Monday, June 1, 2020

20 Essential Films - Asian Pacific American Heritage Month 2020

The month of May is Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, a time to honor the history, the people, and the contributions of Asian and Pacific Americans including when it comes to the world of movies. To honor this special time, I have chosen to scour through the history of movie reviews on this very website to find what I feel are 20 essential films created by Asian film makers, half from the states and half from abroad.

Michelle Krusiec and Lynn Chen in Saving Face directed by Alice Wu

The first ten films on this list are from Asian American film makers and feature predominantly Asian casts and crews. You will find a wide variety of films that showcase the talents, creativity, and culture of the filmmakers and hopefully you enjoy them as much as I did. The films in each of the two segments are listed alphabetically because how could I possibly rank them, they're all amazing.

Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong - Directed by Emily Ting
Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong is a really well written story that takes full advantage of two very talented actors and the end result is a really beautiful piece of film making. Emily Ting deserves tons of praise for both writing and directing a movie that is nearly impossible not to fall in love with. - Full Review / Podcast Interview

Bodied - Directed by Joseph Kahn
Bodied is a movie you need to see. It exists to make you think about reality instead of avoiding it. It will shake up your brain with social commentary that leaves no one untouched. Aside from the heavy hitting message it carries, this is also one of the most entertaining movies I have seen this year, just don't expect the story to be wrapped up in a nice bow and a happy ending. It knows better than to let you off the hook that easily. - Full Review

Crazy Rich Asians - Directed by John M. Chu
Representation in cinema is so important and this movie does everything it can to let Asian people see themselves both on screen and behind the scenes in a major Hollywood production without stereotypes or overused tropes that have been the norm for decades. - Full Review

The Farewell - Directed by Lulu Wang
Every once in a while a movie comes along that is so perfect in its execution that it leaves you stunned and emotionally wrecked. Lulu Wang's semi autobiographical movie is exactly that and rapper turned actress Awkwafina's stunning performance is a revelation. Going in I had heard great things but I was ill prepared for such an authentically moving experience, the kind that seeps into your every brain cell then works its way to your heart and gives itself a permanent home. - Full Review

For Izzy - Directed by Alex Chu
For Izzy is so good and so authentic and I felt all the emotions. Alex Chu, as both writer and director, tackles race, culture, mental health, addiction, love, family, friendship, and so much more and presents it all with a level of passion and creativity that is a pure joy to watch unfold. - Full Review

I Will Make You Mine - Directed by Lynn Chen
As a first time feature director, I feel like Lynn Chen had an awful lot to say about women, about being Asian in America, about relationships, about getting older, and about the female perspective on love and just life in general. A lot of these topics are things that don't get explored very often in cinema so this adds a level of importance to the film as well. - Full Review / Podcast Interview

Saving Face - Directed by Alice Wu
What really stands out about this movie is the authenticity in the story telling as Wu is able to break down Chinese American family dynamics in a way that shows how complicated they are while presenting them in a way that is understandable and relatable to anyone willing to take a look. - Full Review

Seoul Searching - Directed by Benson Lee
This isn't just a whimsical comedy meant to provide a few laughs, although it does that very well. There is also a ton of heart and emotion thrown in and the historical significance of what this movie is about really touches on a lot of universal themes. - Full Review

Ulam: Main Dish - Directed by Alexandra Cuerdo
Aside from the non stop barrage of mouth watering imagery put on display, Cuerdo also manages to tell a good story as she weaves together the backgrounds, accomplishments and dreams from each of the chefs and business owners in a way that provides a lot of context as to where Filipino food comes from (I don't just mean geographically), how it is being adapted for a wider audience, and what the future holds for one of the most intriguing culinary categories you will ever stick a fork or chop sticks in to. - Full Review

Yellow Rose - Directed by Diane Paragas
Yellow Rose is a beautiful movie that has a ton of heart, a timely message, and a knock out performance from Eva Noblezada. Please make more movies like this and put them in all the theaters. - Full Review / Podcast Interview

Sakura Andô  and cast from Shoplifters directed by Kore-eda Hirokazu

Bad Genius / ฉลาดเกมส์โกง - Directed by Nattawut Poonpiriya
Nattawut Poonpiriya has put together a movie that is smart, stylish, intense, compelling, and really fun to watch. The cinematography, expertly handled by Phaklao Jiraungkoonkun, has a very stylish and edgy look to it and is complemented perfectly by a slick sounding soundtrack that was composed by Vichaya Vatanasapt. - Full Review

Happy Hour / ハッピーアワー - Directed by Ryûsuke Hamaguchi
One of the primary points of the story is an exploration of how the internalization of emotions within Japanese culture has an impact on marriages, friendships, and family dynamics across the board. Every character is shown to have deficiencies when it comes to being able to express themselves and what's even more interesting is how their lack of awareness regarding these deficiencies acts as the foundation for the issues they deal with over the course of the story. - Full Review

House of Hummingbird / 벌새 - Directed by Kim Bo-ra
Kim Bo-ra's story of a young girl dealing with the ups and downs of adolescence is a real treat to watch unfold even as it runs you through just about every emotion possible. Also, Park Ji-hu is absolutely stunning in her debut feature performance. - Full Review

The Legend of the Stardust Brothers - Directed by Makoto Teduka
The tone and style of the film is about as light hearted, carefree, and as fun as you could ever imagine. If you've ever watched the Monkees TV show then you have a bit of an idea of what this movie feels like. It's campy and fun and over the top and just brilliant. - Full Review

