May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. In Canada, it’s Asian Heritage Month. Asia is the largest continent in the world, encompassing countries from the Middle East to the Pacific Islands. As this event is celebrated in North America, the term refers to North Americans born or naturalized and living in the US and Canada with ancestral heritage from these countries. Interestingly, I find this Good Housekeeping site highly informative regarding the AAPI references.
There are many movies made by filmmakers of this demographics in North America. The following are some worthy titles, each has its unique way of leaving a mark. Links are to my reviews on Asian American Press or Ripple Effects.
I’m presenting my list in chronological order to highlight the historical development.
The first studio film with a mostly Asian American cast flying into the ‘mainstream’ radar. Adapted from Amy Tan’s debut novel, it tells the stories of multigenerational Chinese immigrant families in America. The breakout film of director Wayne Wang, who at that time had been making movies for over 10 years. Unfortunately, it would take twenty-five more years for another feature of the kind to come out.
India born Canadian director Deepa Mehta’s final work in the Elements Trilogy, Water was an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film representing Canada in 2007. The heart-wrenching plight of a little Indian girl is told with beautiful cinematography. A ‘Foreign Language Film’ from Canada? Yes, just shows the multiplicity of our identity and the blurring definition of the word ‘foreign.’ This Oscar category was renamed Best International Feature Film in 2020.
Here’s a prime example of the multiplicity of identity. A film adaptation by the acclaimed Indian-American director Mira Nair. The Namesake (2003) is the first novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, the London born American Pulitzer winning writer of Indian descent, who now resides in Italy and writing in her adopted language, Italian. The story depicts a colourful and conflicting journey of the America born second generation visiting their parents’ homeland.
This adaptation of Yann Martel’s Booker Prize winning novel was the winner of Oscar Best Picture in 2013 and with it, Taiwanese American Ang Lee won his second Oscar for directing. Stunning CGI visuals transfer Martel’s magical realism onto the big screen to tell the story of a 16 year-old youth adrift in the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger. Opportune time and place to explore existential issues. Both book and film are worthy of the accolades they had garnered.
The real-life, mixed-race marriage of actor/comedian Kumail Nanjiani and his therapist wife Emily V. Gordon co-wrote this screenplay about a mixed-race courtship between a Pakistani American comedian and his love interest, a white young woman played by Zoe Kazan, with Holly Hunter and Ray Romano as her parents. An entertaining depiction of cultural clash and final resolution.
A quiet, visual depiction of the interplay between modern architecture, human relationships, and the existential search for meaning and connection. A most unusual subject matter aesthetically handled by Korean American director Kogonada. John Cho breaks away from the type cast as Sulu in Star Trek to prove himself worthy as a character actor of quality.
The new trend Asian American filmmakers and talents hope to see, twenty-five years after The Joy Luck Club. Director Jon M. Chu turns Kevin Kwan’s breakout novel into a blockbuster hit, catapulting Asian American talents to mainstream fame: Constance Wu, Awkwafina, Henry Golding (ok, so he’s a British Chinese), Gemma Chan (she too), with the full support of international star Michelle Yeoh (the first Asian Bond Girl in Tomorrow Never Dies.)
Husband-and-wife directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi captured the stunning climb made by Alex Honnold up the 3,000 feet vertical wall of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park with only his bare hands and feet, solo and free from ropes and safety gears. Chin is himself a renown mountain climbing legend and photographer, having mounted Meru Peak in the Himalayas, as well as Everest several times. Oscar winner of Best Documentary Feature in 2019.
Korean American director Andrew Ahn tells the story of an ageing Korean war veteran’s friendship with a shy 8-year-old boy (Lucas Jaye) who shows up with his single mom (Hong Chau) next door. A quiet and poignant portrayal of friendship that crosses the borders of age and race. One of Brian Dennehy’s last films before his death in 2020 at age 81. A nominee for Best Feature Film at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2019.
Daughter of Indian immigrants, Mindy Kaling has made a name for herself with her versatility as a comedian, actor, writer, producer, and director. Late Night is her own story, parallel with her career starting out in The Office as a writer and actor. Here, a girl of Indian ethnicity enters into a late night TV show as a writer, serving the very demanding host Katherine Newbury, played by Emma Thompson. Directed by Nisha Ganatra, a Canadian American of Indian descent. A delightful film.
Chinese American director Lulu Wang shares her own family experience boldly in this semi-autobiographical film. The cultural perspectives of how to deal with a family member with terminal illness could be totally opposite. Instead of a judgemental tone, the film uses an artistic styling and humour to tell a very personal story. Awkwafina became the first Asian American to win a Golden Globe Best Actress in a Motion Picture for her fine performance.
The trend continues. With six Oscar nominations this year and one win by South Korean veteran actress Youn Yuh-jung who plays the eccentric grandma of the family. Directed by Lee Isaac Chung, Minari is an autobiographical drama of Chung’s childhood growing up in an Arkansas farm operated by his immigrant father from South Korea. Gentle and slow-paced storytelling with a powerful punch.