Five Asian-American Movies That Exist
In an ideal world, I wouldn’t give a shit about Crazy Rich Asians. I’d be hazily drifting through post-collegiate underemployment, rereading Murakami novels and halfheartedly attempting to quit drinking coffee, until around noon when I get a headache and make myself three cups and stay up till two in the morning reading Wikipedia articles about ethnic cleansing.
But alas, I am an Asian-American with free time and an internet connection and Hollywood hasn’t made a movie with an all-Asian cast since The Joy Luck Club 25 years ago, so I’ve spent the past week or so reading about Crazy Rich Asians and watching it with my mom, who hated it and said it was 荒诞, which Google Translate tells me means “absurd” or “fantastical.”
I thought it was fine, for what it’s worth. The moment where the protagonist’s mother tells her Chinese-American daughter in Mandarin that while her face may be Chinese, her heart and mind are not, rang true to me, as well as the feeling of estrangement from people who share your ethnicity but not your nationality or culture.
The takes I’ve read, though, focus more on the significance of the film’s existence than its actual content. “It’s not a movie,” director Jon Chu has said. “It’s a movement.” A movement spearheaded by venture capitalists and bubble tea franchise owners buying out theaters so as to drive up box office numbers and “open doors” for more Hollywood movies with Asian casts. Which, I think, is the ideal world these “#GoldOpen” people are “fighting” for: slick, glossy blockbusters that are basically identical to today’s slick, glossy blockbusters — except now all the characters are (a very specific kind of) Asian.
Which, I dunno, when ICE is deporting Vietnamese and Cambodian-Americans and the NYC Department of Housing is evicting longtime Chinatown residents and Asian-Americans continue to have the highest poverty rate of any ethnic group in New York, maybe there are more important things to focus on. Maybe there’s nothing brave or emancipatory or even political about watching a Hollywood movie in an air-conditioned multiplex. As activist Do Nguyen Mai put it, maybe we shouldn’t “focus too many of our resources on promoting diversity within a system that is designed to continuously generate disparities regardless of the ethnicity of the people in it. To do so is to hinge Asian American activism on minimal, unradical change.”
I get it, though. It’s claustrophobic living in the margins, where your people are concentrated in urban neighborhoods originally created as racial ghettos and your cuisine is relegated to a single “ethnic food” aisle in the supermarket and your most popular entertainers, the ones who look like you, are framed by the edges of a YouTube player. It feels good, it really does, to look up at a giant screen and see parts of you and your family and friends reflected back at you — to finally, at least for two hours, be a part of the mainstream.
But honestly, fuck the mainstream. It’s a trap, an albatross around our necks. Fuck Hollywood and $30 million budgets and a “movement” that doesn’t require anything from its participants except for plopping their asses in over-padded seats. Fuck replicating the status quo, only this time with a few more yellow faces in the mix. We, by definition of our hyphenated, hybridized existence, are a marginal people, and we’ve been making weird, marginal, fiercely independent movies for as long as we’ve been around. Here are five of them.
Chan Is Missing (1982)
Almost a decade before he made his name with 1993’s The Joy Luck Club, Wayne Wang wrote and directed Chan Is Missing, a strange, experimental black and white neo-noir film (sorry for the word salad). The premise is simple: two San Francisco Chinatown cabbies, Jo and his nephew Steve, attempt to track down their business partner Chan Hung and the four grand he owes them. This ostensible detective story, however, is just a frame in which to present a series of theses on Chinese-American identity. As they traipse across the Bay Area, Jo and Steve encounter a range of Chinese-Americans: Taiwanese and Hong Kongers and Mainlanders, Nationalists and Communists, first and second-generation immigrants, line cooks and lawyers and students speaking Cantonese and Mandarin and English with varying degrees of fluency.
Chan, however, remains symbolically missing, as does a coherent conception of what it means to be Chinese in America. In its brief 80-minute running time, Chan is Missing captures the kaleidoscopic impossibility of Chinese-American identity. As Hua Hsu put it, the film “celebrates and revels in the profound shapelessness of identity.” Or as Steve says towards the end of the film, “Fuck identity.”
