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5 films sure to change your outlook on AAPI struggles

In light of the tragic shootings in Atlanta, Georgia on March 16, mass protests against Asian violence/hate have since taken place across the U.S. It is empowering to see that members both inside and outside of the AAPI community have stood up for what is right, and films that follow similar themes are of utmost importance to fully understand AAPI struggles.

It is long past the time to unlearn prejudice and also fight against injustice that is happening to the AAPI community.

We can start with learning the art, music, literature, or other cultural content created by members of the AAPI community. So, this week, we have gathered some classic AAPI films of different genres for you.

Have your popcorn ready and here we go!

The Joy Luck Club (1993)

aapi films
The Joy Luck Club poster (via IMDB)

Originally a novel by Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club was adapted into a drama film in 1993. JLC is a film about relationships between Chinese American women and their Chinese immigrant mothers.

The film skillfully captures the dynamics of four different Asian American families. It highlights the conflicts and differences between the first and second generation in the Chinese American community.

The mothers contain high hopes for their daughters, but are unaware of the “anxieties, feelings of inadequacy, and failures” that the daughters are going through.

It is a beautiful production that covers multiple themes like reconciliation between different generations as well as balance between the Pan-Asian values and Americanness. The process of learning, understanding, and embracing different cultures is also an important line that parallels the ongoing stories of the four families.

The Farewell (2019)

aapi films
The Farewell Theatrical Release Poster (via A24)

The story begins with Chinese American writer Billi visiting her grandma who lives in Changchun, China. Grandma has been diagnosed with lung cancer, which is already at a terminal stage. Instead of telling the grandma the truth, the family decides to keep it a secret, and even thus manipulates the medical test results.

Throughout her trip, Billi gers into arguments with the family for not revealing the cancer diagnosis to her grandma. She does not agree with their deliberate dishonesty.

Billi’s reaction and the family’s decision reflect the collision between two different values – the individualistic values in Western culture and the practice of collectivism in Asian culture.

Billi still thinks her grandma has the right to know the truth about her physical condition. On the contrary, her Chinese family members consider telling white lies as a necessary act of mercy.

After spending time with her grandma, Billi gradually adapts to the Chinese cultural value and agrees to maintain the lie. She then shares the emotional burden with the rest of her family. It is her responsibility for her grandma and promise to herself.

The Farewell is a warm, honest, and beautiful comedy-drama film about an AAPI family.

Better Luck Tomorrow (2002)

aapi films
Better Luck Tomorrow Theatrical Release Poster (via IMDB)

Ben Manibag and Virgil Hu are your stereotypical overachieving Asian Americans. They are straight-A students who go for the prestigious Ivy League Universities.

You probably think they are only book smart, but they will impress you with their incredible extracurricular activities. They are on the basketball team, the Academic Decathlon team, and also the food drive.

What you don’t know about them is their secret underground businesses: selling cheat sheets, also dealing drugs.

You just can’t tell from the surface. They look just like the regular mild and well-behaved Asian kids.

“But although they have ambition, they lack values, and step by step they move more deeply into crime.”

Roger Ebert, Film Critic.

Better Luck Tomorrow is a disturbing story. Ethnic identity is a problematic element.

While ethnic identity is a stereotypical racial image, it is also a camouflage of one’s true intention.

Ben says “Our straight A’s were our passports to freedom” in his narration. The parents think their kids are staying out late to study, but they have no idea that the kids are out breaking bad.

Justin Lin’s film is a rejection of fixed stereotypes, social expectations, and also tokenism. By depicting his heroes as ‘a wolf in sheep’s clothing,’ he challenges the image of model minority in American society.

He defies that the Asian identity is something to be collected, muted, or rendered invisible. Better Luck Tomorrow is thus a celebration of non-conformity. Although the film is totally fictional, Lin managed to embed many profound messages within the layers of the storyline.

The Grace Lee Project (2005)

the grace lee project
The Grace Lee Project. PHOTO CRED: IMDB.

The Grace Lee Project is a documentary film directed by American director and producer Grace Lee. Growing up in Columbia, Missouri, there were not that many Asians in Grace Lee’s community. Her name was a unique identity and existence.

As she moved to big cities like New York and Los Angeles, she found out that her name was also shared by many other women. The name, however, was associated with the idea of ‘niceness’ often assigned to Asian women.

Attempting to break the passive stereotypical Asian female image, Lee set out to look for other Grace Lees who do not fit into this racial and gendered expectation.

What does a name mean? Through her documentary journey, Lee intends to find answers through seeking unexpected Asian female characteristics within expectedness. She thus emphasizes the individuality and humanity of subjects who share the same name with her.

A Place in the Middle (2014)

a place in the middle
PHOTO CRED: A Place in the Middle image via PBS Learning Media.

Young Hawaiian girl Ho’onani aspires to lead the hula troupe at her school. The troupe, however, is boys only…

This is a true story; it is a film that talks about the power of dream and explores the boundary between different gender identities. The film is also educational; it discusses the values of diversity and inclusion and cultural heritage issues of Pacific Islanders.

In Hawaiian, kāne means “male” and wahine means “female.” Some people, however, are just simply not one or the other. Those who are ‘in the middle’ between male and female are called māhū. Ho’onani doesn’t see herself in a particular gender.

Kuma Hina (Ho’onani’s teacher) understands the traditional Hawaiian embrace of both male and female spirit. She respects Ho’onani’s self-definition of her identity and puts her in a special space in the group.

As an entity, they prove what matters most is what’s in your heart and practice the true meaning of aloha, which is love, honor, and respect for all.

“The importance of community, dance, and fluid gender expression in native Hawaiian history make this documentary a thought-provoking exploration of postcolonial multiculturalism.” 

Mariah Bohanon, Insight into Diversity

AAPI films have importance beyond our comprehension

The AAPI community has endured profound hardships throughout history. Their struggles are not only systemic racism, but also rigid stereotypical boxes that society has placed them in.

Films that explore the nuances of life as a member of the AAPI are essential. It is a bridge to understand more about cultures that are foreign to many people.

Last year, the Black Lives Matter Movement initiated waves of fights for equity and racial justice and fights against police brutality. Early this year, the #StopAsianHate rally took the spotlight and joined the forces of proclaiming equal social standing for Asians.

Asian people, the model minority that has always been rendered as quiet, harmless, invisible, have now decided to show the world their voices. And these films show the diverse and robust humanity present in AAPI people everywhere.