By Frako Loden.
What a year! Here we are, almost one year into the coronavirus pandemic and enduring a January packed with more stressful incidents than most entire seasons. But once we get a new president—and more exciting, the first South Asian/African American female vice president! Maybe we can tear ourselves away from the news/social media/doom scrolling loop and see us in some films from 2020 that you may have missed.
Year-end film surveys have never yielded this rich a crop of films by and about Asian Americans. I doubt there’s any connection between this bounty and the pandemic that kept most of them out of theatres. But even confined to the small screen, they gave me immense enjoyment and taught me so much about Asian American contributions to our history and culture. In the era of Kamala Harris, we need to catch up on ourselves!
It’s rare in this short period of time to find one, much less two, films made by and featuring Filipina-American protagonists. Yellow Rose, Diane Paragas’s narrative debut, has won numerous awards for her depiction of a teenage Texas Filipina aspiring to be a country singer. Both she and her motel-worker mother are undocumented, and when her mother is detained by ICE, Rose prefers to take refuge with the owners of a famous honky-tonk in Austin (singer Dale Watson himself) rather than hide out in the middle-class house of her chilly aunt (Lea Salonga) and wary uncle. This is a coming-of-age tale that is not, refreshingly, about an API protagonist discovering her ethnic identity. Rose knows who she is and what she wants, and the film traces her efforts to compose just the right song with which to come out of her shell. She’s lucky to be housed and encouraged by decent people during her enforced separation from her mother. (Amazon)
Lingua Franca is a harsher story about an undocumented Filipina American. Olivia is a caregiver to an elderly widow in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach, feeding money to a man who has agreed to a green-card marriage with her. When the man reneges on the arrangement, Olivia has to find an alternative—and the widow’s grandson, just out of rehab, is growing fond of her. But does he know she’s a trans woman, and once knowing will he react differently from his thuggish, transphobic party friends? As if that didn’t threaten enough trauma, ICE seems to be closing in on her as Trump’s speeches intensify anti-immigrant sentiment. Director Isabel Sandoval, who plays Olivia, is herself trans, and this is her first film post-transition. Like Yellow Rose, the film emphasizes the API journey after she’s established her identity. (Netflix)
Unlike the many, many slapdash film treatments of Bruce Lee, Be Water—a feature-length episode of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series—is directed by Asian American filmmaker Bao Nguyen and spends serious time investigating the legendary Chinese American martial artist’s struggles with a Hollywood blinded by racism and stilted ethnic representations. But as its title implies, the film also celebrates Lee’s philosophy of self-expression amid adversity. Equal weight is devoted to his films made in Hong Kong, where Lee returned after his frustrating sojourn in Hollywood. Restoring dignity to Lee after Quentin Tarantino’s ludicrously arrogant depiction of him in Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood, Be Water provides a new generation of fans with a fresh portrait combining interviews with Lee and his surviving family members. (ESPN/Hulu)
Acclaimed Ramona S. Diaz’s documentary A Thousand Cuts tells the unfinished story of Filipina American journalist Maria Ressa, founder of Manila-based news website Rappler and one of Time‘s Persons of the Year 2018, who chose to return to the Philippines to defend freedom of the press and democracy from social-media disinformation campaigns. At one point she was getting 90 hate messages per hour. Ressa’s theory, backed by plenty of evidence, has long been that Philippines is just a testing ground for fake-news networks that will inevitably be unleashed in the US. Her mission is to counter the lies and corruption of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who has not only threatened to kill drug dealers (and done so) but threatened the life of Ressa herself. It is enthralling to watch the intrepid Ressa and her journalist colleagues, mostly female, fight back against a populist dictator more ideologically driven than ours. (From February, Frontline 2021 Episode 1, through the PBS app)
I was charmed by Alice Gu’s documentary The Donut King about Ted Ngoy, the original donut entrepreneur who launched a Cambodian American industry during the late 1970s and 1980s. His Christy’s chain of 70-some shops, eventually leased by refugees whom he helped sponsor, defeated Winchell’s and Dunkin’ Donuts in Southern California. A GOP supporter and future politician himself, Ngoy was awarded by President George H. W. Bush for achieving the American dream. But his astounding gambling habit destroyed him, his donut empire and finally his marriage to Christy. (Amazon)
The grand opus of documentaries this past year was Asian Americans, a 5-episode saga televised last May and still viewable on PBS. Besides providing a grand panorama of the fastest-growing racial/ethnic group in American history, it is perfectly positioned to comment on the racist stigma of the pandemic as caused by the “Chinese” virus. Since five hours is not nearly enough to tell the tale of Asian America, its many fascinating stories serve as an appetizer platter (to quote Grace Lee, one of the documentarians) for further research and filmmaking. (PBS)
One of those fascinating stories culminates in a reunion of the mixed-race descendants of Moksad Ali, a Bengali immigrant traveling salesman, who married a Black woman named Ella Blackman in New Orleans. Some of their many children went on to achieve prominence in the jazz and filmmaking worlds. The stories of Asian immigrants who formed non-Asian alliances and families away from the West coast is a notable feature of both Asian Americans and Larissa Lam’s documentary Far East Deep South, which I was able to view through CAAMFest and is now available for virtual screenings in February at https://fareastdeepsouth.com/screenings/. Far East Deep South is an emotionally exciting detective story about Charles Chiu, who takes his family from California to Mississippi to uncover the life of his father K. C. Lou. There, through a chain of spontaneous connections, the family learns about Lou’s amazingly successful career as a shopkeeper doing business with Whites and Blacks in the segregation era of the Deep South.
