“The first Asian American film from a major Hollywood studio in 25 years.” That was the mantle carried by “Crazy Rich Asians” when it arrived in 2018. But surely, observers asked, there had to have been Asian American films since “The Joy Luck Club” even if Hollywood didn’t deliver them? The same tentative excitement surrounded Netflix’s “Always Be My Maybe” this year: If this wasn’t the first Asian American rom-com, then what was?
Clearly, it’s time for a canon, a set of films that fans can debate, but which make undeniable that Asian American cinema exists and elicit some consensus about their quality and cultural impact.
True, Asian American cinema has long had a testy relationship with canons. In fact, early films, like those made by Visual Communications in the 1970s, existed to undermine the notion of canons altogether, agitating from the margins against a mainstream that could never understand or assimilate its cultures or politics. In later decades, Asian American film and video explicitly explored image-making too experimental, too queer, too resistant to labels to comfortably assemble into a neat corpus.
However, following the so-called “Class of 1997” when an unprecedented number of feature films premiered at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (including Rea Tajiri’s “Strawberry Fields” and Quentin Lee and Justin Lin’s “Shopping for Fangs”), a wave of self-consciously Asian American films with an eye on national audiences burst onto the scene. Panels and funding opportunities organized by Visual Communications in Los Angeles, Asian CineVision in New York and the National Asian American Telecommunications Assn. in San Francisco provided institutional support for feature films.
Meanwhile, Asian American film festivals in Chicago, San Diego, Washington, D.C., Seattle, Boston, Philadelphia, Austin and elsewhere emerged to promote and exhibit these new works. Whereas an earlier generation of sporadic feature filmmaking (Wayne Wang’s “Chan Is Missing” in 1982, Mira Nair’s “Mississippi Masala” in 1991, Ang Lee’s “The Wedding Banquet” in 1993) found audiences primarily in the mainstream art house circuit, this later wave of films fed a nationwide hunger of Asian Americans to see themselves reflected onscreen and on their own terms. This national festival circuit became an informal distribution network and bestowed the films awards.
We invited over more than 20 Asian American critics and curators who professionally observed and debated the scene for the last two decades to participate.
The titles that fed this growing movement suggest the possibility of a canon that can coexist with Asian American cinema’s more anticanon impulses, which continue to this day.
To determine that canon, we invited more than 20 Asian American critics and curators who professionally observed and debated the scene for the last two decades to participate in a poll. They were limited to films from this period (2000-2019) directed by and prominently featuring Asian Americans. (Canada was bracketed off because while Asian Canadian cinema played the same festival circuit, its films were produced in a different political context surrounding issues of immigration, citizenship and national belonging all central to how Asian American cinema was first defined.)
The resulting list won’t be surprising to longtime fans, but it will be a marvel to the uninitiated. Topping the poll is Justin Lin’s electrifying breakout “Better Luck Tomorrow.” Recent films with Sundance Film Festival pedigrees crowd the rest of the top 10. But after that are lesser-known titles — comedies, family dramas, documentaries — craving rediscovery: films like Spencer Nakasako’s powerful “Refugee” about Cambodian families on two continents, and Grace Lee’s “The Grace Lee Project,” about a Missouri director’s nationwide search to find Asian American women with her same name.
While the top 20 only includes one Southeast Asian director (Ham Tran) and two South Asian directors (Mira Nair and Aneesh Chaganty), the rest of the list reveals broader ethnic diversity, suggesting that even within Asian American cinema are voices still demanding recognition.
If anything, canons should beget other canons, expanding the corpus and making it ever more impossible to deny the vast existence of Asian American filmmaking, or the suggestion that it’s ever needed Hollywood to tell its own stories.
Hu is the artistic director of the Pacific Arts Movement, presenters of the San Diego Asian Film Festival.
1‘Better Luck Tomorrow’ (2002)
Director: Justin Lin
Cast: Parry Shen, Jason Tobin, Sung Kang, Roger Fan
“Fast & Furious” franchise helmer Justin Lin made his solo directing debut with this Sundance hit, a high school crime drama about Asian American overachievers breaking bad that sent the model minority myth spinning. It remains a milestone for ferociously defiant Asian American storytelling.
2 ‘Minding the Gap’ (2018)
Director: Bing Liu
With: Keire Johnson, Zack Mulligan, Bing Liu
Three childhood friends united in their love for skateboarding grow up in a small Illinois town in front of our eyes in filmmaker Bing Liu’s Oscar-nominated documentary, with searing observations on race, class and masculinity.
3‘The Farewell’ (2019)
Director: Lulu Wang
Cast: Awkwafina, Zhao Shuzhen, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Lu Hong
Tears, tenderness and one majorly surreal “true lie” envelop Wang’s keenly observed semiautobiographical stunner, a multigenerational, cross-cultural tale of a NYC artist paying one last visit to her grandmother in China.
4‘In the Family’ (2011)
Director: Patrick Wang
Cast: Trevor St. John, Patrick Wang, Sebastian Brodziak
This exquisitely shaped drama, about a family tragedy that threatens to rip a father and his son apart, heralded the arrival of an important new filmmaking talent in Wang (“The Grief of Others,” “A Bread Factory”).
