Why should I have all the fun? I invited some valued friends and colleagues to submit their own suggestions for the starting six Asian American films you need to see.
Renee Tajima-Peña is one of the finest documentarians out there, having been responsible for everything from Who Killed Vincent Chin? (along with Christine Choi) and My America. She's also training the next generation as a Community Studies professor at UCSC. She wants you to know, "oh, I hate canons but if forced," she suggests these "oldies but goodies."
Renee Tajima-Peña's Starting Six (Plus 2)
1) Dragon Painter (WIlliam Worthington, 1919)
2) Chan is Missing (Wayne Wang, 1982)
3) AKA Don Bonus (Spencer Nakasako, 1995)
4) Better Luck Tomorrow (Justin Lin, 2002)
5) Fall of the I-Hotel (Curtis Choy, 1985)
6) Dupont Guy: The Schiz of Grant Avenue (Curtis Choy, 1976)
+1) History and Memory (Rea Tajiri, 1991)
+2) Whose Going To Pay For These Donuts, Anyway? (Janice Tanaka, 1992)
Brian Hu is the managing editor for the finest Asian/Asian American arts and culture publication I know, Asia Pacific Arts. The web-magazine has extensive coverage on Asian American cinema, including yearly "best of" lists of their favorite flick picks.
Here's what he had to preface with: "A starting six should make no excuses. There should be no qualifications like "good for an Asian American film" or "we should support it because it's by an Asian American." A starting six shouldn't engage the viewer with theory. Rather, it should directly engage the viewer as any film should: via the senses, as spectacle, as sheer bodily pleasure. They should first and foremost move us into wanting to explore more."
Brian Hu's Starting Six
1. History and Memory (Rea Tajiri, 1991)
An Asian American film can look like this. History and Memory is a documentary about the images a Japanese American mother can no longer recall, and the images her daughter has created so a generation will not forget. Rea Tajiri's visuals, culled from Hollywood clips, home video footage, and self-performance, are fragmented and unruly, just as our memories are. History and Memory is one of the highest artistic achievements by an Asian American in any medium. and is available on DVD for the educational market from Women Make Movies. See also: Chan is Missing (1982)
2. The Wedding Banquet (Ang Lee, 1993)
An Asian American film can taste like this. You can practically tell this story of generational conflict through Ang Lee's depiction of food: what people eat for what occasions, where people eat, who eats with whom, who cooks for whom, etc. Of course, there's more to The Wedding Banquet than the cooking, but for Asian Americans, what evokes the affection and anxieties of home better than food? Taste also: Catfish in Black Bean Sauce (1999), Eat a Bowl of Tea (1989)
3. Mississippi Masala (Mira Nair, 1991)
An Asian American film can touch like this. One of my favorite sex scenes in Asian American cinema is between an Indian American woman from Uganda and an African American man from Mississippi. In the film, much is made about the interracial romance ("Is she Mexican?" some ask), but in the scene in question, they are just two shimmering shades of naked brown, locked in passion. Having Denzel Washington helps too. Experience also: Charlotte Sometimes (2002)
4. aka Don Bonus (Spencer Nakasako, 1995) and Refugee (Spencer Nakasako, 2004)
An Asian American film can smell like this. Sure, I'm using smell a little conceptually here, as scent is perhaps the hardest sense for cinema to evoke. But there's certainly an olfactory tactility in Spencer Nakasako's work: a cinema that is genuinely moved by the stenches of everyday life -- the grime of the Tenderloin projects, the sweaty bodies of Cambodian Americans unaccustomed to the heat of their fathers' homeland. Asian American cinema should not -- in fact must not -- simply harvest the gentle potpourri of upper-middle class suburbia. Smell also: the sweat and dank of the tropics and the dumpsters of Santa Ana in Journey from the Fall (2006)
5. Colma: the Musical (Richard Wong, 2006)
An Asian American film can sound like this. In fact, it can sing! For his catchy lyrics and catchier tunes, H.P. Mendoza should be a national treasure. Colma: the Musical isn't the resurrection of a classical American genre, but is its much-needed low-fi awakening. Richard Wong's direction complements Mendoza's explosive charm well, and no scene better breaks down their collaboration than the split-screen, long-take nerd-out, Christmas-light fantasy "Crash the Party." Hear also: Fruit Fly (2009)
6. The Sixth Sense (M. Night Shyamalan, 1999)
I prefer Shyamalan's Unbreakable (2000), but I couldn't resist the appropriateness of the title of his Best Picture-nominated breakout hit. Love him or hate him, Shyamalan is, along with Michael Bay, Hollywood's only pure stylist -- though unlike Bay, Shyamalan consistently applies his mad genius long takes, odd framings, and sound design for the sake of character development and emotional arousal. But the "sixth sense" I'm speaking of here is the ability to appreciate that even films not explicitly about Asian Americans can still be representative "Asian American cinema." It's the ability to see race when nobody else does, but without insisting on it. It's the ability to hear impassioned, though sometimes inadvertent, alternative voices embedded beneath the dominant clatter. In other words, it's the ability to see the living that the mainstream doesn't even know is alive.