Another film, this time not a documentary, that is based on the filmmaker’s life is Korean American Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari, which has been winning critics’ and audience awards since Sundance. It’s not for lack of trying that I’ve managed to miss at least four filmfest screenings of this drama, starring Steven Yeun (The Walking Dead, Burning) as a Korean immigrant who brings his young family to start a farm in Arkansas during the 1980s. I’m told by those who have seen it that it’s both epic and a searing reminiscence—critic Walter Chaw says, “Minari is the first time I’ve felt completely known by a film.” I’ll be pouncing on it when it’s released by A24 on February 12.
I can also strongly recommend Nomadland, Chinese American Chloé Zhao’s wistful semi-documentary film about a widow working and wandering her way across the American west. Frances McDormand is expected to win the Oscar for her performance as Fern the van-dwelling nomad. Having gathered many awards on the virtual film-festival circuit, Nomadland opens commercially on February 19. Her eagerly anticipated Marvel Universe film Eternals will feature Asian American characters played by Gemma Chan, Kumail Nanjiani and others.
Another actor enjoying Oscar buzz is Riz Ahmed, the Pakistani-British star of Sound of Metal (Amazon). In a fiery performance, Ahmed plays an alcoholic heroin addict death-metal drummer who suddenly loses his hearing. Intent on “fixing” every problem he’s ever had, he resists attempts by his rehab counselor to get him to embrace Deafness and instead ponders saving up to buy cochlear implants. I’ve heard a few complaints that the film doesn’t “get” the actual experience of deafness, but the innovative sound design and Ahmed’s fury are undeniably impressive. Interestingly, Ahmed also stars in the British director Bassam Tariq’s Mogul Mowgli, about a rapper on a world tour suddenly struck with a disease, which is scheduled for release this spring.
Brief mentions of some Asian American-themed films and TV series that brightened my screens via Amazon this year include Hong Khaou’s Monsoon, an understated romance of a Vietnamese-British man (Henry Golding) who returns to Saigon after decades away to bring his parents’ ashes home. In Andrew Ahn’s sweet and tender Driveways, a lonely Vietnamese American boy is befriended by an elderly White man. (Amazon & Kanopy).
At Netflix you can still see Tigertail, director Alan Yang (co-creator of Aziz Ansari’s Master of None series)’s intergenerational immigrant saga, with the great Tzi Ma playing yet another nuanced but emotionally strained father to his American-born daughter. Ellie, the heroine of Alice Wu’s The Half of It, also has a blocked Chinese immigrant father, whose inability to speak English and provide for them forces her to take on the breadwinner role writing student papers. This leads to her Cyrano de Bergerac-style ghost-writing of love letters to a girl she herself desires. Those of us who loved Wu’s 2004 Saving Face are delighted to see her return to romantic comedy. (Netflix).
Go to Kanopy for two films that explore New York’s Chinatown and Los Angeles’ Koreatown respectively through the adventures of very different women: Lucky Grandma and Ms. Purple.
Let’s not forget Asian American and South Asian themed TV series. I kept myself sane over the past several months laughing uncontrollably at the middle-school antics of two gawky outcasts in Hulu’s Pen15 in its second season. One of them, Maya, has a Japanese mother like I do, and I was nodding constantly in recognition of their relationship. There was more there for me to identify with than in the Mindy Kaling-created Netflix series Never Have I Ever. But its high-school heroine Devi is every bit the inquisitive, horny nerd Maya is. Both series celebrate the Asian American experience in its hilariously mundane, individualized and matter-of-fact wholeness. They’re a comfort and distraction from the awful events happening just outside.
Author’s Bio: Frako Loden is adjunct lecturer in film and ethnic studies at California State University East Bay and Diablo Valley College. She is a contributing editor at Documentary magazine.
Additional trailers for films and TV shows mentioned in this article: