From the onset of the pandemic, racism and violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders has reached a historic high and continues to grow. The recent fatal tragedies in Atlanta, San Francisco, and New York City put faces and names to these troubling statistics and evoked a movement for change in social media.
In light of these developments, this year’s Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month is that much more impactful. This May, support the AAPI community by helping non-profit orgs, supporting AAPI-owned restaurants and businesses, and checking out resources like SMU Senate Diversity & Inclusion Committee’s “How to Be an Ally” series.
Also, check out this list of films sharing some of the experiences in the Asian and Pacific Islander community around the world.
The Half of It
Written and directed by Alice Wu, The Half of It follows the story of Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis), an introverted Chinese American high school student, and her widowed father (Collin Chou) during her last year of high school. Chu is enlisted by Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer), a well-intentioned but simple jock, to write love letters to his crush, Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire), who Chu ends up getting feelings for. What ensues is an unexpected but heartfelt story of love, friendship, and religion between three people on the cusp of adulthood. In this coming-of-age story, Wu revolutionizes the film portrayal of Asian Americans through Chu’s multifaceted identity as a queer Chinese American.
This awards season, Minari (Korean for “water celery”) made historical strides, earning numerous nominations and, through Youn Yuh-jung, securing the first Academy Award won by a Korean. Drawing from writer and director Lee Isaac Chung’s upbringing in rural 1980s America, Minari is centered on the Yi family, a Korean immigrant family in rural Arkansas. The Yi family is comprised of father Jacob (Steven Yeun), mother Monica (Han Ye-ri), son David (Alan Kim), and daughter Anne (Noel Kate Cho), who are later joined by Monica’s mother, Soon-ja (Yoon Yuh-jung). Anchored by Jacob’s desire to hit it big with a Korean produce farm, Minari is a profound testament to the perseverance of Asian immigrants in the United States and to the nostalgic allure of rural America.
Based on the novel of the same title by Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake shares the experiences of the Ganguli family, a Bengali immigrant family in the United States. In an effort to retain their identities, parents Ashoke (Irrfan Khan) and Ashima (Tabu) try to instill Indian culture and values within their American-born children, which initially peeves their son, Gogol (Kal Penn). As Gogol grows up, he negotiates between the Indian and American parts of his identity while his family tries to find their space in the United States amidst heartbreak and struggle. Interspersed with Bangla and English, The Namesake offers some insight into the negotiations within third-culture individuals and how those negotiations about personal identity become family affairs.
Leitis in Waiting
Leitis in Waiting opens a discussion on transgender rights in the Polynesian country of Tonga by following the work of Joey Joleen Matale, a Tongan LGBTQ+ activist, and her organization, Tonga Leitis. In just a little over an hour, this documentary addresses the efforts of leitis, an appropriation of the local word fakaleiti meaning “like a lady,” in mentoring one another, combating religious opposition and conservatism in Tonga, and hosting a pageant to celebrate the leiti identity. Leitis in Waiting not only highlights the work for transgender rights among Pacific Islanders, but it also expands beyond Western concepts of LGBTQ+ identity.
The Joy Luck Club
Released in 1993, The Joy Luck Club was one of the first films to feature Asian Americans in depth through its depiction of four Chinese immigrant mothers in the United States and their Chinese American daughters. The four women convene weekly as the Joy Luck Club to play mahjong and to share their stories over the years, bringing themselves and their daughters closer to each other. Equally profound and lighthearted, The Joy Luck Club set a standard for Asian American representation in Hollywood that goes beyond stereotypes and patriarchy.
While Cake is set in Pakistan, its story transcends beyond any border. Cake tells the story of two sisters, the U.K.-based Zara (Sanam Saeed) and the Pakistan-based Zareen (Aamina Sheikh), following Zara’s long-awaited return to Pakistan upon hearing about her father’s ailing health. Adding in their parents, their brother, his wife, and a trusted family friend to the mix, the sisters’ relationship is quickly strained as they travel back to their family home in the picturesque region of Sindh. Shortlisted for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, Cake is a tour de force in Pakistan’s growing film industry and an evocative film about family, love, and loss of both people and time.