Preface: This feature was written for the Asian Cinevision 2008 Cinevue catalog and I tackled what I saw as two growing, parallel trends in Asian American cinema, namely 1) the emergence of what you might call "new immigrant" stories that have a markedly different relationship to ethnic identity compared to previous generations and 2) more and more Asian American filmmakers traveling to Asia to make their films. I tackle this with a historical awareness that both trends have important antecedents but also try to discuss what's different now and where this all may be headed.
THE FEATURE (originally appeared in Asian Cinevision's Cinevue).
From Far to Near: Asian American Cinema Expands
In Ron Morales’ new feature, SANTA MESA (2008), Hector, a 12-year old from New Jersey, is tragically orphaned and sent to live with his grandmother in a shantytown on the outskirts of Manila. She speaks little English; he speaks no Tagalog. Not surprisingly, for Hector, his first days in the Philippines are marked by displacement, bewilderment and uncertainty.
For much of the history of Asian American filmmaking, those sensations of alienation were typically reserved for immigrants coming from Asia, not to it. Dozens of features have dealt with the identity struggles of immigrants navigating American society. In recent years, two different—but linked—counter-trends have emerged however. One is what we see in SANTA MESA—Asian American filmmakers like New York-based Morales, exploring stories set in Asia. The other are new Asian immigrant narratives, captured poignantly in both Wayne Wang’s new THE PRINCESS OF NEBRASKA (2008) and So-Yong Kim’s IN BETWEEN DAYS (2006), where young migrants seem more at home, even away from home, than previous generations who struggled with dual-identities and confused loyalties.
What links these two trends is the shrinking distance between nations and societies. Call it globalism, transnationalism or whatever else but the forces of information age economics, expanding electronic media and travel infrastructure have made borders more porous, relocations more temporary. Especially for upwardly mobile Asians and Asian Americans alike, the line between migrancy and tourism has blurred considerably and filmmakers are exploring these changing perspectives and realities with new narratives. As Dennis Lim wrote in the New York Times in 2006, these films “test the basic assumptions of what constitutes an American film,” while at the same time, laying claim to, “the utopian notion that all of world cinema is up for grabs.”
Whether this trend is “new” is all relative. Even in the 1980s, filmmakers were already playing with prescient ideas around dislocation and transnationalism. Peter Wang’s celebrated A GREAT WALL (1986) followed a Chinese American family’s visit to Beijing with a subtle, humorous eye towards the similarities and differences in cultural sensibilities. Likewise, Wayne Wang’s oft-spoken about, rarely seen LIFE IS CHEAP...BUT TOILET PAPER IS EXPENSIVE (1989) followed a San Francisco native trying to navigate Hong Kong’s back alleys while toting a mob boss’ MacGuffin.
These early exceptions aside though, throughout the 1980s and 90s, the predominant themes leaned more towards immigrants adjusting to America as a “new home,” and all the drama (and hilarity) that ensues. These stories elided well with “generation gap” melodramas where older, immigrant parents clashed with their Americanized children. That core conflict became resonant for practically every Asian American ethnic community, including Chinese American (JOY LUCK CLUB,1993), Filipino American (THE DEBUT, 2000), Vietnamese American (CATFISH IN BLACK BEAN SAUCE, 1999) and South Asian American (ABCD, 1999).
Particularly in the post-1965 era of Asian American immigration, these stories made good sense: coming to America often became a permanent condition. As such, learning to “become Asian American” often meant negotiating different identities and practices, especially between generations. Certainly, those challenges continue to be true for thousands of families, especially among refugee populations whose decisions to relocate to America are driven less by choice and more by necessity.
At the same time, much has also changed in recent decades. Even for those settled in the U.S., the modern mediascape has transformed people’s ability to stay in touch with “home.” News and entertainment can be readily accessed by something as basic as a cell phone, music and film cross continents at satellite speed and the growth of diasporic ethnic communities around the world maintain “local” ties even thousands of miles away. Moreover, whereas the older model confronting Asian Americans was often cast between total assimilation and cultural nationalism, the more contemporary view accepts far greater amalgamation as different cultural and political influences shade over into one another. As well, an increasing number of Asians live transnationally transient lifestyles, shuttling between Asian and American cities because of school, family, or work.
