It’s that time of the year again: Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month. There are often lists of Asian American content for readers to watch with the same films on them, such as the iconic Joy Luck Club, the Filipino American centric The Debut, coming-of-age drama Better Luck Tomorrow, and Alice Wu’s 2004 romantic queer drama Saving Face. These films do highlight Asian American cultures, including our struggles against stereotypes and “Model Minority” themes. But they are not the only films that showcase our identities and place in the world.
With the success of Academy Award-nominated films like Minari and Sundance favorite The Farewell, films centering around Asian American history and culture are gaining prominence. There is a call for more stories like these to gain recognition in mainstream media. Fortunately, there are already films that celebrate what it means to be American through an Asian lens.
I cannot speak for South Asians or Pacific Islanders outside of stories that center on mixed Asian/Pacific Islander protagonists; however, I think the following films reflect the experiences of East and Southeast Asians.
The film’s name is historically a derogatory term for Koreans used by US soldiers during the Korean War. But, director Justin Chon set out to reclaim the word so that “our history doesn’t get erased.” In the film, the character explains how the word “guk,” which is its actual spelling, simply means “country” in Korean and how “miguk” means “America.”
Set during the 1992 Los Angeles riots, Gook tells the story of two Korean American brothers. They run their father’s shoe store in a predominantly African American neighborhood. The film explores the tensions between Korean American and African American communities through the friendship between brothers Eli (Chon) and David (David So) and a neighborhood girl Kamilla (Simone Baker) and her brother Keith (Curtiss Cook Jr.). Throughout the film, we learn about David and Eli’s familial ties to the store and their yearning for something more.
Children of Invention (2009)
The concept of achieving the “American Dream” is in many immigrant families’ minds. “Get-rich-quick” and pyramid programs take advantage of this idealization, recruiting many unsuspecting people into schemes. Children of Invention‘s Elaine Cheng (Cindy Cheung) is no exception as a single mother struggling to support her two children.
Loosely based on writer and director Tze Chun’s life, Elaine’s victimization by pyramid schemes led to her eventual arrest. Her children (Michael Chen and Crystal Chiu) are left to fend for themselves with older brother, Raymond, protecting his younger sister from the reality of their mother’s financial problems.
Bao is an 8-minute Pixar short that touched the hearts of children of Asian immigrants. Directed by Domee Shi, Bao centers around a Chinese mother dealing with empty nest syndrome. She interacts with her little bao (pork bun) that has come to life. She experiences what many mothers go through when their children grow up and seek independence.
Like many Asians, she tries to use delicious food to keep her family close. She attempts to bribe bao to stay with her through their love for food. The little bao refuses to stay and, in a desperate effort to keep him near, she eats him. We find out later that her connection with the bao is a reflection of her relationship with her son.
The Half of It (2020)
The director of another iconic Asian American film Saving Face, Alice Wu returns with another coming-of-age drama, The Half of It. The film revolves around a queer Chinese American teenager, Ellie (Leah Lewis). She lives in a small, rural, and mostly white community and dreams of escaping her town; however, she takes care of her widowed father.
The story doesn’t center around Ellie’s Chinese heritage. But many queer Asian Americans can relate to hiding their romantic feelings in a place where they already feel different. The movie isn’t so much a romantic love story, but rather a story of acceptance and friendship love.
Master of None co-creator Alan Yang’s film directorial debut, Tigertail is a deeply personal film inspired by his father’s experiences immigrating from Taiwan to the United States. Pin-Jui (Tzi Ma, Lee Hong-chi in flashbacks of his youth) sacrificed love in order to immigrate to the US, in hopes of finding success in America.
Pin-Jui’s regrets and the burden of an unhappy marriage cause him to become emotionally hardened; this reflects in his estranged relationship with his children. The film definitely shares the generational burdens and trauma that many Asian families suffer from. It shows how the cycle could continue if one doesn’t stop it and find commonality between each other.