Also: anything by Gregg Araki (The Living End), Jon Moritsugu (Terminal USA), Jessica Yu (In the Realms of the Unreal), Ang Lee (The Ice Storm), Wayne Wang (Last Holiday), James Wong (Final Destination), Jay Chandrasekhar (Beerfest), Tarsem Singh (The Fall), Karyn Kusama (Girlfight), and Justin Lin (Fast & Furious)
I got to know Valerie Soe back in the '90s, probably through NAATA and definitely strengthened by having her come, several times, as a guest lecturer to my AA film class at UC Berkeley to talk about experimental AA works. That's not just her field of expertise as a professor at SF State; that's also her mark as a filmmaker too. (Small world coincidences: I found out, years later, that my wife was a research assistant for Valerie's Picturing Oriental Girls short from 1992).
Valerie Soe's Starting Six
First Person Plural, Deann Borshay, 2000
An emotional look at a Korean adoptee’s search for her family and her identity, with some surprising conclusions. One of many excellent Asian American personal documentaries (see also New Year Baby; AKA Don Bonus; Refugee)
The Debut, Gene Cajayon, 2000
A charming little family drama set in the heart of Pilipino-America, this flick celebrates the Pin@y cultural movement of the 1990s, with break-dance battles, kulintang, turntablism, girl groups, tinikling, cha-chas, lumpia, car culture, and basketball--all in one night at a debutante party.
Imelda, Ramona Diaz, 2004
An amazing documentary portrait of Imelda Marcos, featuring a lengthy interview with the main subject herself as she laments the ugliness of the weapon of her would-be assassin, describes her elaborately embroidered wardrobe which blinded several overworked seamstresses, and otherwise fails to understand why the world and the Pilipino people have turned against her.
The Motel, Michael Kang, 2005
An unsentimental, completely unconventional coming-of-age story about a misanthropic Chinese American kid and his dysfunctional family running a fleabag motel on an interstate on the East Coast. Bunny hand puppets will never be the same—
Never Forever, Gina Kim, 2006
Vera Farmiga, David Lee McInnes, and Ha Jung-Woo make up a love triangle in this intriguing look at the conflict between passion and duty. Notable for featuring not one but two extremely hot and desirable Korean American men.
Colma: The Musical, Richard Wong & HP Mendoza, 2006
Exhilirating cinematography, engaging performances, great tunes, and poignant coming-of-age stories invigorate this neat little flick set in the drab Bay Area suburb of Colma, where fog and cemeteries define the landscape.
Phil Yu is THE Angry Asian Man; act like you knew. There's no voice on the internet more trusted than bringing you the latest news of note to the API community and he's been a major force in helping get the word on an all things AA cinema related.
Phil Yu's Starting Six
Flower Drum Song, Henry Koster, 1961
I agonized over what to include in this last spot. Yet again, I had to go with a movie that is arguably not even an Asian American film, but a relatively conventional, cookie-cutter Hollywood studio production, chock full of cheesy Chinese moments to roll your eyes at. It will also blow your mind. If we're talking about films as a jumping off point, this Rodgers and Hammerstein musical is a particularly intriguing artifact to examine (and, I'll admit, enjoy) nearly fifty years after its release.
Chan Is Missing, Wayne Wang, 1982
By a lot of measures, this is the film that started it all. Wayne Wang's landmark Chinatown narrative was an announcement: modern Asian American independent cinema was here, and would not be ignored. Nearly three decades later, it's rather amazing how this film still holds up.
Who Killed Vincent Chin, Renee Tajima and Christine Choy, 1989
This film changed my life. Like a lot of young, college-aged Asian Americans, watching this documentary was a profound moment in the politicization of my identity. It's not readily available, but to me, it's required viewing. Seek it out and watch it if and when the opportunity arises.
Better Luck Tomorrow, Justin Lin, 2002
This has to be on this list, right? Justin Lin's solo debut feature roared out of Sundance like a deafening wake-up call, giving us something unlike anything we'd ever seen, and ushering in a new era for Asian American independent cinema. Few films have replicated the impact of this film, but it provided us with a unique model as the Little Asian American Indie That Could.
Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle, Danny Leiner, 2004
I know, I'm cheating. This film is neither written nor directed by Asian Americans. It also probably doesn't need to be on this list, since it's fairly recent and was widely distributed. But it does feature two of our guys in the title roles. And as unremarkably crass and low-brow as this stoner comedy is, I'm going to put it out there that this unlikely movie is actually one of the most significant, revolutionary films for Asian American representation in the last decade. Come on, Asian American film scholars. I know you won't admit to it, but in your heart, you're with me.
Saving Face, Alice Wu, 2005
Marvelously written with some wonderful performances -- particularly from Joan Chen as Michelle Krusiec's illegitimately knocked up mom -- Alice Wu's charming, highly entertaining romantic comedy is simply a near-perfect example of a post-BLT independent Asian American film done right.
Honorable mentions: aka Don Bonus, Refugee, The Motel, Enter the Dragon
Labels: starting six