May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, so I thought I’d recognize some of the culture’s best works. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, like most minorities, have been disenfranchised by the film industry. However, Asian American creators have long contributed to the independent cinema community; directors like Gregg Arakai, Joseph Kahn, and So Yong Kim.
The 21st century has seen an uptick in mainstream Asian American directors, including two Oscar honorees in Chloé Zhao and Lee Issac Chung. And yet, representation and recognition is still not where it should be. Asian American auteurs still face an uphill battle when pitching and distributing their content, and I hope that the advent of streaming services allows viewers the chance to see all the great films created by this sub-group of creators.
But I digress. Here are 5 films directed by Asian American or Pacific Islanders that deserve more attention.
“Man Push Cart” Ramin Bahrani
In 2007, Roger Ebert hailed Ramin Bahrani as the “new director of the decade.” It’s hard to disagree. “Man Push Cart” is the Iranian American director’s debut feature, centering around a former Pakistani rock star named Ahmad who now runs a food cart in New York City. It’s a quietly evocative tale about immigration and the difficulties faced by those seeking a better life. Bahrani’s documentary style enables an intimacy and an empathy that is borderline cathartic during the climax. It’s a beautiful film and the rest of Bahrani’s filmography is worth checking out.
“The Half of It” Alice Wu
Alice Wu’s “The Half of It” is a typical John Hughes-esque love triangle, yet redefines the narrative with a queer, Asian American protagonist in Ellie Chu. It’s funny, emotional, and romantic – all pillars of the bildungsroman genre – but whose intersectionality makes the film a uniquely transgressive story. Unfortunately, “The Half of It” is often overshadowed by the boba liberalist, completely whitewashed “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” series. If you have a Netflix subscription, do yourself a favor and forgo the corny antics of Lara Jean for the witty cynicism of Ellie Chu. You won’t be disappointed.
“Gook” Justin Chon
Justin Chon’s feature debut is as confrontational as its title. Set in Los Angeles during the Rodney King riots, “Gook” is as subtle as a Molotov cocktail crashing through a window. But the amateur filmmaking lends itself to the neo-realism of the film; confronting audiences with an authentic, abrasive look at the Asian American experience. The performances by Chon himself, Simone Baker, and David So are visceral and heartfelt, and even if you don’t love the film, I guarantee you’ll walk away a changed viewer.
“Chan Is Missing” Wayne Wang
Wayne Wang burst into independent cinema with his gritty 1982 flick “Chan Is Missing.” The neo noir tale follows an uncle and a nephew in search of the mysterious Chan, a shady figure who holds their entire life savings. Wang allows the uncle/nephew pair to operate almost in a buddy comedy environment, although the dramatic stakes remain poignant throughout the film. The auteur would later go on to direct mainstream megahits like “The Joy Luck Club” and “Smoke”, but “Chan Is Missing” remains Wang’s chef-d’oeuvr.
“Always Be My Maybe” Nahnatchka Khan
One of the best rom-com’s of 2019, “Always Be My Maybe” is the perfect flick for a rainy Sunday. Directed by “Fresh off the Boat” show-runner Nahnatchka Khan, the film stars Randall Park and Ali Wong as estranged childhood friends who fall back in love during adulthood. Their chemistry is palpable and both actors are currently full fledged superstars, so it’s exciting to see them at their most creative. And if you needed any more incentive, “Always Be My Maybe” features arguably the greatest Keanu Reeves performance in the last 10 years. So.