Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, ANd Views Are My Game.
If you follow my blog, then you know that the inclusion and representation of Asians in mainstream media is something that’s very important to me. I’ve written at great length here about the limited roles that are available for Asian actors, and discussed the stereotypes that exist, and are still spread about us, in the West. But what I might not have mentioned is that, for all the bad that’s out there with regards to representation, there is also some good. There are films out there, made by Asians and non-Asian alike, that show us as nuanced, well-rounded individuals, and that tell our stories with respect and care. A few of them have even become critically and financially successful, and today, I’d like to share them with you all. Now, keep in mind, this list is entirely opinion based, and the films I discuss here are not being ordered from best to worst, or vice versa. Some are comedies. Some are dramas. Some are new. Some are old. Whatever their genre or time period, what’s consistent about each of them is that they tell the Asian American story with the level of respect and complexity that it deserves, and I truly believe that you all would enjoy yourselves if you gave them a look. With that said, let’s dive right in to my top 10 list of Awesome Asian-American films!
1. Advantageous, by Jennifer Phang:
A story of sacrifice, love, and the bond between mothers and daughters, this 2014 sci-fi drama is set in the near future, where human beings have developed the technology to implant their consciences into new bodies. The protagonist, Gwen Ko, is the chief spokesperson for a cosmetics company. Due to the fact that she’s now in her 40s, the company decides that she’s too old to be their face, even though she’s better at the job than any other candidate. Gwen tries to find work elsewhere, but quickly discovers that this is a future where women are expected to stay in the house. So, to maintain her affluent lifestyle, and pay for her daughter’s expensive private school, Gwen decides to undergo a procedure in which her conscience will be transferred into a younger body. In this way, she’ll be able to keep acting as the chief spokesperson for the company, and her daughter will be able to get a good education, and thus be able to avoid being abused by men. But not all is what it seems to be, as Gwen quickly discovers that she risks losing a whole lot more than her face by undergoing this procedure. Advantageous is smart, touching, and highly relevant in this day and age, where so much emphasis is placed on youth and beauty. It’s also a unique film to watch, because it’s one of the few sci-fi pictures directed by an Asian person. (Nearly all the movies made about, or by, Asian people, are dramas set in the real world, so a genre piece of this nature is highly unusual). The bottom line is, Advantageous is a great, thought-provoking piece, and you all shouldn’t hesitate to give it a look.
2. White Frog, by Quentin Lee:
Nick Young is a 15-year-old Chinese-American boy with Aspergers who’s spent his whole life living in his older brother, Chaz’s, shadow. When Chaz is tragically killed by a reckless driver, however, Nick ends up discovering a number of shocking things about him, not least of which was the fact that he was secretly gay. As the story progresses, and Nick, his parents, and Chaz’s friends and lovers go through their various stages of grief, they find themselves growing closer, and learning the true meanings of love, family, and acceptance, emerging stronger and happier at the end than they were before. On the one hand, this film could easily be written off as sentimental, politically-correct propaganda. The fact that the film is not only focusing on a Chinese-American family–something you rarely see in mainstream movies–but on disability and homosexuality as well, might make it sound like the filmmakers are simply trying to not offend anybody by including as many minorities as possible. But when you actually sit down and watch the picture, see the heart and care that Quentin Lee is putting into every frame, it becomes hard not to enjoy it. None of the characters seem like tokens or cut outs. They feel like people. And with veteran actors like Law & Order SVU‘s BD Wong and The Last Emperor‘s Joan Chen lending credibility to the picture, you know it can’t all be bad.