One Cut of the Dead / カメラを止めるな!- Directed by Shin'ichirô Ueda
This movie gave me so much happiness and genuine laughter, I had tears of joy when it was all said and done and I sat there with this wonderful feeling that was just magical. The opening 37 minute single take sequence is freaking brilliant and I enjoyed every moment of it but the real magic is how the rest of the movie plays out.  - Full Review

Parasite / 기생충 - Directed by Bong Joon-ho
Parasite defies any sort of genre labeling. The story works beautifully on so many different levels and just when you think it's going one direction, it spirals out of control into another. The story works perfectly within every genre that it tackles and comes out being better than any one of them. - Full Review

The Raid: Redemption - Directed by Gareth Evans
Yes, I know the director is not Asian. The movie was made in Indonesia with an Indonesian cast and crew and it's quite simply one of the best martial arts and action movies ever made. - Full Review

Shoplifters / 万引き家族 - Directed by Kore-eda Hirokazu
The story is about a group of small time criminals who have banded together out of necessity and are always looking for the next place or person to steal from. What makes the story so brilliant is how director Kore-eda Hirokazu portrays them first and foremost as a loving, caring family who are struggling and doing everything they can to survive. - Full Review

Train to Busan / 부산행  - Directed by Yuen Sang-ho
 From start to finish, this film is thoroughly entertaining and filled with some really great action sequences and fight scenes that are above and beyond what I was expecting. Director Sang-ho Yuen has done a great job of creating the type of big budget spectacle that rivals anything Hollywood is currently putting out and yet it is so much more than just a collection of explosions and special effects. - Full Review

Your Name / 君の名は。- Directed by Makoto Shinkai
Makoto Shinkai, as both writer and director, has created a beautiful piece of art that really speaks to some of our most basic emotions as human beings. The story is funny, dramatic, romantic, heart warming, heart wrenching, and it will definitely tug at your emotions before it is done with you. - Full Review

Your Name directed by Makoto Shinkai

Below is a list of additional films I have watched or that came out since originally creating this post and felt like they are worthy of inclusion. I'll probably continue to add films each year moving forward

A Thousand Cuts - Directed by Ramona S. Diaz
What I really took from this film is how, in the face of crumbling democracy, there are people who stand for justice and will do everything they can to keep freedom at the forefront of a country's core values. - Full Review / Podcast Interview

And Then (Short Film) - Directed by Jenn Ravenna Tran
This story is really special for me because it sort of mirrors my relationship with Japan and Tokyo specifically as I was there for a short time, fell in love with the place, and have always wanted to go back. - Full Review

Definition Please - Directed by Sujata Day
Definition Please spells out the ups and downs of a dysfunctional family in a very lighthearted yet meaningful way. Overall, I feel like this was a great directorial feature debut for Sujata Day and I look forward to seeing more films from her that are just as authentic and focused on representation. - Full Review / Podcast Interview

The Donut King - Directed by Alice Gu
The documentary is an inspiring story of prosperity and ingenuity that also digs into the heart of immigration and racism in 1970's America, the perils of fleeing a country under siege, and the pitfalls of living the so called "American dream." - Full Review / Podcast Interview

Koshien: Japan's Field of Dreams - Directed by Ema Ryan Yamazaki
Koshien: Japan's Field of Dreams is a surprisingly intense and emotional story and director Ema Ryan Yamazaki hits a home run with this highly entertaining documentary about the biggest sporting even in Japan. - Full Review / Podcast Interview

Life: Untitled / タイトル、拒絶 - Directed by Kana Yamada
Life: Untitled is a powerful and fantastic debut from Kana Yamada as both a writer and director and the movie is filled with terrific performances across the board. The story is tragic yet told in a way that helps you understand who these people are and gives a bit of hope that society can identify people who are on this path and then get them whatever help they may need. - Full Review

Raya and the Last Dragon - Directed by Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada, Paul Briggs, John Ripa
Raya and the Last Dragon is a more than worthy entry into the pages of Disney animated storytelling and Kelly Marie Tran is a perfect addition to Disney's roster of famous princesses. It is an impressive achievement in animation and it is a strong step forward for representation in mainstream cinema. - Full Review

SoulMate / 七月与安生 - Directed by Derek Tsang
SoulMate redefines everything you thought you knew about the concepts of love and friendship. It takes what you thought this movie was going to be, flips it upside down and turns it into a transcendent movie going experience. - Full Review

Erika Ishii and Rina Hoshino in And Then directed by Jenn Ravenna Tran

One of the things I realized as I scoured through all of my reviews is how my movie watching habits have changed over the years. When I started this website, I pretty much only watched the fast food style Hollywood blockbusters and slowly worked my way into bits and pieces of indie fare. Once I started earning film festival credentials, I then started digging deeper into indie and foreign films yet it still took a while for my interest in Asian cinema to really take root.

The primary issue here, and this is a large issue to this day inside the Hollywood money making machine, is that the primary way foreign films are seen by large scale domestic audiences is when they are remade domestically or given a brief run in a small cluster of theaters. Access is the key to diversity in film when it comes to the movie going experience. I am entirely grateful to have earned the level of access that I have to watch just about any type of film and I would love to see everyone have the same.

Lastly, I hope you find this selection of Asian and Asian American made films enjoyable and that watching them will provide insight into the art and culture of their creators. Art is such an important way to learn about other cultures and people whose lives we may not fully understand. Thank you for taking the time read through this list and enjoy whichever movies you choose to watch. 

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