It’s no wonder that Minari won several awards for its story and acting throughout the film awards circuit. Based on director Lee Isaac Chung’s childhood as the son of a Korean immigrant farmer in Arkansas, Minari transcends beyond the nuances of being a Korean American farmer in America.
This movie touches on the American experience with its themes of identity, isolation, generational gaps, and what it means to make it in America. Like many immigrant families, there is a divide between cultures and family members, like David (Alan S. Kim) calling his grandmother, Soonja (Yuh-jung Youn), “not a real grandma” because she does not fit the narrative of an American grandmother.
Definition Please (2020)
June Street Productions
Written and directed by Sujata Day, Definition Please tells the story of Monica Chowdry (Day), a former national spelling bee champion. She’s an adult living at home to take care of her ailing mother. Monica tutors a new generation of spelling bee champion hopefuls in her hometown of Greensburg, Pennsylvania.
The film showcases the cultural nuances of being Indian American through their traditions and hilarious interactions. Despite Monica’s reasons for staying, she isn’t the stereotype of the dutiful daughter. Instead, Monica smokes weed, has casual sex, and isn’t afraid to tell her mother how she feels.
Definition Please also looks at how Asian families deal (or, in some cases, don’t deal) with mental health issues, particularly bipolar disorder, through the eyes of Monica’s brother, Sonny (Ritesh Rajan).
The Farewell (2019)
Inspired by true events “based on an actual lie” (according to its tagline), The Farewell comes from filmmaker Lulu Wang’s own family experiences. The film features a family who is keeping “Nai Nai” (Chinese for grandma) from being aware that she’s dying from cancer. Nai Nai’s American-born granddaughter Billi (Awkwafina) has a hard time dealing with the lie. This tension reveals the disconnect between Billi and her immigrant family.
Like Billi, many Asian Americans are torn between the westernized cultures they were raised in and the traditions of their ancestors. In the film, her uncle explains that lying to Nai Nai serves a purpose. It keeps her from feeling the burden of death, instead putting that onus on the family. This exhibits the differences between eastern and western philosophies.
While western society focuses on being an individual, Chinese and other Asian cultures emphasize the collective. It takes Billi some time to accept this and understand the complications of living between two worlds.
Yellow Rose (2019)
The topic of undocumented Asians is rarely spoken about in the media. They are often treated as invisible, which leaves them out from the immigration debate. With Yellow Rose, we get a heartfelt story about a Filipina America girl trying to achieve her goals.
In East Texas, Rose (Eva Noblezada) dreams of becoming a country music star. She has the talent and the skills to make as a singer/songwriter, but one thing is keeping her from fulfilling her American dream: documentation. ICE deports Rose’s mother, leaving her torn between going with her mom and finding a way to stay in the only country she’s ever known.
August at Akiko’s (2018)
August at Akiko’s/Courtesy Photo
This arthouse film set on the Big Island in Hawai’i centers around a traveling musician, a fictionalized version of actor Alex Zhang Hungtai. The protagonist travels back to Hawai’i after nearly a decade to connect with his roots and find his grandparents.
Director Christopher Makoto Yogi, a Hawai’i native, wanted to capture the life and the people of the island; viewers see this through the friendship between Alex and Akiko Masuda, owner of a Buddist Bed and Breakfast. Many Hawaiian films are given the Hollywood treatment and never truly told through the perspective of those who were born and raised in Hawai’i with aloha ‘āina (Hawaiian for love for the land).
Spa Night (2016)
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
Andrew Anh’s Spa Night is much more than a queer coming-of-age flick. It’s truly a family drama about parents’ looming expectations and the doting child torn between two identities. Korean American David (Joe Seo) is his immigrant parents’ only child. They put their burdens of success and expectations for his future on his shoulders.
His parents expect him to find “a nice Korean girl to marry” but they don’t know that David is gay and struggling to comes to terms with his sexuality. The rollercoaster of emotions that David goes through is relatable.
At one point, David sulkingly apologizes to his parents for not having clear prospects for his future because he knows the sacrifices they made for him. The film is distinctly Korean American with locations and environments like the karaoke bars, the spa house, and the church.