Clockwise from top-left: Better Luck Tomorrow, The Namesake, Eat a Bowl of Tea, and Only the Brave
May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. To observe this time, we highlight films about the Asian-American experience, an experience that cannot be reduced to — but often is, with minimal reflection — its most obvious iconography. As critic Andrew Chin notes, such celebrations tend to offer an easily consumed representation of a culture while obscuring its shadowy histories: “Real Asian American heritage … subsists in our memory of the people who went to bed hungry, who lost land to the tax collector, who worked to exhaustion and ill health, who faced pain and relocation, who blasted the tunnels for the railroad, who stooped over the short-handled hoe, and who fought for a democracy that didn’t include them.”
Below, a selection of films that cultivate a wider, richer experience of Asian-American culture:
“Eat a Bowl of Tea” (1989)
Based on the novel by Louis Chu
The first realistically drawn Chinese-American novel, Chu’s 1961 book lingered in obscurity until its rediscovery as a seminal Asian-American text in the 1970s. Set in the “bachelor societies” of post-war Chinatown (enclaves of Chinese immigrants prevented by American law from returning to or bringing over their wives), it focuses on the impact of the marriage of a young Chinese-American GI on his father and the male community. Wayne Wang brought an adaptation to the screen in 1989, with Cora Miao, Russell Wong, and Victor Wong.
“Thousand Pieces of Gold” (1991)
Based on the novel by Ruthanne Lum McCunn
McCunn’s historical novel is a fictionalized life of Polly Bemis, an independent Chinese immigrant in the nineteenth-century American frontier. Sold into slavery and shipped off to San Francisco and then Idaho, Lalu Nathoy (known as “China Polly”) refused prostitution, instead becoming an indentured servant to a fellow Chinese until she earned her freedom. Despite anti-Chinese sentiment, Polly stayed in Idaho, eventually marrying a Caucasian saloon keeper; her home is now a museum. Rosalind Chao and Chris Cooper starred in the adaptation directed by Nancy Kelly.
“The Joy Luck Club” (1993)
Based on the novel by Amy Tan
Critically acclaimed, Tan’s surprise bestseller intertwines the stories of four Chinese women and their American daughters. While it considers cultural and generational clashes and questions of identity, its central theme of mother-daughter relationships struck a chord with readers. Tan collaborated on the screenplay, understanding the responsibility of the production: “We knew that if a studio sank money into a film about Asian-Americans and didn’t earn it back at the box office, this might cast a pall on the future of other films about Asian-Americans.” Wayne Wang directed its strong Asian-American cast, including Ming-Na, Rosalind Chao, and Tsai Chin.
“Better Luck Tomorrow” (2003)
Directed by Justin Lin from an original screenplay
In his breakthrough picture, Lin, who went on to helm the Fast & the Furious franchise and upcoming reboots of “Highlander” and “Terminator,” twists Asian-American stereotypes into a seductive crime spree. Bored by their overachieving, suburban lives, four high school boys turn to petty crime for the thrills, which escalates into self-destruction. Controversial for its dark depiction of Asian-Americans, the film suggests that the narrowly defined “model minority” identity generates the pulsating anger that drives the characters. A surprise hit at Sundance, “Better Luck Tomorrow” features Parry Shen, Jason Tobin, and John Cho.
“Only the Brave” (2006)
Written and directed by Lane Nishikawa
While narrative films have been made about the 100th Infantry Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team that fought in World War II, this is the first by a Japanese-American. Desperate to prove their loyalty after being interned by their country, Japanese-Americans volunteered to fight overseas; segregated into their own units, they received the most dangerous missions and ended up the war’s most decorated men. Based on the stories of veterans, the film, starring Nishikawa, Jason Scott Lee, Pat Morita, and Tamlyn Tomita, fictionalizes the rescue of an American unit from behind enemy lines.
“The Namesake” (2006)
Based on the novel by Jhumpa Lahiri
Lahiri’s moving first novel traces the assimilation of an Indian family over several decades. As Ashoke, an MIT-educated engineer, and Ashima, his young wife, struggle to adapt to a new culture while retaining their native traditions, their son Gogol, the namesake of the title, struggles with their expectations as well as those projected upon him by his ethnicity. Mira Nair directed the adaptation, with Kal Penn (of the Asian-American stoner comedy “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle”) as Gogol and Irrfan Khan and Tabu as his parents.
“American Pastime” (2007)
Directed by Desmond Nakano from an original screenplay
Inspired by family histories and Kerry Yo Nakagawa’s Through a Diamond: 100 Years of Japanese American Baseball, Nakano’s film depicts the forced relocation of Japanese-Americans into internment camps during World War II. Immigrants with two American sons, the Nomuras depart Los Angeles for the Utah desert camp Topaz. Baseball proves an outlet for the camp and, when a game is organized between them and the local team, racial tensions between the internees and the town emerge. Shot on location, the film — with Aaron Yoo, Leonardo Nam, and Gary Cole — offers a realistic portrait of life behind barbed wire: the grit, the frustration, the yearning for normalcy.
This list only represents a sampling of Asian-American films out there; feel free to make other recommendations below.