Creative works have always been central to society and the way we view the world and those around us. Over the past century, film has become one of the more popular and influential forms of entertainment, helping us feel seen and realize what could be. Representation in film is crucial for all communities, as it can shape how individuals see themselves and their roles in society as well as how others perceive them.
For Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI), however, representation in American cinema has not always been inclusive or reflective of their multifaceted communities. This is a disservice to us all. Normalizing diverse and complex characters and narratives allows us to better learn about other cultures and relate to and appreciate the differences and similarities in these human stories.
In recent years, more and more AAPI creators are doing just that. In 2018, Crazy Rich Asians became the first all-Asian Hollywood film in twenty-five years. It was also the highest-grossing romantic comedy in a decade. While it may be the most high-profile AAPI film in recent history, others have found success in the box office and on streaming platforms as well as during awards season.
For Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, I’m celebrating some of the recent films I’ve enjoyed and the writers, directors, producers, and stars changing the face of American cinema.
Always Be My Maybe (2019)
Always Be My Maybe is a 2019 romantic comedy, or rom-com, filled with many familiar situations. Unlike most rom-coms, however, this one features a predominantly Asian American cast and stars Chinese and Vietnamese American Ali Wong and Korean American Randall Park, who both also wrote and produced the film. The story follows Sasha and Marcus, two childhood sweethearts, as they cross paths after more than a decade. Directed by Iranian American Nahnatchka Kahn, the movie was released in select theaters and on Netflix and found success with viewers and critics. For Park, it was a career achievement he had long hoped for. “I thought it’d be so cool to star in a rom-com, but that was not happening. People were not giving me those offers,” he said. Instead, he and Wong decided to write it themselves.
When writing the screenplay, Wong, Park, and cowriter Michael Golamco, who is Filipino and Chinese American, set out to create a movie presenting diverse and complex characters and a love story that didn’t use race as a plot point. “This is not the Asian American rom-com. This is an Asian American rom-com,” said Wong. Park underscored that point in an interview with the Associated Press, noting that they weren’t trying to write the “perfect Asian American movie.” Instead, he said, “It was more like, ‘Let’s make a really heartfelt and really funny romantic comedy, a movie that we’d really love to see.’”
The Big Sick (2017)
Pakistani American Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon used their real-life love story when writing the screenplay for 2017’s The Big Sick. The film, in which Nanjiani also stars, tells the story of a Pakistani American Kumail, who comes from a more traditional family expecting him to follow their practice of arranged marriage. When Emily, a white American he’s secretly dating, ends up in a coma, he grapples with following the path his parents want for him or following his heart. The Big Sick premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2017 and garnered one of the biggest deals in the festival’s history. It also received many awards and nominations, including an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
The film deals with cross-cultural themes and relationships, portraying the very real struggle many immigrant families face trying to bridge the gap between cultures. The film also showcases an Asian and Muslim American as the leading man in a romantic comedy. In a New Yorker profile, Nanjiani spoke on the importance of that representation. “The stories you see as a kid show you what’s possible,” he said. “But there are very few Muslim characters who aren’t terrorists, who aren’t even going to a mosque, who are just people with complicated backstories who do normal things. Obviously, terrorism is an important subject to tackle. But we also need Muslim characters who, like, go to Six Flags and eat ice cream.”
The Farewell (2019)
As its tagline states, The Farewell is “based on an actual lie” told by writer and director Lulu Wang’s Chinese family. The story follows New Yorker Billi, played by Chinese American actor Awkwafina, who journeys with her family back to China when her grandmother gets cancer. Because the family decides to keep her grandmother in the dark about her diagnosis—a cultural difference Billi wrestles with—they stage a rushed wedding to say goodbye. The Farewell premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and became a critical and box office success. It received numerous nominations and awards, including wins at the Independent Spirit Awards for Best Feature and for Chinese actor Zhao Shu-zhen as Best Supporting Female.
While highlighting the struggle many immigrants feel straddling two cultures, The Farewell is also a universal story. “It’s about loss; it’s about regret; it’s about guilt. It’s about gaps in communication, whether that’s geographical, or language, or cultural. It isn’t just about the way we look,” Wang said in an interview with HuffPost. She also noted the importance of highlighting the characters’ complexities. “I didn’t want to tell the story from a place of being other. I didn’t want to tell the story from a place of being marginalized. I wanted to tell the story from a place of being the center,” she said. “I wanted to show a family that was very culturally specific, but also very American at the same time.”
Late Night (2019)
In her 2019 film Late Night, Indian American writer and producer Mindy Kaling stars as Molly Patel, a chemical plant worker who likes to tell jokes over the intercom and dreams of being in comedy. When she gets the opportunity to interview for a writing position on her favorite, but struggling, late-night talk show, she soon finds herself a diversity hire in a room full of white men. While writing the screenplay, Kaling utilized her own experience as the only woman and minority, a “diversity hire,” on the writing staff of the TV show The Office and as the showrunner of The Mindy Project to craft a relatable story about the value of diverse voices in the workplace. Directed by Nisha Ganatra, who is also Indian American, Late Night premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2019 and became the highest sale in the festival’s history.
Kaling’s experience with The Office wasn’t unusual, but, as she noted in a 2019 interview with Variety, that’s changing. “We are just demanding more inclusive storytelling. We want to see ourselves reflected. When I was coming up, I didn’t even think I was owed that. I thought, ‘No, I can’t see myself in anything I watch, but that’s okay because I just love the show Friends,’” she said. “And now I think younger people think, ‘No, that isn’t good enough for me. I’d like to see some sort of representation of myself on television and film,’ and we really owe it to younger people.”
Korean American writer and director Lee Isaac Chung used his childhood growing up in rural Arkansas with immigrant parents as inspiration for his 2020 Oscar-nominated film Minari. Set in the 1980s, the film follows Jacob Yi, played by executive producer Steven Yuen, as he moves his family to a small rural farm and works tirelessly to find his piece of the American dream. Minari premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2020 and won the dramatic grand jury and audience awards. A critical success, the film received many accolades, including six Academy Award nominations and a win for Korean actor Youn Yuh-jung as Best Supporting Actress.
Ultimately a story about family and perseverance, Chung noted that he didn’t set out to create a film about identity or Asian Americans but rather “to show that our human experience is much more varied and diverse and particular than we think.” In an interview with NPR, he elaborated, “I don’t think it’s about identity. I don’t think it’s about us, you know, as Asian Americans expressing who we are and recognizing that. But I think it’s really about the relationships that we have in our own personal stories. . . . I’ve seen people who aren’t Korean immigrants work on this film and also feel choked up and feel emotional about it because they remember their own families.”
 A recent study found that across 1,300 top-grossing films from 2007 to 2019, only 5.9 percent of speaking characters were of Asian or Pacific Islander descent, only forty-four films (3.4 percent) featured an Asian or Pacific Islander lead or co-lead, and 507 films (39 percent) didn’t have an Asian or Pacific Islander character.