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Asian-Americans in Cinema - Modern Films to Watch and Love

Updated: May 29, 2023


Everything, Everywhere, All at Once - a laudable film that distinctly centers an Asian-American narrative - dominated at the 96th Annual Academy Awards with seven wins and eleven nominations. For good reason. The film is heartwarming, heartbreaking, brilliant, and complex. Its success is groundbreaking in the Asian-American community. Michelle Yeoh is the first Southeast Asian-American woman to earn the Best Actress Oscar, and many applaud Ke Huy Quan of Indiana Jones and The Goonies fame for his comeback, when he was initially pushed into retirement during the early 2000s for a lack of opportunity. With the film’s astounding success in mind, I’d like to reflect on some historic films that—like Everything, Everywhere, All at Once—have transformed pop culture by including Asian-American actorsand Asian-American culture in their narratives.


Everything, Everywhere, All at Once


Where to begin with this movie - first and foremost, it is strange. It is a wonder how a sci-fi comedy, a film often overlooked by the Academy and often excluded from the category of “high art,” could become so universally loved. In watching the movie itself, however, its depth becomes abundantly clear. What this film proves is that Asian-American individuals can have many kinds of stories. A common pitfall I find in many movies that center Asian-American narratives (and in general, racial/ethnic minority narratives) is that sometimes, suffering and generational trauma is utilized in a tried and tested way to appeal to the audience. While Everything, Everywhere, All at Once still possesses some of the same features, it presents them in a deeply realistic manner - despite the movie being incredibly sci-fi. Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) is more than a harsh tiger mom, and her relationship with her daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu) is the most realistic depiction I’ve ever seen. The frustration from both in attempting to understand one another is deeply understandable, with neither one being villainized. In addition, I find that many stories with these types of relationships tend towards villainizing the parent and depicting them as set in their ways - blunt and unchangeable. Evelyn is our complex main character - it is not so often you see an older, Chinese-American immigrant mother in a leading role on the big screen. This movie has more than earned all of its acclaims.


Crazy Rich Asians


This may seem an odd contender for “historic Asian-American films.” It’s a feel-good rom-com, a genre not typically known for its depth. I would argue that it is necessary, however, to acknowledge that many films featuring racial/ethnic minority characters are held to a high standard to perform as deeper and more meaningful than films that feature their white counterparts. Crazy Rich Asians, upon its release, was the first modern story with an all-Asian cast in 25 years - the last being The Joy Luck Club. It is an earnest, straightforward romance, and its road to production wasn’t easy. It is historic for the very reason that Asian-American actors are permitted to have a film that is simply fun - not just a romantic comedy, but a form of interesting lifestyle content on the lives of the Asian uppercrust. That isn’t to say the film is completely unserious or without depth - it centers a unique discussion on the clashing experience of mainland Asian and diaspora Asian individuals, featuring an Asian-American female lead alongside her wealthy mainland boyfriend. This is a discourse not too commonly acknowledged in any form of media, but deeply important nonetheless.


Minari


Make no mistake, Minari is a distinctly Asian-American film - despite a large portion of the film’s dialogue being in Korean. No film has so blatantly captured the struggles, successes, and mild comedy of being an American immigrant. The film follows a Korean family who has just recently moved to a small plot of land in Arkansas. Like the leafy green titular vegetable, the members of this family are transplants: settling their roots in new soil. What better way to capture this common Asian-American narrative? The film carries a tone of level realism, with each family member struggling in their new home. There are frustrations, struggles, and honesty. It is a deeply intimate look into what it means to be an American immigrant. To be clear, this is no glamorized American dream narrative. And how ironic that the film itself was placed as a contender (and awarded) for Best Foreign Film at the Golden Globes. The situation was comparable to the narrative presented in Minari. Filled with a little disappointment, but unfortunately, deeply realistic. Minari is a must-watch for those children of the diaspora, seeking comfort and yearning to be understood.


The Farewell


Another film that focuses on the disparity in the experiences of mainland Asian and Asian-American individuals, The Farewell follows Chinese-American Billi, who travels to Changchun to say goodbye to her grandmother, who is entirely unaware she has only a few weeks to live. The family gathers under the guise of a joyful wedding to explain their presence, cleverly deceiving the family matriarch. It is a story that puts tradition under the lenses of American youths. Billi is torn, navigating her family’s expectations and values alongside her own, conflicted over whether or not to reveal her grandmother’s condition to her. A heart-wrenching, honest, and incredibly witty film, The Farewell is a love letter to all those American immigrants who feel divorced from their own culture. Billi is an oddity to her family, with her parents concerned over how well she’ll be able to keep the secret. Nevertheless, her journey is one that is ultimately one of family and the complex dynamics that define it.


The Half of It


The Half of It follows Ellie, a young Asian-American girl, growing up in a small Canadian town. It is a sweet, simple coming-of-age film featuring an LGBTQ+ romance and a heartfelt friendship. It captures the somewhat suffocating experience of being a minority in a predominantly white town, unlikely but genuine friendships, and the distance between immigrant parents and their first-generation children. Ellie’s struggles are depicted relatably and with a certain sorrow. The story is simple, human, and small-scale - and something often missing from our Asian-American stories is these genuine, charming coming-of-age stories that don’t attempt a massive scope. What’s more, it doesn’t place great importance upon romance, but rather, friendship - the act of mutually understanding another person is a powerful one, especially when your lives and upbringings are so incredibly different. The titular half references the idea that humans were born with four legs, four arms, and two heads - but were then split in half, each half searching for their other perfect fit. The relationship in the story that embodies this myth is predicated upon that essential understanding of another person.


These films are my personal favorites, and are wildly relevant to modern Asian-American cinema, often breaking free of the mold for minority stories in one way or another. This representation is incredibly transformative, bringing to light distinct issues in our community in a manner that is unique, genuine, and without romanticization. It is incredibly important to appreciate these films for what they are: instances of art that bring a marginalized group of people a form of comfort, and even more, a form of understanding. That is what art aims to do the most - to be understood and make others feel understood.



 

Editors: Danielle C., Lang D., Marie H., Claudia S., Erika

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Image Source: Unsplash

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