22 Asian American-centered films to watch during AAPI Heritage Month

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Cinema is an ever-evolving medium to showcase art, talent, and lived experiences. But audiences will find that representation on the screen will be dependent on who is behind the camera.

White filmmakers have dominated American film since its inception, but over time, artists of color have been able to step in and share their stories and voices, giving viewers a glimpse of the many ways one could be American while straddling an Asian heritage.

The road to the now-increasing number of Asian American-centered movies was not without a few bumps. Whitewashed casting and blatant anti-Asian racism were prevalent in Hollywood, from the character of Fu Manchu to John Wayne portraying Genghis Khan and Mickey Rooney's infamous performance in "Breakfast at Tiffany's."

While whitewashing hasn't completely gone away — prominent examples being "Aloha" in 2015 and "Ghost in the Shell" in 2017 — the practice has gone out of fashion. Public backlash and an increased number of Asian creators on big Hollywood projects have helped turn the tide, with some actors stepping down from roles not meant for them, such as Ed Skrein exiting 2019's "Hellboy," and adaptations like Netflix's "Avatar: The Last Airbender" taking representation seriously when assembling an ensemble cast.

The result is a range of films that are authentic to Asian American experiences, showing off a mosaic of perspectives from several different cultures that have all made a home in the United States. "When you look at these films, for a certain segment of our community, watching these films was not just notable, it was life-changing because they affirmed that they belong, because it gave them context," Jeff Yang, author of "The Golden Screen: The Movies That Made Asian America," told the San Francisco Chronicle.

Stories can range from retellings of an immigrant family's experience in the United States to more fantastical stories rooted in Asian history or even a hybrid of both realism and fantasy. Whatever the case, Asian-based talent is on the rise, with fare including modern action movies, streaming romantic comedies, documentaries, and prestige award-winning dramas.

Our partners at Stacker scoured IMDb and Metacritic data to highlight 22 Asian American films. These movies stem from different cultures, including but not limited to Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Indian Americans.

A turned on LED projector on a table
Whatever the case, Asian-based talent is on the rise. (Alex Litvin/Unsplash)

Watch these Asian American-centered films:

Chan Is Missing (1982)

- Director: Wayne Wang
- IMDb user rating: 7.1
- Metascore: 85
- Run time: 76 minutes

Hong Kong-born American director Wayne Wang has enjoyed an extensive filmmaking career, and it all started with his indie movie "Chan Is Missing." Shot in black and white, this offbeat take on a film noir takes place in San Francisco's Chinatown. The plot begins with the search for a missing man, but it soon transforms into a deeper examination of the Chinese American identity. There is also a meta-contextual element to the film, as it mocks the "Charlie Chan" trope and character from movies of the 1930s and '40s.

Mississippi Masala (1991)

- Director: Mira Nair
- IMDb user rating: 6.7
- Metascore: 78
- Run time: 118 minutes

The film "Mississippi Masala" explores an interracial romance between characters portrayed by Denzel Washington and Sarita Choudhury. The film includes some historical context, depicting the expulsion of Asians from Uganda by dictator Idi Amin in 1972. After Mina, a Ugandan Indian, is forced to leave her home with her family, she settles in Mississippi, eventually falling in love with a carpet cleaner named Demetrius. The cult film explores identity, xenophobia, and colorism through this fiery romance.

The Wedding Banquet (1993)

- Director: Ang Lee
- IMDb user rating: 7.6
- Metascore: Data not available
- Run time: 106 minutes

"The Wedding Banquet," a romantic comedy by Taiwanese filmmaker Ang Lee, centers around a gay Taiwanese immigrant man who ends up between a rock and a hard place. To satisfy his parents, the man decides to marry a Chinese woman, but when his parents unexpectedly come to Manhattan, he must hide his relationship with his male partner from them. Well-reviewed at the time of its release, the film was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards and was later added to the National Film Registry in 2023.

The Joy Luck Club (1993)

- Director: Wayne Wang
- IMDb user rating: 7.7
- Metascore: 84
- Run time: 139 minutes

Based on the book of the same name by Amy Tan, "The Joy Luck Club" was a landmark film featuring an all-Asian cast—practically unheard of for major Hollywood films at the time. The ensemble film follows the relationships between several Chinese American women and their immigrant mothers, focusing on their bonds and histories. The name of the film comes from the group of four women in the film who regularly meet to play mahjong and share stories.

Unfortunately, despite positive reviews, the casting accomplishment of "The Joy Luck Club" wouldn't be repeated until "Crazy Rich Asians" in 2018. Prominent actors who found further fame after the film include Ming-Na Wen and Tamlyn Tomita, both of whom played daughters in the film.

Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision (1994)

- Director: Freida Lee Mock
- IMDb user rating: 7.3
- Metascore: Data not available
- Run time: 105 minutes

Depicting the life of Chinese American artist Maya Lin, this documentary centers on the artist's struggles and triumphs in designing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The film won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature but faced some controversy, as the critically acclaimed documentary "Hoop Dreams" failed to garner a nomination in the category that same year. Even so, critics like Roger Ebert still conceded that "Maya Lin" was a strong and important documentary.

