By Ed Diokno
My film school consisted of Saturday nights at Chinatown’s Star Theater and J-Town’s Kabuki Theater in San Francisco. The teachers were Akira Kurosawa and Run Run Shaw. Throw Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon, West Side Story, a few new wave French films and any movies by John Ford western and Satyajit Rey – that’s the extent of my film education.
A really interesting four-part series of articles written by Kate Hagen on the blog The Black List is a list of what she considers the “Essential Asian Films.” Although she doesn’t tell us her criteria, from the commentary on each film, I’d say the listing is of movies that open new worlds or shows the universal humanity of its characters.
She’s come up with a wide-ranging list of her own – plus contributions from other cinephiles -ranging from esoteric movies made in Asia to the popular Hollywood fare such as the John Carpenter-directed Big Trouble in Little China for featuring Asian characters played by Asian actors (how novel is that?) and Stephen Spielberg’s version of the timeless Peter Pan fantasy, Hook for introducing Lost Boy leader Rufio (played by Filipino American Dante Basco), proving that countless tweenage girls can have a crush on an Asian guy.
Enter the Dragon made her list as well as: Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding and Kama Sutra, Zhang Yimou’s Ju Dou, Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet, Oliver Stone’s Heaven & Earth, Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure, Jessaca Yu’s Ping Pong Playa, Jennnifer Phang’s Advantageous, Wayne Wang’s Joy Luck Club and Suzuki Seijun’s Tokyo Drifter.
Creating lists like this is always tricky because it is so subjective and personal experiences come into so much play. Sometimes, the list says more about the list-maker than it doe about the movies themselves. With that in mind, here are my contributions
In terms of films that allows us to peek into new worlds and raises empathy for its characters, I certainly would have included Kurosawa’s classic Seven Samurai, the Sanjuro/Yojimbo trilogy and Rey’s Apu trilogy. I would also include Lee’s Enter the Dragon. for its groundbreaking and stereotype-busting introduction to an Asian hero, which, ironically, created a new stereotype. And the list would not be complete without adding Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman for showing the universality of family and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon because western audiences had never seen anything like it before and yet – pay attention studio heads – people flocked to watch it again and again.
While going over the lists, what strikes me is how much talent there is and casting directors and producers should not be so closed minded. These movies should prove, once and for all, there is an audience for good movies, no matter what race the cast is. I don’t understand the caveman-thinking that says U.S. audiences won’t be able to relate to leads who are not White.
What motion pictures about, or by, Asians would you consider essential viewing to gain an understanding of Asians and all the different cultures from that continent or about Asians in America?