3. Man From Reno, by Dave Boyle:
The film begins on a cold, fog-shrouded night in a town just south of San Francisco. Sheriff Paul Del Moral is making his usual rounds when, out of nowhere, an unknown man smashes into his windshield. Startled, the Sheriff brings the stranger, an unidentified Japanese man in his 20s, to the hospital, and tries to find out who he is and where he came from. We then cut to Tokyo, where successful crime-writer Aki Akahori is on tour to promote her new, and final, book. Dissatisfied with the whole affair, and suffering from depression after the death of her lover Kenji, Aki decides to run off to San Francisco to visit some friends. While there, she encounters a debonair stranger named Akira, who claims to be from Reno. The two talk, and seem to be forming a connection, when, out of nowhere, Akira vanishes. And as if this weren’t confusing enough, Sheriff DelMoral’s mystery man in the hospital disappears as well. Confused, and eager to understand just what the hell happened, the two parties begin investigating the matters, eventually crossing paths and joining forces. With its slow pacing, rich atmosphere, and ambient soundtrack, Man From Reno is a modern masterpiece of noir. But beyond its style and enthralling mystery, the film also possesses a surprising amount of dramatic heft. Ayako Fujitani, whom plays Aki, manages to bring a great deal of depth and range to the character–going from tough and cynical, to depressed and lonely, to witty and cheerful, and all while remaining very subtle with her expressions and inflections. One of the most powerful scenes in the entire movie is one that doesn’t have any dialogue at all. It takes place shortly after she arrives in San Francisco, and involves her lying in the bathtub, staring at a razor blade. She doesn’t look overly sad or angry in it–just curious. Like “What would it feel like if I slit my wrists with this blade?” The fact that she doesn’t mug, that she doesn’t try to really over sell the fact that her character is depressed and considering suicide, and plays it more like she’s become so numb that nothing really bothers her, is both terrifying and brilliant. We don’t know what she’s thinking in that scene, and that makes it all the more tension filled. But with regards to representation, the film is also great. All the Asian characters feel fleshed out and well-rounded, and this is especially satisfying to watch when you consider the fact that the film’s director/screenwriter is White. Then again, the director/writer in question, Dave Boyle, tends to make films with largely Asian casts, so I guess it’s not too surprising. But, back to my original point; Man From Reno is a stylish, well-acted, well-shot mystery with great characters, and I know that you all would enjoy it if you gave it a look.
4. The Motel, directed by Michael Kang:
Thirteen-year-old Ernest Chin’s life is devoted to working at his family’s hourly-rate motel, where a steady stream of prostitutes, johns, and various other shady characters come and go. Abandoned by his father, he lives with his mother, grandfather, and younger sister Katie. The film is a loosely assembled series of vignettes examining the difficulty of adolescence. Recurring themes include painful encounters with a bully named Roy and Ernest’s persistent feelings of being misunderstood by his family. Ernest also blindly explores his incipient sexuality, which includes nursing a crush on Christine, an older girl who works at a Chinese restaurant nearby. Ernest’s life changes after he meets the newest guest at the motel: a self-destructive yet charming KoreanAmerican man named Sam Kim, who is caught in a downward spiral after estrangement from his wife. This film is quirky, memorable, and deeply heartfelt. It’s one of the best character studies I’ve ever seen. And unlike some other indie films–cough, cough, Juno, cough, cough–which try to set themselves apart from mainstream movies by being overly ironic and hip, this film stays highly grounded. All I can say is that if you want to laugh, cry, and watch some really good acting, give this movie a look.
5. Better Luck Tomorrow, directed by Justin Lin:
Loosely inspired by the real-life murder of Oakland County teen Stuart Tay, this sleek, high intensity crime drama tells the story of four over-achieving Asian-American High School students, who turn to a life of petty crime and drug use just to feel alive again. This film is awesome, and for many different reasons. Firstly, it’s well-acted, and well-shot. Secondly, it boasts an all-star cast–including Sung Kang from the Fast & Furious franchise, and John Cho from the Star Trek and Harold & Kumar movies. Thirdly, it is helmed by Justin Lin, whom directed four of the seven Fast & Furious movies. And finally, and this is what’s most important to me, it doesn’t emasculate its male, Asian characters. So often when you watch movies or TV shows these days, Asian men are portrayed as wimpy, nerdy side-kicks. Raj in The Big Bang Theory, Hiro in Heroes–the list goes on. Asian men are never shown as strong, confident, or sexually appealing. I cannot think of a single, successful, mainstream movie or TV series in which an Asian man was the romantic lead. This film goes the exact opposite route. The guys in this film are, well, guys. They drink, swear, talk about girls, do drugs, and so on. They’re shown as regular people, and that, just by itself, is extraordinary. Why don’t we have more movies like this? It’s not like it bombed at the box office, or was panned by critics. Quite the opposite, actually. It made more than 12 times its $250,000 budget in ticket sales, and most critics, like Roger Ebert, loved it. All I can say is that if you want to watch an exciting, well-acted, well-shot movie that dares to show Asian men as men, don’t hesitate to give this movie a look.