Snow Falling on Cedars (1999)

- Director: Scott Hicks
- IMDb user rating: 6.7
- Metascore: 44
- Run time: 127 minutes

A murder case is at the center of "Snow Falling on Cedars," which is based on an award-winning 1994 novel by David Guterson. The film takes place in 1950s Washington state, where post-World War II anti-Japanese sentiments are prevalent. A trial for the murder where a Japanese American man stands as the accused is central to the plot, and the prejudices of the townspeople emerge. While critics did not particularly take to the film adaptation, they agreed that it was well-shot.

Better Luck Tomorrow (2002)

- Director: Justin Lin
- IMDb user rating: 7.0
- Metascore: 67
- Run time: 101 minutes

Film commentators have given crime drama "Better Luck Tomorrow" credit for combating select Asian stereotypes in the early 2000s. Featuring a cast that includes a young John Cho, the film depicts suburban Asian American high schoolers who engage in acts of theft and murder, with the plot unraveling as consequences arise from their actions. Director Justin Lin went on to direct several "Fast & Furious" films and introduced the "Better Luck Tomorrow" character Han (played by Sung Kang) to the action series.

Saving Face (2004)

- Director: Alice Wu
- IMDb user rating: 7.4
- Metascore: 65
- Run time: 91 minutes

In this LGBTQ+ romantic comedy, a closeted Chinese American woman struggles to keep her budding relationship with another woman a secret when her mother unexpectedly moves in with her. The premise of the film comes from filmmaker Alice Wu's experience as a lesbian Taiwanese American. Although Wu took a break from directing until her 2020 film "The Half of It," "Saving Face" had a massive impact on Asian American women in Hollywood, including Ali Wong and Awkwafina.

The Namesake (2006)

- Director: Mira Nair
- IMDb user rating: 7.5
- Metascore: 82
- Run time: 122 minutes

Filmmaker Mira Nair once again tells a story about the immigrant experience in "The Namesake," which is based on a 2003 book by Jhumpa Lahiri. The story follows an Indian family comprising immigrant parents and American-born children; actor Kal Penn portrayed the son, Gogol, a departure from his usual comedic fare like "Harold & Kumar." "The Namesake" is a multigenerational narrative, and throughout the film, Gogol goes through many relationships and discovers more about his identity, and yes, his namesake.

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail (2016)

- Director: Steve James
- IMDb user rating: 7.1
- Metascore: 73
- Run time: 88 minutes

The compelling story of Abacus Federal Savings Bank is the subject of this PBS documentary. Flashing back to the 2007-08 financial crisis, the film examines the only bank to face criminal charges as a result of the subprime mortgage crisis, seemingly because it was "small enough to jail" rather than "too big to fail." The Chinatown bank was eventually able to clear its name in a long and arduous legal process, but its effects on its employees and the immigrant community it served were lasting.

Columbus (2017)

- Director: Kogonada
- IMDb user rating: 7.2
- Metascore: 89
- Run time: 100 minutes

John Cho portrays a scholar looking after his ailing father in "Columbus," written and directed by Korean American filmmaker and video essayist Kogonada. Cho's character strikes up a friendship with a young architectural enthusiast, and the film uses the imagery of modern buildings in Columbus, Indiana, as a metaphor for the emotions and experiences of the characters.

The Big Sick (2017)

- Director: Michael Showalter
- IMDb user rating: 7.5
- Metascore: 86
- Run time: 120 minutes

Comedian Kumail Nanjiani and his wife, writer Emily V. Gordon, wrote "The Big Sick" based on their real-life relationship. Nanjiani plays a fictional version of himself who deals with cultural clashes and inner turmoil after his girlfriend, played by Zoe Kazan, falls ill. The film garnered a Best Original Screenplay nomination at the Oscars.

Minding the Gap (2018)

- Director: Bing Liu
- IMDb user rating: 8.0
- Metascore: 89
- Run time: 93 minutes

The documentary "Minding the Gap" depicts three young men in the city of Rockford, Illinois, who navigate their complex familial and interpersonal relationships as they grow up, all while they bond over their love for skateboarding. The film explores themes of masculinity and trauma, and Chinese American director Bing Liu, as one of the subjects of his own film, turns it into a very personal story. The Hulu film received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature.

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

- Director: Jon M. Chu
- IMDb user rating: 6.9
- Metascore: 74
- Run time: 120 minutes

Based on the bestselling book of the same name by Kevin Kwan, rom-com "Crazy Rich Asians" was reportedly the first English-language Hollywood movie with an all-Asian cast in over two decades since "The Joy Luck Club." Starring Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Gemma Chan, Awkwafina, and Michelle Yeoh, the story centers on Wu's character of Rachel Chu as she travels to Singapore and learns that the family of her boyfriend (Golding) is significantly wealthy. The film was a massive showcase of how an Asian-led film can be a cultural and box office powerhouse, although the development of a sequel has stalled for a few years.

