May is Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month. The past year has been a historic one in the fight for racial justice, but that history is long and complex. The horrifying attacks in Atlanta, in particular, bring to light the intersection of racism and misogyny. But we can combat this hate by educating ourselves and celebrating the diverse cultures that have made America richer. For example, Smithsonian’s Asian/Pacific American Center offers many virtual events, including film screenings. Netflix also offers a cultivated collection of “Asian American & Pacific Islander Stories.”
But for my small contribution, I’ve rounded up some amazing films directed by Asian/Pacific American women. Supporting Asian/Pacific American creators and artists helps greatly. So even if the stresses of surviving a global pandemic has you focusing on self-care (which I support 100%), you can relax with a great comedy, like Always Be My Maybe. This list runs the gambit, from the fun and light to the historic and artsy.
As always, consider donating to organizations that fight racism and inequity. You can even set your Amazon Smile account to automatically donate to one of these organizations.
Always Be My Maybe (2019) – Nahnatchka Khan
Probably the most famous film on this list, Always Be My Maybe made a splash when it hit Netflix in 2019. Two enormous talents, the fearless Ali Wong, who performed knock-out comedy specials while very pregnant, and the charming Randall Park, most recently of Wandavision, wrote and co-starred in this film. Following friends who might be something more, this romantic comedy hearkens back to the playful screwball genre. It tells a universal tale while representing the Asian American experience.
The Farewell (2019) – Lulu Wang
Though starring the rising comedian & rapper, Awkwafina, this film is much more somber. It tells the story of a Chinese American family, returning to visit their grandmother, who doesn’t know about her fatal cancer diagnosis. The granddaughter, Billi, struggles with the family decision to keep their matriarch in the dark about her condition. Like Awkwafina, writer-director Lulu Wang is also a talent to watch out for. Though she struggled with marketing The Farewell in both the U.S. and China, Wang earned the critical success she deserved. Her next film will be sci-fi, and I can’t wait.
The Namesake (2006) – Mira Nair
With a rock-star team of director Mira Nair and writers Sooni Taraporevala and Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake tells the story of Gogol Ganguli (Kal Penn of Harold and Kumar fame) as he comes of age and navigates his American identity and Bengali heritage. Evoking the hero’s namesake (Russian writer Nikolai Gogol), the film received praised as a powerful character study and story of family.
Picture Bride – Kayo Hatta
Inspired by recordings of songs sung by Hawaiian plantation workers, Picture Bride tells an important but hidden history. In the early part of the 20th century, Japanese and Korean immigrant laborers struggled to find wives due to racist “anti-miscegenation” laws. So, they sent away for wives from their home countries, often only seeing each other through pictures before hand. Picture Bride tells the story of one such wife, as she adjust to life in a new, strange land. The descendant of Japanese immigrants in Hawaii, Kayo Hatta was careful about accuracy. And she fought back against studio suggestions that she cast a white male as a romantic lead. Hatta, sadly died young, but left an important legacy behind her.
Lucky Grandma – Sasie Sealy
Sasie Sealy’s directorial debut charmed critics with its story about a chain-smoking Nai Nai (Chinese for “grandma”) who finds herself in trouble with the mob. This dark comedy entertains while still touching on issues of culture and gender with humor, like flatulent, mansplaining white guys. Sealy explains: “I wanted to make a movie about an old immigrant woman living in Chinatown that wasn’t feeling sorry for her. […] The only story that you can tell about like Asian-Americans is not some sad immigrant tale. There’s a lot in between.” I can’t wait to see what the future has in store for this exciting new filmmaker.
Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen – Hepi Mita
I cheated a bit—this one isn’t directed by a woman. But, it is a documentary about a legendary female filmmaker, as told by her son. Merata Mita pioneered indigenous cinema in her homeland of New Zealand. She also mentored young filmmakers around the world, including the wonderful Taika Waititi. Mita is perhaps best well known for her documentary, Patu! (1981), which covered anti-apartheid protests surrounding a South African rugby team when they visited New Zealand. The film faced censorship, as police harassed Mita and the government withdrew funding. But Hepi Mita brings the personal side to his mother’s incredible career, by using interviews with her and her family, to really connect the filmmaker to her culture and community. Films like this remind us that diverse filmmakers have been there all along. We just haven’t been looking like we should.
I hope you enjoyed this little list. There’s plenty more films out there, so get exploring! In the meantime, you may be interested in my blog post on women filmmakers of South Korea.