To celebrate AAPI month, we honor the Asian-American filmmakers who have changed the landscape of cinema.
The Curse of Quon Gwon (1917)
-dir. Marian E. Wong
Only two of an estimated seven or eight reels (approximately 35 minutes) survive of the earliest known Asian American produced feature, and any copies of the screenplay or production records remain lost to time (ditto the film’s expository intertitles). As such, The Curse of Quon Gwon presents a challenge and mystery to contemporary viewers as to what exactly it’s about. According to a now oft-quoted 1917 issue of Moving Picture World, the film “deals with the curse of a Chinese god that follows his people because of the influence of Western civilization.” Director Marion Wong established the Mandarin Film Company in Oakland, California (where she was raised) in 1916, at the age of 21. The Curse of Quon Gwon was Wong’s directorial debut, but it only had two screenings, and distributors rejected it. The Mandarin Film Company folded soon after, and, according to Arthur Dong’s Hollywood Chinese, the whole thing was regarded by Wong and her family as an embarrassing secret for decades. In 2004 the surviving elements were restored by the Academy Film Archive, and is now available to view on Wikipedia, of all things. I recommend giving it your 35 minutes, and a little time to wonder what might have been.
The Rider (2017)
– d. Chloé Zhao
It was a coin toss between The Rider and Nomadland. Both are visually beautiful, thoughtful films that honor the lives of those living on America’s margins. The key players in The Rider are all Lakota Sioux non-actors, but they act to perfection. At its center is Brady, weighing a return to the rodeo after a major head injury (which really happened shortly before Zhao began shooting). Portraying versions of themselves, that’s also his father, his sister, and his friend, the latter residing in a nursing home after an even more devastating TBI. This slice-of-life film has plenty of drama, but it’s the quieter moments that moved me the most. Brady’s daylong effort to tame a wild horse remains fresh in my brain five years later. After Zhao’s dalliance with Marvel in directing The Eternals, I hope with all my heart that she returns to crafting smaller scale yet expansively humanist films like The Rider.
Available on STARZ.
Better Luck Tomorrow (2002)
-d. Justin Lin
From the director of arguably the biggest blockbusters on the planet, all the seeds for the latter half of the Fast and the Furious franchise are present in Better Luck Tomorrow. On a shoestring budget, Justin Lin proved he could make thrillers that were character-focused, set in worlds that we have never seen before. Lin had to make this film on credit cards (and with the help of MC Hammer) because producers wanted it to be an all-white cast. Oftentimes, lower budget films depicting the immigrant experience are slow, measured, art-house fare. Justin Lin broke open the floodgates so that Asian-American filmmakers could take their place amongst big-budget Hollywood royalty.
Currently streaming on Starz.
Chan Is Missing (1982)
-dir. Wayne Wang
Wayne Wang’s noir odyssey through San Francisco Chinatown doesn’t explicitly reference Roman Polanski’s 1974 classic, but does share its anxiety about the fundamental unknowability of cities and the people inhabiting them. A man named Chan Hung has disappeared with taxi driver Jo (Wood Moy) and Jo’s nephew Steve’s (Marc Hayashi) money, and over the course of their conversations with locals slowly begin to piece together, Citizen Kane style, a puzzle without a solution. Near the end of the film, Jo rattles off a list of conflicting accounts and recollections of Chan that fail to cohere into anything resembling a clear profile. The irony of the small budgeted Chan Is Missing is that, for a film about outsiders and the conflicting facets of cultures (consider a subplot involving a conflict over flags), it broke through to mainstream America and became the first Asian American narrative feature to get a wide theatrical release.
Currently streaming on the Criterion Channel.
To Chris Marker, An Unsent Letter (2012)
-dir. Emiko Omori
Like Chan Is Missing, the film essay To Chris Marker is also a kaleidoscopic search for an unknowable person, this time the enigmatic filmmaker Chris Marker (of La Jetée fame). Director Emiko Omori was a cinematographer on Marker’s 1989 documentary series The Owl’s Legacy, and here puts together anecdotes and vignettes into something that might reasonably be accused of hagiography in that nobody has anything remotely critical or negative to say about Marker. Part of that’s timing; Marker passed away in 2012, but part of that might also be that Marker was such a slippery character, so in control of his image (or lack thereof—he hated to be photographed and often used an image of a cat for an avatar), that he was able to leave nothing but a sense of good will. Small wonder that Omori would eulogize Marker; her own output similarly showcases an innate curiosity about the world, from tattoo art (Ed Hardy: Tattoo the World) to Japanese incarceration camps (Rabbit in the Moon—as a small child Omori’s own family was detained at the Poston Internment Camp in Arizona from 1942 to 1945).
Available to rent on Amazon Prime Video.
