Asian Constellation: Celebrated classics and fresh films for your AAPI Heritage Month viewing

From subversive rom-coms to Hollywood’s unsavory history, Mia Vicino combs through Letterboxd lists to highlight some of the best Asian American and Asian Canadian stories for your AAPI month viewing (and year round).

May is Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month in the US, and Asian Heritage Month in Canada. The idea of these “official” recognitions is to celebrate the influence of generations of AAPI immigrants on North American culture and society—an impact that is being felt more and more on screen (and behind the scenes) in contemporary films such as Turning Red, Minari, Nomadland, Fire Island and the forthcoming Past Lives, Joy Ride and Next Goal Wins.

It could be said that the film industry got the jump on this year’s AAPI Heritage Month theme—“Advancing Leaders Through Opportunity” —⁠at the 95th Academy Awards in March. Everything Everywhere All at Once cast and crew members Jonathan Wang, Ke Huy Quan, Stephanie Hsu, Shirley Kurata, Mitski and Daniel Kwan, along with The Whale actress Hong Chau and makeup artist Judy Chin, were among the American nominees and winners who identify as of Asian birth or descent.

But “opportunity” is the key word in that phrase, and a trickle of historic wins doesn’t equate to a gushing waterfall of opportunities. Nor do trophies solve anti-Asian discrimination, nor provide an overnight fix for stereotypes like the “model minority” or "dragon lady", nor give our moderators less work to do in the online racism department. (We wish.)

One thing Everything Everywhere All at Once did is reach audiences and make money, and that’s the kind of firm economic proof that studios can depend on to create more opportunities for AAPI filmmakers. That’s where audiences come in: we can make a difference with intentional viewing choices.

So it’s with that lens on that we have compiled some viewing selections for you from among the many hundreds—possibly thousands—of Letterboxd lists focused on Asian American and Asian Canadian stories. (Hawaiians, Pacific Islanders, your installment is coming soon.)

And if you’re in or near Los Angeles and want to see the newest of the new, head along to the 39th LA Asian Pacific Film Festival, which is on from May 4 to 13.

The fresh batch

As Letterboxd member Debbie Chiang suggests in the introduction to her comprehensive Asian American film canon: “If you are looking for films to watch, I encourage you to start by watching the films from the last two years, as the bean counters will note the success of ‘current’ movies in determining whether to fund new movies starring Asian Americans.”

In 2019, the LA Times published their list of The 20 Best Asian American Films of the Last 20 Years—written by Brian Hu and voted on by more than twenty Asian American critics and curators. Letterboxd member Dariane then compiled an expanded list, including extra titles mentioned in the article, for a grand total of 68 films.

Getting really fresh, Justin Tan has been tracking the new Asian Canadian Cinema, with Anthony Shim’s highly rated, award-winning Riceboy Sleeps, Celine Song’s aforementioned Past Lives, and Ethan Eng’s raucous debut Therapy Dogs all on there.

And there’s our own, regularly updated list of the 100 highest rated narrative feature films by Asian women directors (including Asian American and Asian Canadian filmmakers). Sorting the list by newest release gives you the latest hits.  

@letterboxd At @tiff_net Next Wave, filmmakers share their Four Favorite films. 🫶✨ #fyp #foryou #letterboxd #movie #film #tiffnextwave #fourfavorites ♬ original sound - Letterboxd

Coming-of-age with the classics

First up, we have Ten Underrated Asian American & Pacific Islander Films, compiled for Letterboxd by Liquor Store Dreams filmmaker So Yun Um. (Liquor Store Dreams itself is screening in the LA Asian Pacific Film Festival on May 10.) You can trust So Yun, because she put Saving Face on her own list of The Best Asian American Films.

Saving Face is Alice Wu’s (The Half of It) subversive romantic comedy (boasting a 4.0 out of five star-rating) about a lesbian surgeon and her single, pregnant mother. It premiered at Sundance—their Institute’s HQ page dug through their archives to put together a list of Asian American, Pacific Islander, and Native Hawaiian Coming-of-Age Stories that got their start at the indie film festival and institute.

Going back further, Matthew Wolfstein has cataloged the classic films of this TCM Spotlight, which “looks at the representation of Asian American characters through the lens of Hollywood,” and includes 1961’s Flower Drum Song, the first film ever to feature a cast consisting almost entirely of Asian Americans.

The musical isn’t without its issues, however, some of which are interrogated in Deborah Gee’s documentary Slaying the Dragon, another valuable resource that examines and contextualizes cinema’s sordid history of yellowface and Orientalist stereotyping of Asian Americans, women in particular. Speaking of, Cay has a list of 442 films that are led or co-led by “the Asian American woman”, and it’s even gorgeously organized by poster color scheme. She’s done the same with short films, too!

Asian American Film 101

When we’re given the tools to tell our own stories, we get Criterion-worthy gems like Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala, and authentic family stories like Lulu Wang’s The Farewell and Wayne Wang’s The Joy Luck Club, all featured in Debbie Chiang’s list. Morgan Goldin has also rounded up a list of AAPI Stories through an AAPI Lens, which catalogs “all the various ways that AAPI identity has been represented onscreen by filmmakers from the Asian diaspora.”

As Waiching Liu points out, there were Asian American and Canadian rom-coms before Crazy Rich Asians, but that film was a watershed moment for The Motel director Michael Kang, who compiled “a very subjective list of 101 Asian American films that hold some kind of meaning to me.” Brilliant Letterboxd list-keeper Rahat Ahmed has ensured it exists online for us all to watchlist-add from.

This year, the Singapore-based Asian Film Archive (follow them on Letterboxd) ran a series called “Constellating Histories”, which brought together Chinatown sagas and punk-inspired chamber dramas. Thanks to their list, you can curate your own constellating histories at home.

And Doc Films in Chicago programmed a winter series focused on the “anti-slick” approach to storytelling by Asian American media-makers who “forged the first cohesive movement”. The lineup, which is on the Doc Films Letterboxd page, was curated by Carson Wang and Tien-Tien Jong, who note that Asian American media was born out of radicalism, and that there is a through-line in the films: a call for “social justice and solidarity between all colonized peoples”.

Stay tuned for another installment this month, focusing on films by and about Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders.


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