Better Luck Tomorrow (2002)
If Chan is Missing is obsessed with ethnic identity, Justin Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow simply takes it as a given. After all, the Asian-American high school overachievers of the film have more important things on their minds: SAT vocab to memorize, resumes to pad, college apps to submit. In other words, these kids are the most model of model minorities, products of the pristine SoCal McMansions they grew up in.
The protagonist is Ben, a senior who succeeds at everything and derives no pleasure from doing so. After getting roped into a cheating ring, Ben and his all-Asian crew gradually descend to drug dealing and gun violence. As Ben explains, “It just felt good to do things I couldn’t put on my college application.” Criminality becomes a release valve for these kids, an escape from societal expectations of who and what an Asian-American is and can be. In a strange way, ethnicity is both incidental and central to Better Luck Tomorrow: the characters never discuss their Asian-ness, yet can’t help but simultaneously act upon and rebel against the stereotypes they’ve internalized. It’s a stylish, bleak, and often hilarious portrait of just how pernicious the model minority myth is.
In Between Days (2006)
Inspired by director So Yong Kim’s adolescence, In Between Days follows the aimless schooldays of Aimee, a Korean teenager who recently immigrated to Toronto with her divorced mother. When she isn’t zoning out during English class or eating lunch by herself in the cafeteria, she spends her time hanging out with her sort-of boyfriend Tran, a fellow Korean who’s a few steps ahead in the assimilation game. Despite being set and filmed in Toronto, almost all of the dialogue is in Korean, emphasizing Aimee’s linguistic and social isolation.
With a non-professional cast, improvised dialogue, and handheld camerawork, the film often feels more like a documentary than fiction. Long stretches are devoted to Aimee performing quotidian tasks like cooking, laundry, and riding the bus. Every so often, the film will cut to a shot of a wintry landscape at dusk, overlaid with audio of Aimee’s voicemails to her dad back in Korea — glimmers of poetry amidst the unending gray.
Spa Night (2016)
Spa Night — another North American film with dialogue almost entirely in Korean — trains its quiet, persistent focus on a working-class family in LA’s Koreatown. The mother and father, Soyoung and Jin, run a failing restaurant, while their son David dutifully buses tables and attends church with them. Like many aspirational immigrants, David’s parents have pinned their hopes on his future success, encouraging him to attend a good college and settle down with a nice Korean girl.
David, however, is gay, and intuitively understands that coming out to his loving but conservative parents is impossible. When the restaurant shutters, David takes a job at a Korean spa, which he soon discovers is a gay cruising spot. Writer-director Andrew Ahn has talked about how Spa Night is meant to reconcile his Korean and queer identities; for David, the spa is a place to be both fully Korean and fully gay. Spa Night is a deeply internal film, a contemplative examination of a filial son buckling under the weight and shame of all the things he can’t express.
On April 29, 1992, the Los Angeles County Court acquitted four police officers who were filmed beating Rodney King, sparking a six-day riot that left LA smoldering. The LA riots are usually framed in terms of Black-white race relations, but an oft-mentioned fact is that 45% of the looted properties were owned by Koreans, who often had uneasy relationships with their Black neighbors. A year before LA burned, Korean shop owner Soon Ja Du shot and killed a 15-year-old Black girl named Latasha Harlins; Du was sentenced to five years probation.
Gook is set on the first day of the riots and is one of the few films to examine Asian-Black relations. Writer-director Justin Chon stars as Eli, a second-gen Korean-American who, along with his brother Daniel, operates a women’s shoe store in a majority-Black neighborhood. The brothers have an unlikely friendship with Kamilla, an 11-year-old Black girl who often skips school to help out at the shop.
Despite its tiny budget, which necessitated limited special effects, Gook feels deeply honest and true. Chon’s father actually owned a shoe store that was looted during the riots, and in the film he plays a racist grocery store owner who works across the street. As the verdict is announced and day turns to night, the film barrels toward a climactic tragedy that exposes the pain and failed ambitions lurking beneath every immigrant success story. The Asians of Gook are anything but crazy rich — they are bruised, bloodied, and angry.