In case you managed to get through 2018 without seeing a single article on Asian American popular culture, you might want to know that this was a breakthrough year for Asian American cinema. The film Crazy Rich Asians created an enormous amount of hype through its clever marketing in conjunction with local Asian American organizations and through the relentless publicity tours of the filmmaker and the film’s stars. The movie exceeded almost all industry predictions to become a huge hit despite the declining popularity of romantic comedies at the box office.
Shortly after Crazy Rich Asians debuted, the film Searching was released. Though the film received less public notice, it too featured a predominantly Asian American cast led by John Cho. Searching also exceeded expectations, and for one week this past summer the number one and number two films at the box office starred Asian Americans. Films starring Asians made a mark in the U.S. beyond ticket sales when the Korean film Burning, starring Asian American actor Steven Yuen, topped multiple top 10 movie lists from media outlets like the New York Times and Vogue.
Although the Academy Awards gave the cold shoulder to all these films, the skateboarding movie Minding the Gap by the Asian American Director Bing Liu was nominated for best documentary and three Asian American films were nominated for the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film: Bao, Weekends and One Small Step. The nominations will give much needed attention to a genre that often struggles to find an audience. Luckily for Seattleites, two of the shorts will be included in the Seattle Asian American Film Festival. Weekends will screen during the shorts program Spotlight and One Small Step with screen during the Technologic shorts program.
While these all demonstrate the talent and box office draw of Asian actors and filmmakers as a group, taken separately they show the range and diversity of the kinds of stories we could tell if we get the chance. The over the top glamour of the fantasy world of Crazy Rich Asians contrasts sharply with the gritty reality of Minding the Gap. Where Crazy Rich Asians reveled in conspicuous consumption and a love conquers all story line, Minding the Gap details a childhood marred by parental abuse and the temporary escape offered by the anarchic world of street skaters. Those differences even extend behind the camera. Jon Chu directed Crazy Rich Asians after proving himself with the second and third installments of the Step Up dance move franchise and the big budget action film G.I Joe: Retaliation. By contrast, the low budget doc Minding the Gap was Bing Liu’s first full length feature.
Searching and Burning also showcased the diversity of Asian experiences by portraying the distinctly different worlds of middle-class U.S. suburbia and the economic divides of contemporary Korean culture. More telling, though, is what ties the two films together. Both starred Asian American actors with enough star power to carry a film. It has only been two short years since the “Starring John Cho” meme flared up in response to #OscarsSoWhite. The meme photoshopped John Cho into famous movie posters across a range of genres to get audiences to imagine an Asian leading man while also asking Hollywood why it seemed unable to create a starring role for Asian men (short answer: racism). Maybe the images motivated casting directors, who were paid back handsomely with strong ticket sales.
The Korean American actor Steven Yuen is best known for his role in The Walking Dead where he grew from a stereotypical nerdy Asian side character to one of the central romantic interests in the show. For those familiar with Yuen from The Walking Dead, Burning is a revelation. Yuen’s performance of a wealthy, urbane, sociopath is chilling and attractive at the same time, and he speaks Korean throughout the film. Both actors bring a depth and nuance to their roles that demolish any hint of a flattening stereotype.
This array of films, however diverse, still have gaps and absences that should be remedied. The actors and stories focus on East Asians with little attention paid to South Asian or South East Asian experiences. They also fail to move past the under-developed queer sidekick of Crazy Rich Asians to tell the varied story of LGBTQ Asians. To get to those stories we need to look somewhere other than mainstream outlets. The Seattle Asian American film festival organizers continue to fill the gaps left by Hollywood cinema with a full lineup of films focused on queer themes (Leitis in Waiting, the Queer AF shorts program, and For Izzy) and films featuring Asians and Asian Americans beyond the narrow confines of East Asia.
There is much to appreciate for Asian Americans in film this past year, but celebrations may have to wait until we see if this year is the start of a trend or a short blip in movie history. In either case, Asian American film festivals will continue to tell untold stories and nurture the actors and filmmakers who will power the next wave of Asian American films.
The 2019 Seattle Asian American Film Festival runs Feb. 21 through Feb. 24. Learn more here.