Asian representation in cinema is few and far between. Not only are there few scripts that call for Asian actors, but how many times have we even seen stories that feature Asian characters get whitewashed? We’re looking at you, Ghost in the Shell and The Last Airbender. In recent years, we’ve seen an improvement with high-budget Asian-led films; such as musical animation Over the Moon and Netflix’s teen romance trilogy To All The Boys. Still, the crew, particularly the directors, were white. While it’s a rarity, there are still films with Asian-American leads and auteurs. We all know (and love) Crazy Rich Asians, but there are a few Asian-made movies that may have been overlooked.
So, here are 10 recent movies you need to watch:
Minari is a semi-autobiographical drama by writer-director Lee Isaac Chung that explores the American immigrant experience of a Korean family. Jacob (The Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun) moves to Arkansas with his family in the 1980s to start a farm. The bilingual film, primarily in Korean and English, also stars Han Ye-ri (My Unfamiliar Family) and legendary Korean actress Youn Yuh-jung, both known for indies and K-dramas; and newcomer nine-year-old Alan Kim.
Minari won multiple awards at international awards shows and was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture. Yeun and Yuh-Jung became the first Koreans to receive acting award nominations from The Academy of Motion Picture Arts. Yuh-Jung made history as the first Korean actress to win an Oscar. She’s the second-ever Asian person to take home an acting award from the Academy since Miyoshi Umeki in 1958 in the same category.
The Half of It
If you like ‘90s teen flicks inspired by classic literature, like 10 Things I Hate About You or Clueless, then The Half of It is for you! It’s your basic coming-of-age romantic comedy. It’s also very loosely-based on Cyrano de Bergerac, a story that has been continually retold again and again. However, The Half of It is the most unique version yet. It focuses on Chinese-American teenager Ellie Chu, who has a side hustle earning money by writing students’ papers. She accepts a job helping inarticulate jock Paul Munsky write love letters to his crush. Besides being one of the rare critically-acclaimed teen rom-coms, it even won the Founders Award for Best Narrative Feature at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival!
The film is directed, written, and produced by Chinese-American Alice Wu; a filmmaker who takes “write what you know” to heart. Most of her work includes protagonists that are Chinese-American and lesbian like herself. Her work has had a significant impact, inspiring Asian-American actresses, such as Lana Candor. Awkwafina said Wu’s film Saving Face was “the first film that spoke to her as an Asian-American.”
The Half of It is streaming on Netflix.
Meet the Patels
Before Netflix’s hit reality dating show Indian Matchmaking, there was Meet the Patels. It’s a romantic-comedy, but also a documentary. Directed by siblings Geeta V. Patel and Ravi V. Patel, it focuses on Indian-American actor Ravi’s complicated love life as he finds himself in a love triangle. While it’s a lighthearted and funny film, it also explores topics of cultural assimilation; Indian parents’ expectations surrounding marriage; and interracial relationships.
The film adds a unique twist to the documentary genre as it alternates between casual live-action cinematography filmed by Geeta with animation sequences of the siblings talking. The film was well-received by both critics and film festival audiences; frequently winning awards such as Audience Choice and Best Documentary Film. It’s currently available to watch for free on multiple streaming services, including Pluto TV, YouTube, Amazon Prime, and Crackle.
If you can’t get enough of rom-coms, this should be next on your watchlist! Straight-Up is an independent film starring as well as produced, directed, and written by James Sweeney. Sweeney stars as Todd, a twenty-something biracial Korean-American with OCD who struggles with his romantic relationships due to an aversion to bodily fluids. Identifying as gay for years, all of his attempts at relationships with men have been a failure; so he is counseled to explore his sexuality further. The film examines sexuality, love, and romance topics; provoking the viewer to question if these are necessary to coexist in a relationship. With clever dialogue, Straight-Up is also aesthetically stimulating: its 4:3 aspect ratio signifies the characters conforming to a modern ideal as they feel boxed in.
The production was based on Sweeney’s proof-of-concept short film Normal Doors and partially crowdfunded. Straight-Up had its premiere at 2019 Outfest, then had a limited release in February 2020. Due to the closure of cinemas due to the pandemic, the film then had to finish its theater run through arthouse exhibitors’ virtual cinemas. Thankfully, it’s now available to watch through Netflix, as well as to rent on several online streaming services. Bonus: Randall Park is featured as Todd’s dad!