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
– d. Ang Lee
Much as I loved Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, I have to choose Brokeback Mountain to represent the lifework of Ang Lee. It’s easy to forget the boldness of this film in 2022. But by the time it hit theaters in 2005, it had been a dozen years since a mainstream American movie had placed the sexual orientation of its gay protagonists front and center. But even in Philadelphia, Jonathan Demme played it too safe, with its neutered passion between Tom Hanks and Antonio Banderas. Not so with Brokeback Mountain. To appreciate Lee’s cinematic mastery, look again at its final scene. Ennis (Heath Ledger), alone in his trailer, opens his closet. Hanging inside, shrine-like, are a pair of shirts once worn by him and Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal), along with a picture postcard of their mountain. Behind the closet door, a window beckons with a view of the Wyoming outdoors, as Ennis stays confined in his dingy trailer. Wordless perfection.
Available on VUDU.
The Farewell (2019)
-dir. Lulu Wang
The positive critical reception surrounding Lulu Wang’s The Farewell has for the most part centered on issues of generational and cultural divides between Billi (Awkwafina) and her family in their attempt to conceal a terminal diagnosis from razor witted Nai Nai (Zhao Shu-zhen). All well and good. Truth be told, the scene I’m low-key obsessed with involves a family’s dinner conversation edited around an automated Lazy Susan, plates of food slowly rotating in the foreground. I wondered during my screening whether anyone would have even noticed food continuity errors, so subtle are the compositions (Wang’s commentary on the Blu-ray reveals an even deeper production headache: the automation was broken, meaning some poor crew member had to spin the table by hand). It’s easy to overlook such careful construction in a film that doesn’t draw attention to it, but it’s there all the same.
Currently streaming on Showtime.
Beasts of No Nation (2015)
– d. Cary Joji Fukunaga
A younger version of Ang Lee in terms of their shared eclecticism, Fukunaga has directed a Bond film (No Time to Die), a Brontë adaptation (Jane Eyre), a Mexican migrants’ saga (Sin Nombre), and that fabulous first season of True Detective. For Beasts of No Nation, he donned the hats of director, writer, and cinematographer. Critics rightly described this story of African child soldiers as visceral, vivid, and realistic. But I’ll focus instead on the two lead performances elicited by Fukunaga. Idris Elba humanizes the role of the child soldiers’ commander, while still showing his utter loathsomeness, a laborious tightrope walk no matter one’s experience. First-time actor Abraham Attah is likewise wholly persuasive as Agu, the child soldier we get to know best. We follow him from abduction to indoctrination to combat. By film’s end, we’re left to grapple with how someone like Agu heals, once the fighting has stopped.
Currently Streaming on Netflix.
-d. James Wan
I watched Saw for the first time in my friend’s basement when I was in middle school. It had just left theaters, so he downloaded it from a torrent and we watched it off a burned disc from a PS2. Halfway through the film, during one of the film’s more disgusting torture scenes, I turned around to find that my friend was asleep. I finished watching it, in the pitch dark, on the grainiest screen that has ever been mass-produced. It is still one of the scariest movie experiences I’ve ever had.
In the years since, with dozens of Saw sequels and spinoffs, we forget the power of that first, low-budget monstrosity. It’s one of the most efficient and nasty horror films ever made, and similar to Justin Lin, it created the blueprint for James Wan and creative partner Leigh Whannell to dominate the film industry.
Available on AMC on Demand.
Free Solo (2018)
– d. Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
I wanted to honor at least one Asian-American documentarian in this list. It was a tough call to leave Bing Liu off, for his poignant, thoughtful Minding the Gap. But with Free Solo, from the same year, I can celebrate two documentary filmmakers! With this film and Meru (2015), the husband and wife directing duo of Chin and Vasarhelyi has crafted a pair of edge-of-your-seat stories of mountaineering greatness. For Meru, Chin was also one of the climbers striving to be first to summit Shark Fin’s peak in the Indian Himalayas. With Free Solo, he stayed behind the camera to chronicle another first, Alex Honnold’s ascent of Yosemite’s El Capitan without ropes or other equipment. Yet the camera operators still risked themselves by dangling alongside Honnold for plenty of closeups. For me at least, Free Solo is the better film, for its penetrating profile of Honnold. His laser focus allows him to accomplish great things, but it’s not without a price in the relationship department.
Streaming on Disney +.
The Big Sick (2017)
-d. Michael Showalter
Technically not directed by an Asian filmmaker, but dominated by the writing of its star, Kumail Nanjiani, this is the romantic comedy that other rom-coms have been chasing since its release. The story, based on the real life relationship of Nanjiani and his wife, Emily Gordon, follows the their early romance, which takes a sharp left turn when Emily falls into a coma, and Kumail becomes her first point of contact. When Kumail falls in love with her while she’s in a coma, he comes to grips with the knowledge that his strict Muslim family will never approve of their relationship. No other film has made the tensions between immigrant parents and their children in the US more entertaining.
Streaming on Amazon Prime.