Bridging the Gap

Filmmaker So Yun Um highlights ten underrated Asian American and Pacific Islander films set against the backdrop of America.

Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month has many film lovers seeking to celebrate Asian American cinema. Beyond Minari, Always Be My Maybe and Crazy Rich Asians, there are dozens of films that depict the Asian American experience. In choosing to focus on ten of the lesser-seen, I contemplated the notion of what defines AAPI cinema.

For me, it goes deeper than films that have been directed by, or star, Asian American and Pacific artists. Having watched a wide selection of Asian American films, I can firmly say our cinema, no matter the genre, puts Asian Americans at the forefront on both sides of the camera. I believe the essence of Asian American cinema was born out of resourcefulness, mining themes and ideas that distinctly bridge the gap between Asian and American culture. These films tell stories that explore the vast differences between the two, and the ways in which they coexist, whether comfortably or uncomfortably.

In selecting these ten underrated AAPI films, I searched deep to find stories with uncompromising vision and character; stories about Asians that could only be told within, and against the backdrop of, America. These ten films highlight intimate, distinct and unfiltered experiences mostly unseen at our local multiplexes: family and cultural obligations, generational and cultural gaps, and raw, mostly obscured views of American life.

Chan is Missing (1982)

Directed by Wayne Wang, written by Isaac Cronin and Wayne Wang

There would be no Asian American independent cinema without Wayne Wang’s Chan is Missing. Shot on black-and-white film, this striking noir follows Jo, a San Franciscan cab driver, and his nephew, Steve, as they track down the titular Chan after he disappears with their money. Wang’s unpredictable directing career spans neighborhood intrigues, rom-coms and family movies; alongside which, he has kept a strong focus on Asian American stories (he helmed the adaptation of Amy Tan’s generational bestseller, The Joy Luck Club).

In Chan is Missing, for the first time on screen, we get to finally see an “ABC” (American-Born Chinese) story from the source, with an all-access pass to the often misunderstood terrain and people of Chinatown. It’s the tightness of the plot and the authenticity of its characters that make this movie such a classic. Even after 40 years, Chan Is Missing doesn’t feel dated—its laugh-out-loud dialogue (they actually utter the word “FOB”!) and moody tone capture why Chinatown continues to be an enigma. Spoilers: Chinatown runs by its own rules.

Available on DVD via Indiepix Films.

Better Luck Tomorrow (2002)

Directed by Justin Lin, written by Ernesto Foronda, Justin Lin and Fabian Marquez

Justin Lin’s directorial debut film is a visionary portrait of Asian Americans that’s still relevant two decades on. Since its release in the early aughts, there has yet to be a film that explores the nuances and complexities of the average Southern-California Asian American teen like this film does. Better Luck Tomorrow focuses on a group of Asian American overachievers who become bored with their lives and enter a world of petty crime. It’s loosely based on four Sunny Hills High School students and the real-life murder of Stuart Tay, a teenager from the OC.

With its depiction of overachieving A+ students who are also foul-mouthed, drug-taking kids, this film was the launching pad for many iconic Asian American actors today—Sung Kang from the Fast and Furious franchise, John Cho (Star Trek) and my personal favorite, Jason Tobin, star of the Warrior TV series. (It’s entertaining to see the seeds of the Fast and Furious series planted in this film in the character of Han, played by Sung Kang, before the explosion of the franchise: one of the characters mutters, “Rumors about us came and went fast and furious”—and the rest is history.)

Better Luck Tomorrow still stands as the most iconic film to capture the suburban Asian American teen existence in all its good, bad and ugly light. “I was part of a movement,” Tobin recalled in this GQ oral history of the film, “and it was a culmination of all the battles I had fought before that to get Asian faces on the big screen.”

Available to stream and rent on multiple platforms.

The Grace Lee Project (2005)

Directed by Grace Lee

If you’re an Asian American who grew up in California or New York, chances are, you know at least two Grace Lees in your life. But growing up in Missouri, Korean American filmmaker Grace Lee was the only one she knew with her name. She soon discovers that with the name comes a certain stereotype, that of the “good” Asian—quiet, well-behaved and a hard worker. Lee goes on a quest to interview a wide range of women who have the same name and soon discover if this wildly common stereotype is true.

Lee’s witty, autobiographical documentary is effortlessly funny and insightful. The Grace Lee Project dives deep into identity politics to reveal that sometimes, a name is simply a name. This was the start of Grace Lee’s journey as a filmmaker and she continues to be an important voice in not just the documentary space but in narrative stories as well.

Streaming on Kanopy.

Saving Face (2004)

Written and directed by Alice Wu

Alice Wu’s Saving Face is a timeless queer love story. Produced by none other than Will Smith (yes, that Will Smith), Saving Face follows a Chinese American lesbian woman and her traditional mother (played by Michelle Krusiec and Joan Chen, respectively) as both battle with their reluctance to go against cultural expectations and reveal their secret loves. It’s part family drama, part rom-com, exploring expectations specific to Asian women across generations.

While most Asian American films focus on familial obligations through the point of view of the children of immigrants, Wu’s film considers the conflicts of both daughter and mother. For Asian Americans, it’s a tale as old as time but with a twist that shows that no matter how old you get, you still have to, unfortunately, fight to be who you are. I also highly recommend Wu’s spiritual sequel, The Half of It, on Netflix.

Streaming on Amazon Prime and Tubi, and for rent on various VOD platforms.

