By Kai Curry
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
It’s bad enough that Netflix’s “A Tourist’s Guide to Love” is unrealistic. One can accept that a movie about a woman escaping a failed love affair by traveling to parts unknown and striking up a new long-term romance is just that—an escape. Something highly unlikely to happen in real life. The travesty is that “A Tourist’s Guide” fails even as something totally made up.
This movie is a cliché and you’ve seen it before. One bright spot is the attempt at a mixed race romance between Sinh, who’s Asian, and Amanda, who’s white—in the Asian man’s home, not in the United States. And it’s not a tropical fling where the non-white male represents “exotic” and “temporary”—we’ve seen that, too (although tbh I could’ve used a bit more steam). “A Tourist’s Guide” does not do that, which is admirable. Otherwise, you know exactly how the plot is going to go and any effort to broaden our horizons, culture- or relationship-wise, barely makes a dent. (Unfortunately, “A Tourist’s Guide” does follow the tropical trope by having the romantic interest be the one to show the stuck-in-a-rut female how to “let her hair down.”)
Perhaps if screenwriter Eirene Tran Donohue, whose family is from Vietnam, had written a story about her own life, it would have been more successful, and more believable. Tran Donohue has said in interviews that “A Tourist’s Guide” is based on her own life—but in reverse. She met a Canadian while in Vietnam, for whom Sinh, played by Scott Ly, is a stand-in as the romantic fling that turns into something permanent—and teaches his love interest how to get more out of life. I would have liked to see that version. Instead, what we have falls flat, without even the benefit of armchair travel to Vietnam. Within five minutes of our traveler landing in Ho Chi Minh City, I’d already gone from, “Wow, this could be a cool, updated vision of the city and the country” to “so Vietnam consists solely of flowers and lit up lanterns,” check. There is no feeling of immersion, and yet neither is it convincing as a strung together tourism commercial.
A new version of what Vietnam could be to Westerners is a good thing. As Sinh, a tour guide, states in the movie, Vietnam is not just about “the war.” But it’s also surely not just the highly polished view we are given here. Even though every new destination on the itinerary was named and semi-elaborated, I still have no good idea where they went or what the people there were all about. I just know they have lots of lanterns. And flowers. Did I mention? According to the film, Vietnam is the “most popular tourist destination,” but this was never qualified. Like, in the world? Our heroine (I really cringe to call her that), played by Rachael Leigh Cook, travels there to check out a failing tour company in case her boss wants to buy it. She’s undercover and you know what that means. Eventually Sinh will deliver the requisite, “how could you lie to me, I’ll never trust you again” speech, which he will then get over once Amanda repents.
After Amanda’s “boring,” “reliable” accountant boyfriend tells her they should take a “hiatus,” her best-friend-best-boss in the world discerns that Amanda needs a vacation and to re-find herself or whatever, which—happy day!—takes about a week. Turns out she’s still just as boring as the original Amanda. But it wasn’t just her. I wish I could say Ly, whose family were Vietnamese refugees but who himself was born in Texas, was a shining beacon of charisma, but also no. Everyone in the film was flat as a 2X4.
Sinh, as the most unethical tour guide in the industry, devotes his time entirely to Amanda, which the rest of the tourists are inexplicably fine with. Even his grandma, played by Nsưt Lê Thiện, who we are told is very “intimidating” is…just fine. Nice lady. Has no problem with him falling for a white woman (LMAO). Wants him to be happy. Why do we meet grandma? Because Sinh veers the whole tour off course simply because Amanda finally gives in to his constant unsolicited advice to be more spontaneous and he takes her to meet his family! With everyone in tow! PS grandma lives in a hotel. Or a house that looks like a hotel. It’s that picturesque.
At one point, Amanda tells grandma she wants to be “just friends” with Sinh. This is the most accurate, realistic statement of the entire movie because that is exactly what they are. They have zero chemistry. Even though nods in the film to Vietnamese traditions are very respectful, Amanda and Sinh do not match nor find common ground of any kind, and the entire movie is filmed as if they were in two different places the whole time. No, really. Watch every scene and imagine that for some reason the actors could not be on the same continent and so the director filmed them separately. Sinh steps out of the ocean. Swap camera. Amanda stares at his ripply muscles (sadly, not as steamy as it sounds). Swap. Sinh smiles. Swap. Amanda smiles.
How do we know they like each other? They smile. Also, he’s very polite and since she is the only non-partnered person on the tour, he is her partner. I can’t believe Amanda would not be the least wary of a tour guide hitting on her. I can’t believe said tour guide would actually be up for a committed relationship! As I say, not even a good fantasy. And not the writer’s real life.
If Amanda and Sinh crested one more hilltop or went around one more blind corner to have her gape in wonderment at the incredible spot he led her to…I would just walk out of this movie. If I was on this tour, I would be extremely angry that this lady was getting all this extra treatment. Excuse me? You sent us back to the hotel and then you took her where?! Can I have a refund?
“A Tourist’s Guide to Love” airs on Netflix Apr. 21 (https://www.netflix.com/title/81424906).
Kai can be reached at email@example.com.