6. Saving Face, directed by Alice Wu:
It’s a sad fact, but homosexuality is something that is often not discussed, or embraced, in the Chinese-American community. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule–when my Aunt came out to my Grandfather, he welcomed her with open arms–but, for the most part, gay and lesbian relationships are not explored in Asian-American cinema or literature. Saving Face, a 2004 romantic comedy about a young Chinese-American surgeon struggling to balance the needs of her pregnant, unwed mother, and her dancer girlfriend, is one of the few Asian films to do so. And my god is it glorious! The humor is great, the acting is superb, and the directing is astounding, especially when you consider that this film was helmed by a first-time director. Each scene is shot and choreographed with the utmost thought and care. Every single frame drips with raw, pure emotion. And lest you think I exaggerate, the stars of this film–Michelle Krusiec, Lynn Chen, and Joan Chen–have all publicly stated that they found the process of making this movie to be one of the most enjoyable and intimate experiences of their professional careers. And, well, you can’t argue with that, now can you? The bottom line is, Saving Face is definitely worth watching. Do so!
7. Chan Is Missing, directed by Wayne Wang:
This is the original Asian-American film. What I mean by that is, it is the first picture portraying us as complex, multi-faceted individuals to gain critical and commercial success outside the community, and to generate a demand for more works from Asian-American artists. And lest you think I exaggerate with that statement, in 1995, Chan is Missing was inducted into the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” It tells the story of two San Francisco Chinatown taxi drivers, Jo and Steve, trying to find a man named Chan who owes them some money. As they interview various locals about the missing man, they get a fractured, even contradictory portrait of him, mirroring the complexities of the polyglot Chinese-American community he allegorizes. Shot in black and white, and containing elements of the film noir genre, the movie manages to combine a surprising amount of heart with humor. And what makes it even better is that, while it does seek to educate its non-Asian viewers about the real lives of Chinese-Americans, it doesn’t try to tell them that we’re all alike, even in goodness. A great deal of the film contains imagery of faces being blotted, or washed out, so that you can’t actually see them, letting us know that it’s never all right to generalize, even if it is in a positive manner. All of us are individuals, and all of us should be regarded as such. Just because we have the same skin color, or ethnic background, doesn’t mean we like the same things, think the same way, or behave in the same manner. We don’t even necessarily want to be treated the same way, and the film touches upon that as well. The final shot is of a photograph of the missing Chan, with Jo’s voice-over stating, “Here’s a picture of Chan Hung, and I still can’t see him,” implying that our community is ever growing, changing and evolving, and that we don’t even know who we are or who we’re becoming some times. So, if you want to see a culturally, historically, and aesthetically unique work that is both humorous and heartfelt, put this film at the top of your Netflix queue.