Driveways (2019)

- Director: Andrew Ahn
- IMDb user rating: 7.2
- Metascore: 83
- Run time: 83 minutes

After director Andrew Ahn made "Spa Night," he decided to veer away from his personal experience as a gay Asian American and made "Driveways," a more intimate family drama. Hong Chau portrays a woman who arrives at the house of her late sister, intending to sell it. While she stays in the home, her young son develops an unexpected friendship with an elderly widower next door. A relatively quiet film, "Driveways" is full of subtle yet powerful moments and expresses the powerful bond that neighbors can form. Ahn would later make a more comedic film about LGBTQ+ Asian Americans with "Fire Island" in 2022.

The Farewell (2019)

- Director: Lulu Wang
- IMDb user rating: 7.5
- Metascore: 89
- Run time: 100 minutes

Starring Awkwafina as a Chinese American woman named Billi, "The Farewell" is a lighthearted drama that has Billi return to China to see her grandmother, or "nai nai." Although her nai nai has a terminal cancer diagnosis, the family elects not to tell her as a way of sparing her grief and anxiety. Cursed with the knowledge of their matriarch's illness, family members have a difficult time keeping their emotions in check around her as they try to enjoy their remaining time with her. The film, which is partially based on writer-director Lulu Wang's own grandmother, gained Awkwafina a Golden Globe win for Best Actress in a Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy.

Always Be My Maybe (2019)

- Director: Nahnatchka Khan
- IMDb user rating: 6.7
- Metascore: 64
- Run time: 101 minutes

Comedic actors Randall Park and Ali Wong portray two adults who had a brief and unsuccessful fling as teenagers in "Always Be My Maybe." In their adulthood, they cross paths again and still find a bit of spark between them. Directed by the creator of "Fresh Off the Boat," the Netflix movie is a distinctly Asian American rom-com—and to many viewers, it was because it featured Asian American characters doing very normal rom-com things. As a bonus, it even features Keanu Reeves in a small role playing himself.

Minari (2020)

- Director: Lee Isaac Chung
- IMDb user rating: 7.4
- Metascore: 89
- Run time: 115 minutes

Loosely based on the upbringing of writer-director Lee Isaac Chung, "Minari" follows a South Korean family who immigrated to rural Arkansas in the 1980s. The narrative mainly focuses on the young son David, who has a heart condition. His father (Steven Yeun) is strict and shows tough love, and his grandmother (Youn Yuh-jung) moves from South Korea to help look after the children.

For their performances, Yeun received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, while Youn won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Controversially, the film was only in the running for Best Foreign Language Film (instead of Best Motion Picture - Drama) at the Golden Globes due to the amount of Korean dialogue it had.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)

- Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
- IMDb user rating: 7.4
- Metascore: 71
- Run time: 132 minutes

The first film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with a mostly Asian cast, "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings" paid homage to kung-fu action movies. Starring Simu Liu as the eponymous character, and featuring Awkwafina, Michelle Yeoh, and legendary Hong Kong actor Tony Leung as the main antagonist, the film depicted a new version of the Ten Rings and did away with the "Mandarin" and "Fu Manchu" stereotypes from the comics. The MCU movie was one of the highest-grossing films of 2021.

Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022)

- Directors: Daniel Kwan, Daniel Scheinert
- IMDb user rating: 7.8
- Metascore: 81
- Run time: 139 minutes

The filmmaking duo simply called "Daniels" made their biggest and most bonkers film with the A24 hit "Everything Everywhere All at Once." With an all-star cast that includes Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan, Stephanie Hsu, and James Hong, the action-comedy starts with a tax audit and turns into a twisty and emotional multiverse story. It's A24's highest-grossing film, and it won seven Oscars, including Best Director for the Daniels; acting trophies for Yeoh, Quan, and Jamie Lee Curtis; and Best Picture.

Nam June Paik: Moon Is the Oldest TV (2023)

- Director: Amanda Kim
- IMDb user rating: 6.8
- Metascore: 79
- Run time: 107 minutes

There certainly aren't too many artists like Nam June Paik, a Korean artist who moved to New York City. Paik's work comprises some of the earliest examples of "video art," utilizing televisions and video tape recorders. Paik even reportedly coined the term "electronic superhighway" before the advent of the internet. The film comes from Korean American filmmaker Amanda Kim and features narration from actor Steven Yeun.

Past Lives (2023)

- Director: Celine Song
- IMDb user rating: 7.9
- Metascore: 94
- Run time: 105 minutes

Playwright Celine Song made her film debut with the semiautobiographical drama "Past Lives," which stars Greta Lee. The film follows a Korean American writer who reconnects with a childhood sweetheart from South Korea (Teo Yoo), whom she left after her family immigrated to Canada. As adults, they briefly meet up in New York City. The story centers around a Korean word and concept called "inyeon," which basically means "fate" even across one's previous lives. The film netted a Best Picture nomination at the 96th Academy Awards, and Song also received several nominations during that year's awards circuit—including a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination.

This article was originally published by Stacker and republished with permission under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license.

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May 7, 2024 5:00 AM
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