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Influential Asian American & Pacific Islander Movies

In honor of AAPI Heritage Month, a look at noteworthy cinema

Tsai Chin and Tamlyn Tomita in a scene from the movie The Joy Luck Club

Courtesy Everett Collection

Actresses Tsai Chin and Tamlyn Tomita in the 1993 movie "The Joy Luck Club," one of the best-known films depicting Asian American families.

May is Asian American & Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, to honor the rich history and accomplishments of AAPIs throughout the history of the United States. AARP is proud to celebrate AAPI Heritage month with articles that showcase AAPI accomplishments and culture.

In this first installment of our series, we explore the most memorable films on Asian and Pacific Islander history and culture.

Feature Films 

The Joy Luck Club (1993)

One of the best-known, big-hit movies that depicts the dynamics of Asian American families, with a group of Chinese immigrant mothers who play mahjong and their Chinese American daughters and the unfolding of one family’s tragic, wartime story. A classic based on Amy Tan’s bestselling novel, and starring the creme de la crème of AAPI actors.

Enter the Dragon (1973)

The film that made a legend out of the San Francisco-born martial arts master Bruce Lee.

Victoria Shaw, James Shigeta in a scene from The Crimson Kimono

Courtesy Everett Collection

Victoria Shaw and James Shigeta in "The Crimson Kimono."

The Crimson Kimono (1959) 

A striking film noir cult classic filmed by director Sam Fuller almost entirely in Little Tokyo, starring Japanese American actor James Shigeta as an L.A. cop who actually kisses the white woman witness he falls in love with, a rarity in Hollywood films.

Flower Drum Song (1961)

A classic musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein based on a novel by C.Y. Lee, the film tells the story of San Francisco Chinatown’s immigrant community, and changing family structures. The musical reflects the sexual — and sexist — values of the day, but it was groundbreaking in its casting of leading Asian and AAPI actors.

Mississippi Masala (1992)

A drama of interracial romance between an African American man (Denzel Washington) and an East Indian woman (Sarita Choudhury) in the deep South. A South Asian family leaves Uganda as refugees and settled in Mississippi and the father mistrusts black people because of how the family was treated in Uganda.

Jason Tobin, Parry Shen, Roger Fan in a scene from Better Luck Tomorrow

Courtesy Everett Collection

Actors Jason Tobin, Parry Shen and Roger Fan in "Better Luck Tomorrow."

Better Luck Tomorrow (2002)

Director Justin Lin’s independent debut, about a group of Asian American high school students who definitely aren’t the stereotypical “Model Minority.” The film was hailed as an honest look at how AAPI youth today fit (or don’t fit) the American mainstream dream.

Chan Is Missing (1982) 

Director Wayne Wang’s second film (he would go on to direct Joy Luck Club) is a black and white mystery-comedy about a San Francisco Chinatown taxi driver and his nephew who are about to buy a license to operate their own cab. Unfortunately, their friend Chan, who has the money, has disappeared, so the two spend the film looking for him, giving audiences a running tour of Chinatown in the process.

Mulan (1998)

This Disney animated movie seems a long shot to be an AAPI classic, but countless young Asian American girls grew into stronger women by admiring the historic story of Mulan, the girl who joined the army in her father’s place and became a legendary warrior. It helped that the title character was voiced by Ming-Na Wen (the songs were sung by Filipina Lea Salonga) and the handsome male lead was voiced by B.D. Wong (with Donny Osmond singing). 

Picture Bride (1995)

A drama cowritten and directed by Kayo Hatta, this tells the then-common story of a woman from Japan (played by Youki Kudoh) who is betrothed to a man in Hawaii who finds upon her arrival that the photo she was sent doesn’t look anything like her husband. She becomes a sugarcane plantation worker, makes friends with an outspoken woman (Tamlyn Tomita) who helps her endure the hardship of the labor. The film is visually lyrical and much of the dialogue is in Japanese, and captures a unique aspect of early Asian American experience. 

All Saints (2017)

One of the few American films that address the story of Burmese immigrants, All Saints is based on the true story of refugees who settle in a small Tennessee town and help revive a Christian church.

Documentaries

Linsanity (2013)

It was a stroke of luck that the filmmaker Evan Leong was working on a documentary of budding basketball star Jeremy Lin from his college days and followed his progress into the NBA. When Lin joined the New York Knicks, he led the flailing team on an unprecedented streak of wins, and sparked a wave of swooning “Linsanity” from his fans — as well as a wave of hatred from racists.

Frank Wong, Tommy Wong, of Trey Yuen Restaurant, Louisiana, in a scene from The Search For General Tso

Courtesy Everett Collection

Frank Wong and Tommy Wong in "The Search for General Tso" documentary.

The Search for General Tso (2014)

This tasty documentary is a collaboration between director Ian Cheney and coproducer Jennifer 8 Lee, who wrote a book, “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles,” about the history of American Chinese food. The film notes the ubiquitous popularity of a dish called General Tso’s Chicken in almost every Chinese restaurant in the U.S., which isn’t served at all in China. Along the way, Cheney (and Lee) give a fascinating history of how the food Americans consider “Chinese” evolved and how it’s not really the same cuisine that’s served in China.

Tyrus (2015)

A moving, beautiful profile of Tyrus Wong, the Chinese American painter who worked for Disney in the studio’s glory days, painting the gorgeous background watercolors of classic movies like Bambi, for which he was lead artist, in a classical Chinese style. Wong lived to see Tyrus but passed away in 2016 at the age of 106.

Thomas Sung in the movie Abacus: Small Enough To Jail

Courtesy Everett Collection

Thomas Sung in the "Abacus: Small Enough To Jail."

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail (2017)

A documentary that grips viewers like a crime thriller — except there was no crime. In the midst of the financial crash of 2008, when the country’s biggest banks were deemed “too big to fail,” only one bank, the family-owned Abacus Federal Savings Bank in New York’s Chinatown, was prosecuted with the full weight of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office charging its officers and subjecting them to a humiliating “perp walk” as if they were a gang of serial murderers. The film follows the Sung family’s travails and the trial of the bank that was “small enough to jail.” The racist overtones, cultural insensitivity and the economic privilege that isn’t extended to Abacus are striking. The film was nominated for an Oscar at this year’s Academy Awards.

Hollywood Chinese (2007)

AAPI documentarian Arthur Dong has preserved the history of institutions like the Chinese nightclub in San Francisco’s Chinatown, Forbidden City, USA. In Hollywood Chinese, Dong takes an epic sweep of the history of Chinese in Hollywood. He focuses on stereotypes and hardships like overcoming the “yellow-face” of white actors playing Chinese roles, but he also chronicles forgotten gems such as the earliest Chinese film in America, The Curse of Qwon Gwon (1916) and the triumph of current cinema, and directors like Ang Lee. Stars of today and the past are interviewed in the film and give it a personal perspective.

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