8. Mississippi Masala, directed by Mira Nair:
The story of one family’s quest to find a place where they belong, Mississippi Masala begins with Ugandan dictator Idi Amin expelling all Asians from his country. One of the newly stateless thousands is a man named Jay, who decides to start a new life in America. He moves his family to rural Mississippi, and there, his wife opens a liquor store, he aimlessly sues the Ugandan government for his property, and his daughter begins an illicit romance with a local man (Denzel Washington). Needless to say, a great deal of hijinks ensue in this smart, sexy, and highly touching comedy-drama. Though its marketed as a love story, at its heart, Mississippi Masala is an exploration of identity and societal alienation. All this can be found in the character of Jay. Jay was born in Uganda, and therefore identifies first and foremost as an African. The Ugandan government, however, tells him that, being ethnically Indian, he can never truly be an African. Then, when he and his family moved to America, he tries to become American. But, once again, society tells him that, because he has the wrong skin color, he can never truly be a member of it. There’s something deeply tragic, and deeply relatable, about his plight. It’s one that many, if not all immigrants, face–not knowing where you belong. My grandfather, for instance, came to America from China in 1949, and faced a great deal of discrimination. People wouldn’t hire him. They wouldn’t serve him. They constantly reminded him that, because he wasn’t White and because he spoke with an accent, he would never truly be an American. And then, when he went back to China to visit after 20 years, people treated him like an outsider, mocking his odd American customs, and his old-fashioned manner of speaking. As I watched Jay go through all this in the film, I couldn’t help but tear up a bit, because I saw so much of my grandfather in him. That’s how you know that this is a great movie, the fact that it can effect its audience members on such a personal level. So, to sum it all up, Mississippi Masala is funny, touching, daring, and deeply relatable. And who wouldn’t want a movie to be all those things?
9. The Joy Luck Club, directed by Wayne Wang:
If Chan Is Missing was the first Asian-American film, The Joy Luck Club was the first Asian-American film to become a huge hit. Seriously. This movie, and the novel that it was based off of, made tons of money, and more or less created the standard for what other Asian-American works of art should be like. And while I don’t think either the book or the film is a perfect representation of our community, I have to admire them for what they are, a movie and a novel made by, and about, Asian people that non-Asian audiences flocked to see. That’s pretty rare, even nowadays. But, concerning plot, Four older women, all Chinese immigrants living in San Francisco, meet regularly to play mahjong, eat, and tell stories. Each of these women has an adult Chinese-American daughter. The film reveals the hidden pasts of the older women and their daughters and how their lives are shaped by the clash of Chinese and American cultures as they strive to understand their family bonds and one another. The film is well-acted, the stories are heart-wrenching, and it’s kind of cool to see a movie with an all-star Asian-American cast. Seriously! Almost everyone in this film has gone on to do other stuff. There’s Ming Na Wen, who went on to star in Mulan, ER, and Agents Of Shield. There’s Lauren Tom, who became known for voice acting in Futurama, King Of The Hill, and Codename: Kids Next Door. There’s Tamilyn Tomida, whom you all might recognize from The Karate Kid: Part 2, and The Day After Tomorrow. Even the women playing the mothers have had successful careers. Tsai Chin, for instance, whom portrays Tamilyn Tomida’s mother, has been in two Bond films, 1967’s You Only Live Twice, where she was the Bond girl, and 2006’s Casino Royale, where she had a minor role as a poker player. The bottom line is, The Joy Luck Club is a well-acted, well-written work with great actors that is guaranteed to leave you in tears, and in the best possible way.
10. The Wedding Banquet, directed by Ang Lee:
Though he’d earned critical praise with his debut feature, Pushing Hands, legendary director Ang Lee first won over the audiences of America with this hilarious and heartfelt romantic comedy. The story of a gay Taiwanese-American man who marries a mainland Chinese woman to placate his parents and get her a green card, the film mixes a surprising amount of drama with screwball comedy. As with The Joy Luck Club, The Wedding Banquet was one of the first films made by, and about, Asian people that Americans flocked to see. And while it does seem a little bit dated now, it is still a well-crafted, highly-enjoyable film to watch. There are glimpses in it of the greatness that would appear later on in Lee’s career, and as with Saving Face, it is nice to see a film that deals with homosexuality within the Asian-American community. All I can say is that if you want to watch a movie and feel good, give this film a look. It will definitely make you smile.