Asian Heritage Month Movie List

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 Joy Luck Club (1993)

Movie poster from 1993

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.

Water (2005)

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.

The Namesake (2006)

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.

Life of Pi (2012)

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 Big Sick (2017)

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.

Columbus (2017)

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.

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

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.)

Free Solo (2018)

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.

Driveways (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.

Late Night (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.

The Farewell (2019)

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.

Minari (2020)

MINARI_02405_R Alan S. Kim Director Lee Isaac Chung Credit: Josh Ethan Johnson

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.

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Published by

Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

15 thoughts on “Asian Heritage Month Movie List”

  1. Thanks for the list of fantastic looking movies! I saw Minari a month or so ago and loved it! The relationship between David and Grandma was beautiful. So glad there were several awards handed out for it!

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  2. Thanks to you, I have enjoyed “Driveways” and “The Farewell” over the past couple of months. I also saw “Crazy Rich Asians” on a 7 hour plane trip last February. Now I must search out the rest.

    I’ve found “Water” on CBC Gem, “Columbus” on Kanopy (again, thanks to you for the discovery of that rich resource!), and “Late Night” and “The Big Sick” on Prime.
    “Minari”, “The Namesake”, and “The Joy Luck Club” are also on Prime, but with a fee, so I’ll leave them for now.

    Thanks so much for this list – I look forward to some great movies!

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    1. Great job in researching these streaming services, Debbie! I’m glad Columbus and Driveways are on Kanopy, I can rewatch them there. You’ll enjoy Late Night and The Big Sick too. Hopefully one day the other titles will be made available on Prime as well. Thanks again for sharing these info! 🙂

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  3. I was interested to see what the others listed as being available on Amazon Prime; Free Solo is there, too. If my heart and blood pressure can take it, I’d like to watch that, as well as The Big Sick. I’ve never read or see The Joy Luck Club, so maybe that should go on the list, too. I really enjoyed this overview of so many good films, Arti.

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    1. I think you’ll be fine with Free Solo because the film doesn’t just capture the risky moments but follow Alex H. as he prepares for the climb, depicting the psychological and relational state with the ones who cares about him. It’s conflicting emotionally. You might like to check out my review. I’d be interested to see what you think about these films on the list. I think you’d find The Farewell interesting as it gives a perspective that’s very different from the Western culture.

      But one film I think is a must-see, is Nomadland, which just won the Oscar for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress. it’s not on this list because the director Chloé Zhao isn’t Asian American, but just Asian, albeit she resides in California. Don’t miss it if you have a chance to catch it.

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  4. I loved Amy Tan’s book “Joy Luck Club” and I felt the movie faithfully honored her stories. Both art forms stole my heart from the very beginning (and it also broke many times experiencing the characters’ pain).
    Also, The Farewell and Minari are on my “to see” list!
    Super list!

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    1. Heather, I think you’ll enjoy them both. Hope you’ll have the chance to explore all these titles… and I’d love to hear your ripples after you’ve seen them. 🙂

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  5. Good post Arti. I loved The Joy Luck Club and have re-read it many times but have never seen the film which I must do. I believe Robert Redford’s late son has made a new documentary film about Amy Tan.

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    1. Nicola, hope you’ll find the chance to watch the JLC movie. I’ll be most curious to see what you think of it. It’s an epic compared to these others on the list. Do check out the other titles as well… all worthwhile to spend your time on. Thanks for visiting and leaving your comment! 🙂

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  6. This was a great reminder that I had had The Farewell on my list, when it became available. I was fascinated by how true to life this sort of dynamic might be, and there was an interview explaining how involved in the process of filming Nai Nai’s family had been and how they still managed to keep the diagnosis from her. I thought it was odd for families to do this, as my experience is that Chinese people are more matter of fact and practical about dying than Westerners.

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    1. Not sure if you have already seen the movie, if not, then consider the next sentence a Spoiler. Six years after the event, Nai Nai was still living! Not sure about the latest… I remember reading one interview (before Covid), Lulu Wang had asked for privacy about her NN. As for your view about the East / West cultural difference, no, I can’t say that’s true from my experience. Actually, the Chinese have many euphemisms for the word ‘death’, and they don’t like to talk about it especially among family members. Even the word for ‘will’ (as in last will and testament) is given the phrase ‘peaceful letter’, not sure if you read Chinese, it’s 平安書. Also, they don’t want to talk about death, especially during celebratory days like during the New Year period. Superstition is prevalent among them. I find this movie depicts the Chinese very accurately, and of course, the whole ruse is not your usual way of dealing with a family illness, but understandably so, and that’s why it makes marvellous movie material.

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      1. Ah, I am so pleased to have that put into context! I have to say that my family on my mum’s side are very pre-planned about everything, so I guess atypical. I remember ping on from learning as a child, ping for balance comes up quite a bit when I do my lessons, it is a useful word.

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        1. Yes, peaceful and safe. Not sure if u know about those red vertical ‘banners’, with positive sayings and good vibes posted at entrances etc.

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