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Five films, TV series celebrate AAPI heritage

Here are four films and a TV series that honors Asian American and Pacific Islander heritage through comedy, grief and family

After a pandemic-ravaged year in which waves of anti-Asian sentiment frothed and boiled into violence and tragedy, the Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month serves as a timely, if not defiant, celebration of AAPI individuals. From up-and-coming youth to seasoned auteurs, here is a list of five streamable films and TV shows that showcase not only AAPI creators and talent, but their richly diverse cultures and historic tenacity to thrive and prosper in the face of adversity.

Film: “Always Be My Maybe”

Sasha Tran (Ali Wong) and Marcus Kim (Randall Park) are childhood best friends who drifted apart after an awkward falling-out as teenagers.

Fast-forward 15 years, Sasha has garnered culinary fame as a chef renowned for elevated Asian cuisine. Marcus, on the other hand, holds the same dead-end job and drives the same beat-up Toyota Corolla since high school. When Sasha returns to her hometown of San Francisco to oversee the opening of her new restaurant, the two rekindle their old friendship and realize maybe they should be more than friends.

Directed by Nahnatchka Khan (creator of TV series “Fresh Off the Boat”), “Always Be My Maybe” gives the hackneyed rom-com formula a distinctive spark through the Korean-American experience. 

The film is flawed with plain, sitcom-style cinematography and a formulaic plot. But, Wong and Park offer a genuine, relatable portrayal of second-generation Asian Americans, whose identities stem from a diverse cultural blend — 90’s R&B, childhood in a bustling Chinatown community and Korean family meals with fiery Kimchi Jjigae. There is also a delightful cameo from Keanu Reeves as a Hollywood snob, the vibrant icing on an already decadent cake. 

Available on Netflix. 

TV: “Never Have I Ever”

Created by Mindy Kaling and “The Mindy Project” colleague Lang Fisher, “Never Have I Ever” is a ten-part series that traces the coming-of-age trajectory of Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), an assertive 15-year-old determined to lose her virginity to the most attractive boy at Sherman Oaks High, Paxton Yoshida-Hall (Darren Barnet). 

While the raunchy premise may be somewhat off-putting — Devi herself knows little about sex beyond the typical teenage romanticization of the act — the show unfolds with a strong sense of self-awareness. In “Never Have I Ever,” adolescence is more often than not maladroit, cringe-inducing and ultimately hilarious in all its awkwardness. 

Beyond the classic story of the standoffish girl navigating the high school menagerie, “Never Have I Ever” shines in its exploration of what it means to be Indian American. At the heart of the series lies Devi’s journey to reconcile with her multifaceted identity, as she fulfills familial and religious obligations from maintaining academic rigor to entertaining “Indian aunties” at the Hindu celebration of Ganesh Puja. The series takes its time with Devi’s self-discovery, culminating in a surprisingly moving final episode that leaves audiences impatient for more. 

Available on Netflix. 

Film: “Tigertail” 

The film begins in 1950s Taiwan. Times are hard, and Pin-Jui (Hong-Chi Lee) dreams of moving to the United States depicted in the cinema. 

A directorial feature debut by Alan Yang (writer and producer of “Parks and Recreation”), “Tigertail” is an in-depth rumination on one Taiwanese man’s American dream, his sacrifice and its familial reverberations decades after. 

When the owner of the factory he works in agrees to finance his move to America on the condition that Pin-Jui marry his daughter, Pin-Jui chooses to abandon his childhood sweetheart, Yuan, to pursue his dreams. Decades later, the older Pin-Jui (played by Tzi Ma) is haunted by regret after a loveless marriage and being unable to convey his aching loss to his estranged daughter (Christine Ko), now an adult herself who struggles with her own relationships. 

From 50s-era martial law to the green-gold rice fields rippling in a breeze to the titular township of Hu-wei (directly translated to “Tiger-tail”), Yang’s vision offers a rare glimpse into the history and beauty of Taiwan that bookends the film. 

Tzi-Ma shines as Pin-Jui. Repressed emotions of loss flicker in his tearless eyes as he quietly relives past memories. Throughout the film, his silence deepens the intergenerational rift so familiar in immigrant families. His unspoken past grows into fissures that gradually spread through a broken family. Only when his painful past is confronted, and the story of his daughter’s heritage is told, can the family begin to mend with love and understanding. 

Available on Netflix. 

Film: The Paper Tigers 

A Bruce-Lee inspired action comedy funded by Kickstarter, “The Paper Tigers” entertains with its hilarious dialogue, well-choreographed fight sequences, and innovative twists in the martial arts film genre that manage to pay homage to both its Hollywood and Hong Kong origins. From the 70s classic “Enter the Dragon” to the more recent “Ip Man” series, the martial arts master fights in his prime, or at least, he maintains his edge by continuing a strict training regimen. 

In his feature film debut, writer and director Tran Quoc Bao subverts not only genre stereotypes but also the model minority myth with his protagonists — middle-aged has-beens who have grown out of touch with skills they mastered in their teens. Once the undefeated disciples of the kung fu master Sifu Cheung (Roger Yuan), Danny (Alain Uy), Hing (Ron Yuan) and Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins) must reunite after decades of neglecting their kung fu training to confront Sifu’s murderer. 

Along the way is the trio’s childhood rival Carter (Matthew Page), a Cantonese aphorism-spouting white martial arts trainer who is comically more Chinese than any of the Asian American main heroes. While the film would have benefitted from snappier cuts, “The Paper Tigers” is a nostalgic and creative crowd pleaser perfect for some kung fu throwback. 

Available on Amazon Prime. 

Film: The Farewell 

From Writer and Director Lulu Wang, “The Farewell” is a semi-autobiographical family drama that centers on Billi (Awkwafina), who struggles with her dual identity as a Chinese American. When her grandmother, Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), is found to suffer from terminal cancer, the family hides the diagnosis from Nai Nai and rushes for a reunion, disguised as a marriage between Billi’s cousin and his Japanese girlfriend. 

Awkwafina captivates as the emotionally conflicted Billi. Growing up with the American ideology of freedom of choice and emotional expression, she wrestles with the family’s decision to lie to her grandmother and forego her right to knowing her own health conditions. “Chinese people have a saying: when people get cancer, they die,” her mother (Diana Lin) tells her. “But it’s not the cancer that kills them, it’s the fear.” 

Through the family’s moral dilemma, Wang masterfully explores Chinese-American cultural clashes and relatable moments of grief and joy, culminating in a wedding banquet that elicits both heartwarming laughter and cathartic tears from the audience. 

Available on Amazon Prime. 


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