker in the background of the kitchen, and ensuring Lara Jean’s shoes were off in the house, were critical to an organic representation of an Asian American household, Han said.
“As a kid, my mom would put it frozen in my lunch so by the time I drank it, it would be nice and cold,” she said. "There was something really pleasurable for me, just to be able to share something that everyone else thought was weird when I was in elementary school, and then you get to be able to make it a mainstream thing that people can appreciate."
“I was there when they shot the opening scene for the first movie, where she's got her feet up against the wall and I remember she was wearing sneakers. I whispered to the director, ‘Can we please, please take off her shoes. She's in the bed, and they're on the wall,” Han recalled. “Those kinds of moments to me are important to maintain that integrity of the experience.”
With minor details like the inclusion of a karaoke scene in this upcoming film, or the Yakult drink, in the first, Han said she’s been able to reframe some experiences through her own eyes, rather than how others have long-perceived some aspects of Asian American culture.
“As a kid, my mom would put it frozen in my lunch so by the time I drank it, it would be nice and cold,” she said. "There was something really pleasurable for me, just to be able to share something that everyone else thought was weird when I was in elementary school, and then you get to be able to make it a mainstream thing that people can appreciate. Now people will think it's cool. So that was really exciting in terms of this movie.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s absent from some sobering truths, either. In one of the first scenes of the film, which takes place during a spring break trip to Korea, Lara Jean reveals a painful, universally recognized sentiment that so many Asian Americans have in visiting their family’s homelands.
“Movies with people of color have this level of stress on their shoulders to deliver, I think, some sort of definitive representation of the Asian American experience that’s so big and so varied,” Han said.
“This girl, she came up to me, speaking Korean and it’s like they see me and think I understand and then I don't and it’s like I don’t belong,” she says while on the phone with her boyfriend.
Such scenes prove that when it comes to identity, the Asian American story inevitably runs into themes of acceptance and belonging. It’s a topic that has yet to be resolved in the greater society. With a continued underrepresentation in Hollywood, this is perhaps why, Han says, any projects that concern Asian Americans are given so much more weight by the community and given a disproportionate amount of pressure, joking that, ordinarily, no one would expect a romantic comedy to solve systemic racism. Meanwhile, shows like “Bling Empire” have been heavily criticized for being another portrayal of Asians as being “crazy rich,” rather than introducing a newer narrative. It’s another double standard that creators of color have to deal with, Han said.
“Movies with people of color have this level of stress on their shoulders to deliver, I think, some sort of definitive representation of the Asian American experience that’s so big and so varied,” she said. “I think my wish has been that we would just get more stuff and more people can get out there and tell stories that we haven't really seen. I don't know if that's really happening yet or not.”