In Between Days (방황의 날들, 2007)

Directed by So Yong Kim, written by Bradley Rust Gray and So Yong Kim

So Yong Kim’s debut feature, In Between Days, follows Jiseon Kim, a Korean teen immigrant, who falls in love with her best friend while navigating the challenges of living in a new country. Director Kim is a masterful storyteller and captures life as it should be seen: unfiltered and trivial at times, but using the mundane to find cinematic magic.

I like to categorize So Yong Kim’s work as a showcase of extreme intimacy. Her story features painfully delicate characters and moments so real, you’ll wonder how any of these scenes could be fiction. There’s a sense of vulnerability and loneliness that fills the air as Jiseon struggles to assimilate to a new country, replete with toxic relationships, self-sabotage and unrelenting jealousy. So Yong Kim’s work is so painfully real, it hurts to watch.

Available on Kanopy and Amazon.

Ping Pong Playa (2007)

Directed by Jessica Yu, written by Jimmy Tsai and Jessica Yu

There are two things that embody countless Asian American men’s experience: their love for basketball, and their love of rap music. Ping Pong Playa covers both, and is exactly the kind of Asian American comedy I’ve been waiting for! Christopher “C-Dub” Wang (played by co-writer Jimmy Tsai) is a wannabe baller and a supreme slacker who has to step up to the plate when his family’s business and ping-pong-champion reputation is on the line. In addition to being centered around an Asian family, the core of the film rivals any other low-brow, underdog sport film.

Laugh-out-loud hilarious, this is Academy-Award-winning filmmaker Jessica Yu’s first narrative feature, following a groundbreaking career full of daring documentaries (her Oscar was for this portrait of writer Mark O’Brien, who spent much of his life in an iron lung). Seeing C-Dub as an NBA-loving slacker turned ping-pong playa felt validating; it showed that even if you’re a lazy and immature Asian, you can always find something to succeed at.

Streaming on Tubi, and for rent on Amazon and iTunes.

In Football We Trust (2015)

Directed by Tony Vainuku and Erika Cohn

While Salt Lake City, Utah, is seen as predominantly a white Mormon town, it in fact has the largest population of Pacific Islanders in the US mainland, due to the strength of the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ proselytizing in the Pacific. The documentary In Football We Trust follows four Polynesian high-school students, as they chase their lifelong dream of attaining professional recruitment. Told in moments of adolescence, the film follows the greatest challenges for these four young men, as they chase their dreams while trying to grow up.

In no time, they’re faced with the harsh reality that just maybe, football isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. As much as their hefty attributes and builds serve as their greatest advantages, these boys’ cultural and familial obligations become both their greatest motivations and, possibly, their downfall. Filmed over the span of four years, first time filmmakers Tony Vainuku and Erika Cohn chronicle the NFL hopefuls as they navigate the pressure to balance dreams and family to win a golden ticket out of gang violence and poverty.

Streaming on Kanopy, and for rent on various VOD platforms.

Spa Night (2016)

Written and directed by Andrew Ahn

In his directorial debut, Andrew Ahn perfectly captures a specific corner of Los Angeles’ Koreatown. Spa Night’s focus is David, a closeted Korean American teenager who takes a job at a Korean spa to help his struggling family, and then discovers an underground world of gay sex. You may recognize Joe Seo as the goofy bully in the Netflix hit show Cobra Kai, but it’s Spa Night where you can see him truly shine—he won Sundance’s US Dramatic Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Performance.

Seo delivers a powerfully restrained performance, exploring the burden of hiding your true self from your family. Spa Night is more than a coming out story, it’s also about the broken American dream that so many immigrants experience. Ahn’s direction is finely tuned, honing in on the specificity of Koreatown. It is an acutely queer story of second-gen Asian Americans, where coming out is never really about just you, but also your family.

Streaming on Kanopy, and for rent on various VOD platforms.

Punching at the Sun (2006)

Directed by Tanuj Chopra, written by Tanuj Chopra and Hart Eddy

Mameet is young, angry and has always lived in the shadow of his basketball-legend brother, Sanjay. When Sanjay is suddenly killed during a robbery at the family store, Mameet spirals and takes his anger out on anyone and everyone. Coping with loss at a young age is hard enough, but Punching at the Sun mixes in the specific anxieties of being a South-Asian man amidst the backdrop of post-9/11 America. In doing so, the film addresses the difficulty of juggling teenage angst and immigrant identity—Mameet is not afforded the option to express his anger and grief.

Cathartic and emotionally validating, this is a simple yet nuanced slice-of-life story that conveys the heaviness of growing up with the weight of the world on our shoulders. In Mameet’s case, thank goodness, he ultimately shares some of that burden with his comical friends and knit-tight family.

Available to rent on Vimeo.

Meet the Patels (2014)

Directed by Ravi Patel and Geeta Patel, written by Ravi Patel, Matthew Hamachek, Billy McMillin, and Geeta Patel

In the romantic documentary Meet the Patels, Ravi Patel is a dutiful first-gen son whose parents are continually nagging him to marry a nice Indian girl. With Ravi’s sister Geeta Patel co-directing and co-writing, and his parents in the frame, his film (and true-life story) are indeed a family affair. What starts as his journey to find a wife to make his family happy becomes an enlightening intro to Indian culture and modern love—think dating apps, weddings and a Patel Matrimonial Convention (gotta see it to believe).

Humorous as it is outrageously charming, Meet the Patels ultimately shows the struggles and cultural expectations most immigrant offspring face, on top of the million other obstacles of trying to find your one and only true love in this mad, mad world.

Streaming on various platforms.

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