Some of these differences are brilliantly embodied in two young female characters from recent films—Jiseon Kim’s Aimie from IN BETWEEN DAYS’ and THE PRINCESS OF NEBRASKA’s Sasha, played by Ling Li. Both teens are relatively new immigrants to America and both deal with familiar feelings of alienation...but not by their surroundings. For example, the titular “princess,”, Sasha floats around Bay Area, seeking support for her unexpected pregnancy, yet she’s also manages to stay in contact with friends around the world via her incessant text messaging and cell phone videos.
Notably, Sasha switches between Mandarin and English easily, almost unconsciously, as if multilingualism was the social norm (and in some American enclaves, it may as well be). She may have a host of personal problems—beyond just her unwanted pregnancy - but figuring out “what it means to be Asian American” is not a question that haunts her. Sasha’s existential battles have little to do with nationality or even geography; one could just as easily imagine her in Singapore or Stuttgart, Cebu or Sao Paolo, dealing with the same dilemmas.
Taking a different tack, is Shih-Ching Tsou and Sean Baker’s TAKE OUT (2004, AAIFF04), an almost verité-like chronicling of the day-in-the-life of a working class Chinese delivery person. On a grander scale, a spate of recent films such as Ham Tran’s powerful epic, JOURNEY FROM THE FALL (2006) and Tim Bui’s GREEN DRAGON (2002) chronicle the immense upheaval visited upon Southeast Asian survivors from the Vietnam conflict. They remind us that globalism’s hand has not just created free market movement but also millions of unwitting migrants too.
These crossings have gone in the other direction as well. Just as more Asian American films are paying attention to the changing face of immigration, it is Asian American directors who are entering migrant channels as well, taking themselves over to Asia. Tran and Tim’s brother Tony Bui have been part of this wave as well as American-born or raised filmmakers making films in Asia. Again, this is not a wholly “new” phenomenon but it has gathered steam over the last decade. Bui’s award-winning THREE SEASONS (1999) was an early example, as was Joan Chen’s impressive directorial debut, XIU XIU (1998).
In more recent years, there’s been a flurry of cross-national productions, including Stephane Gauger’s OWL AND THE SPARROW (2007), shot in Vietnam; Kern Konwiser and David Ren’s romantic melodrama SHANGHAI KISS (2007), shot in L.A. and Shanghai; Fatimah Tobing’s vignette about AIDS and motherhood in Jakarta in CHANTS OF LOTUS (2007); and Neill Dela Llana and Ian Gamazon’s psychological thriller, CAVITE (2005), which, like Morales’ SANTA MESA, largely takes place in the back streets and slums of Manila. On a practical level, the lower cost of production overseas is a compelling factor but more importantly, filmmakers have taken the opportunity to explore new storylines specific to their location, whether it’s the intertwining of religion and terrorism in CAVITE or the folkloric ghost stories circulating in Romeo Candido’s ANG PANAMA (2006).
One of the most interesting films along these lines has been first-time filmmaker Johnny Kwok’s b-boy drama, ALWAYS BE BOYZ (2008). Drawing on dozens of stories lived within the volatile b-boy community in South Korea, the film highlights tensions that go beyond just the dance competitions these young men find themselves in. Compulsory military service, mainstream cultural ignorance of their art, and socio-racial relations weave their way through the film; those used to American urban dance/b-boy films would not necessarily immediately recognize any of these themes (read: this is not “Step It Up 3: Seoul 4 Real”). There’s also a rich serendipity at play—Kwok traveling to South Korea to make a film about youth who follow an art form that itself was transplanted from America.
There is every sign that more and more Asian American directors are following suit: Alice Wu (SAVING FACE) is prepping production to go to China to shoot an adaptation of Rachel DeWoskin’s book Foreign Babes in Beijing, Karen Lin (PERFECTION) is working on Love Tour, to be set and shot in Taiwan, and Wayne Wang has plans to produce half a dozen films set in various Asian cities such as Hong Kong, Singapore and Seoul.
None of this blindly celebrates some brave new world of unfettered transnationalism. Even if the lines between Asian and Asian American cinema continue to blur, it is rarely lost upon the filmmakers that this is happening within complex flows of money, power and politics that often force human movement rather than merely facilitating it.
Either way, Asian American features have crossed a threshold towards global stories that will undoubtedly become a deeper part of our community filmmaking. It seems richly appropriate that, as the world becomes perceptibly closer, it is helping the landscape of Asian American cinema to expand.
Oliver Wang is an assistant professor of sociology at California State Univ, Long Beach and writes on popular culture and society for NPR, the LA Times, LA Weekly and Vibe. His writing on Asian American cinema is available at chasingchan.com.