5‘Spa Night’ (2016)
Director: Andrew Ahn
Cast: Joe Seo, Youn Ho Cho, Haerry Kim
Ahn’s debut is an achingly sad portrait of a young Korean American man grappling with various forms of identity confusion — sexual, social, cultural — in an L.A. milieu we see too rarely in the movies.
6‘Crazy Rich Asians’ (2018)
Director: Jon M. Chu
Cast: Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Awkwafina
Asians making history in a blockbuster Hollywood rom-com? You love to see it. Wu and Golding anchor Chu’s glossy adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s bestselling novel, the first modern-set studio movie to center a majority Asian and Asian American cast in 25 years.
Cast: John Cho, Haley Lu Richardson
Cho and Richardson give superbly matched performances as two people talking about architecture and thinking about life in a serenely intelligent two-hander set at the intersection of Ozu and Linklater.
Director: Justin Chon
Cast: Justin Chon, Simone Baker, David So
Two Korean American brothers (Chon and So) and the African American girl (Baker) they’ve befriended navigate hardships and increasing racial tensions as the 1992 Los Angeles riots turn the city upside down in a bracing American tale from actor-turned-director Chon.
9‘The Namesake’ (2006)
Director: Mira Nair
Cast: Tabu, Irrfan Khan, Kal Penn
This sensitive adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s bestseller exploring the immigrant experience broke into the mainstream and proved that in an alternate — and more inclusive — universe, Bollywood stars Khan and Tabu would be Hollywood stars too.
10‘American Revolutionary: the Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs’ (2013)
Director: Grace Lee
With: Grace Lee Boggs, Danny Glover, Bill Ayers
A late Detroit-based activist known especially for her advocacy for black communities during the civil rights era, Boggs springs to rich, indelible life in this affectionate but critically thoughtful documentary.
11‘Saving Face’ (2004)
Director: Alice Wu
Cast: Michelle Krusiec, Joan Chen, Lynn Chen
A young surgeon keeps her sexual identity a secret from her mom, who has secrets of her own. A hallmark of lesbian cinema and a beloved comedy of Chinese American women negotiating family honor.
12‘Colma: The Musical’ (2006)
Director: Richard Wong
Cast: H.P. Mendoza, Jake Moreno, L.A. Renigen
This miraculous microbudget musical, about three high school graduates in the sleepiest of San Francisco suburbs, introduced the world to the inventive eye of Wong and the infectious melodies of composer-lyricist-actor Mendoza.
Director: Aneesh Chaganty
Cast: John Cho, Debra Messing, Michelle La, Joseph Lee
Writer-director Chaganty’s taut techno-thriller unfolds through the computer screen of a distraught dad as he hunts for his missing daughter, a bold cinematic experiment in storytelling anchored by Cho’s emotional star turn.
14‘The Grace Lee Project’ (2005)
Director: Grace Lee
With: Grace Lee, Aldo Velasco
What’s in a name? Grace Lee, no fan of her own overused moniker, set out to find the answer — and emerged with a documentary that wittily upends stereotypes about Asian female passivity.
15‘Journey from the Fall’ (2006)
Director: Ham Tran
Cast: Long Nguyen, Kieu Chinh, Diem Lien
A rejoinder to Oliver Stone and Hollywood’s Vietnam, this shattering, bicontinental family epic collected memories of the Vietnamese diaspora to tell its own story of the years following the fall of Saigon.
Director: Spencer Nakasako
With: David Mark, Sophal Meas, Mike Siv
Developed out of after-school youth media programs in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, the documentary tracks three young Cambodian American men who go back to Cambodia to reunite with fathers, sisters and brothers separated by war.
17‘In Between Days’ (2006)
Director: So Yong Kim
Cast: Jiseon Kim
A lonely teenage immigrant’s struggle to make sense of her new surroundings is illuminated with extraordinary sensitivity and visual grace in So Yong Kim’s prize-winning debut.
18‘The Motel’ (2005)
Director: Michael Kang
Cast: Jeffrey Chyau, Sung Kang, Samantha Futerman
This Sundance charmer follows a 13-year-old boy’s misadventures growing up in a locale all too familiar to many Asian American immigrants: the family-run motel.
Director: Jennifer Phang
Cast: Jacqueline Kim, Freya Adams, Ken Jeong
In this eerie sci-fi drama, a young mother wonders if she’s too old and too ethnic for the modern workplace, so she volunteers to transplant her consciousness into a younger, whiter body.
20‘The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift’ (2006)
Director: Justin Lin
Cast: Sung Kang, Brian Tee, Lucas Black, Sonny Chiba
Life’s simple: You make choices and you don’t look back. How did a pulpy action picture e-brake its way onto this list? Directed by Justin Lin, the “Furious” threequel revolutionized a formula, introducing a fan fave (Sung Kang’s Han Seoul-oh) and paved the way for unprecedented franchise evolution.
[*A word about the methodology for point tabulation: Contributors had the choice to submit up to 20 film titles, ranked or unranked. For ranked ballots, points were weighted according to preference: 20 points for #1, 19 points for #2, etc. For unranked ballots, all films received the same number of points, which is an average of the total number of points possible for the ballot.]