The Farewell is a comedy-drama starring Awkwafina and Tzi Ma. After learning that their grandmother only has a short time to live, a Chinese-American family plans a family reunion rather than inform her. Based on director-writer Lulu Wang’s own grandmother’s cancer and life experiences, she continued to attempt to keep it a secret from her throughout the film’s production. Still, her grandma eventually found out because of the movie. Shot primarily in China and some in New York, the film is in Mandarin and English.
Earning critical acclaim, The Farewell won tons of awards, including a Golden Globe for Awkwafina, who was the first Asian-American actress to receive it. However, when pitching the story, Wang was encouraged to add a prominent white character, but she refused to whitewash.
The Farewell available to watch on Amazon Prime.
If you’re a fan of John Hughes films like The Breakfast Club, Seoul Searching is a must-see. Written and directed by Benson Lee, Seoul Searching feeds the obsession with 1980s nostalgia. It tells the story of foreign-born Korean kids who explore their heritage by attending a South Korean government camp during the summer of 1986. The film stars Justin Chon, known for Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior, Twilight, YouTube, and more. This coming-of-age comedy is available to watch on Netflix.
Speaking of Justin Chon, you should also check out Gook, which he starred in, wrote, and directed. The story follows two Korean-American brothers Eli (Chon) and Daniel (David So), who run their late father’s shoe store in a predominantly black LA neighborhood. The black-and-white drama film explores serious topics of racial tension, the American dream, and family as the brothers develop an unlikely friendship with an 11-year-old African-American girl, Kamilla, at the time of the famous 1992 Los Angeles riots. Through this festival-and-critic-favorite film, Chon establishes himself as a filmmaker that deserves respect and recognition.
Gook is available to watch on Amazon Prime.
This Netflix exclusive is unlike any other film on this list. Set in the near future, Gwen is abruptly fired from her job. She finds employment in one of the few jobs available — as an egg donor — hoping to make enough to ensure a bright future for her daughter Jules. She explores other options to get her old job back; such as going through an experimental procedure of a body transfer to become both more racially ambiguous and youthful.
Originally released as a 21-minute short on an episode of the PBS show Futurestates, it ended up having its feature film premiere at Sundance Film Festival in 2015. This collaborative film was directed by Jennifer Phang, who co-wrote the script with Jacqueline Kim. Kim stars and acts as a producer with several other prominent names, including Ken Jeong, who appears in the film.
Narrated by Daniel Dae Kim, documentary Linsanity explores the phenomenal rise to fame of Jeremy Lin; the first man of Chinese/Taiwanese descent to play in the league. It covers his childhood, growing up in Palo Alto, and his NBA career as he played for the New York Knicks. Although a star basketball player at Harvard University, Lin struggled in his NBA career; but his faith kept him going. The film was seven years in the making as Chinese-American director, Evan Jackson Leong began the filmmaking process during Lin’s time at Harvard.
Linsanity is available to watch with a subscription to Sling TV, as well as for rental on streaming services.
In his second feature film, Korean-American director Andrew Ahn brings to life a semi-autobiographical script from playwrights Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen. Ahn suggested the two white main characters be Asian, and to his surprise, the producers agreed. He told IndieWire, “That was really cool, and I think a sign of a changing industry that understands that people want to see stories about people of color, in this way that it has seemed like a box office liability in the past.” (Ahn previously made his debut with Spa Night, a film personal to him as it focused on a gay Korean-American man like himself.)
With changing the race of the two main characters, alterations of the script were mild. Race is not the focus of the film, so there are only subtle references.
In Driveaways, lonely kid Cody develops a friendship with an elderly widower and war veteran (portrayed by Brian Dennehy in his last role before his death) who lives next door to the house of his single mother (Vietnamese-American actress Hong Chau). The film has a 100% Rotten Tomatoes rating, and it feels so thematically timed although unintentional. For those who are missing connections, even among neighbors in a quarantined world, this film may hit a nerve. Due to COVID-19, it was released via video-on-demand and is available to watch with a subscription to some streaming services, such as Hulu, Amazon Prime, and Sling TV, among others.
Have you watched any of these films? Let us know your thoughts!
Header: Seoul Searching (Netflix)