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Commentary: Five Other Asian American Films Worth the Watch

By Ed Diokno
Views from the Edge

With the overwhelming acceptance of Warner Bros.’ Crazy Rich Asians, Netflix’s All the Boys I’ve Ever Loved and the advance reviews lauding Searching with John Cho, Asian America is in the unusual position of being noticed by the rest of America.

With Crazy Rich Asians surprisingly selling almost twice the amount of tickets than predicted in its first week, the romantic comedy is impossible to ignore.

It has been 25 years since a major studio took a risk and produced The Joy Luck Club with its Asian American story of acculturation and generational clashes.

That doesn’t mean there haven’t been AsAm films. There have been a bevy of the independently produced movies that came out, but they were hard to find and hardly promoted with the marketing blitz a Hollywood studio like Warner Bros. is capable of.

For those of you who want a deeper dive into the Asian America. The following films present various “slices” of the contemporary AAPI community (“contemporary,” at the time they were made):

Flower Drum Song (1959)

This is perhaps the first Hollywood production to feature a predominantly Asian cast and an Asian-Asian romance. It is still a rare bird in that it’s a musical featuring the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein. It has been criticized for yielding to offensive racial and sexist stereotypes (“I Enjoy Being A Girl”)and trivializing the clash of cultures. Yet, for its time, it was the first Asian American movie to introduce the undocumented immigrant experience, the Americanization of Asian immigrants. I remember smirking to myself when I saw and heard “The Other Generation.” Funny, as innocent as the songs seemed back then, they gain new ironic relevance in the context of the Trumpian era.  David Henry Hwang, who revised the musical for a 2001 revival, “had a secret soft spot for the movie version. ‘It was kind of a guilty pleasure … and one of the only big Hollywood films where you could see a lot of really good Asian actors onscreen, singing and dancing and cracking jokes.'”

Joy Luck Club (1993)
The story of four Chinese immigrant women and their second generation Chinese American daughters based on the Amy Tan novel is an epic tale that explores cultural conflict and the often-turbulent relationships between the mothers and daughters and the men they married. Directed by Wayne Wang, the drama had a primarily Asian cast. It was well received well critically and was a modest box office success. It introduced a wealth of talented actors to America, including Ming Na-Wen, Rosalind Chao, Tamlyn Tomita, Russell Wong and Lisa Lu, who has a major role in Crazy Rich Asians. For a long time, it was the only Hollywood production that depicted Asian Americans in all their complexity.

The Wedding Banquet (1993)
This early drama from Ang Lee (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Brokeback Mountain”) was groundbreaking in its day as it not only put the everyday lives of Asians in America on screen but that of a gay man within that community as well. Winston Chao (“The Meg”) is a successful New York “Chuppie” (Chinese yuppie) leading a conflicted life. His traditionalist parents are urging him to take a bride while, unbeknownst to them, he’s living with his boyfriend. A marriage of convenience to a female friend sets events in motion that quickly spiral out of his control.

Harold and Kumar Go to Whitecastle (2004)
I love this film because it went completely against stereotype and wasn’t afraid to depict Asian Americans in a less than desirable light. What was funny was that it went beyond the art house or Asian American audiences, inspiring two more sequels. Nerdy accountant Harold (John Cho) and his irrepressible friend, Kumar (Kal Penn), get stoned watching television and find themselves utterly bewitched by a commercial for White Castle. Convinced there must be one nearby, the two set out on a late-night odyssey that takes them deep into New Jersey. Somehow, the boys manage to run afoul of rednecks, cops and even a car-stealing Neil Patrick Harris before getting anywhere near their beloved sliders.

Revenge of the Green Dragons (2014)
The American Dream realized in the streets of Queens of the 1980s when that borough was transitioning from an Italian enclave to one now dominated by Asian Americans. The movie is “more-or-less” based on the true story of Chinese gangs ruling in Chinatown. It features Harry Shum Jr (Glee),who exhibits the kind of magnetism and charisma that one would expect from a gang leader or leading man. It draws on the universal story of immigration ala The Godfather and the need for affirmation and support when you are a newcomer and part of a minority in this country.

There’s more…
Other indie films with Asian and/Asian American leads worth your time and have garnered critical acclaim include: The award-winning The Big Sick with Kumail Nanjiani, Gook about the racial tensions between African Americans and Korean Americans during in the L.A. riots and a pair of Canadian-American productions starring Sandra Oh: Double Happiness (Oh’s first film), and Meditation Park (Oh’s newest film).

Like I said, it is not a complete list but it should give you a good start in gaining further insight into the Asian Americans and their many, many stories.

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