Though Asian Americans are the fastest-growing racial or ethnic group in the U.S., pop culture representation has often been slow to catch up. But this is changing in the world of popular media: Movies, while not able to capture the full diversity and breadth of experience of Asian Americans, offer an increasing range of perspectives.
If you’re looking for a film that favors vibes and aesthetics over plot, this may be the one for you. The film follows Jin Lee (John Cho), a literary translator who arrives in Columbus, Indiana from South Korea after his father unexpectedly falls into a coma. In Columbus, he meets Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a library worker who has given up her dreams of pursuing architecture in order to take care of her mother, who is recovering from a drug addiction. The two strike up an unexpected friendship, sharing their innermost secrets with each other despite having just met.
The film’s strength is its visual composition, filled with stunning shots of the modernist architecture of Columbus. Cho and Richardson’s performances are also remarkable, as they take on the challenging task of portraying intimacy between two people who just met. It’s a film that subverts our expectations, as it’s not a romance but instead two strangers who simply like to talk and look at buildings.
Available on Kanopy and Showtime.
Based on Jhumpa Lahiri’s 2003 novel of the same name, “The Namesake” explores migration, family and the ABCD — American-Born Confused Desi — experience. The movie focuses on Ashoke (Irrfan Khan) and Ashima (Tabu) and their American-born children Gogol (Kal Penn) and Sonia (Sahira Nair). Over the course of decades, the family navigates cultural differences and the process of creating a community away from home.
The movie, which primarily focuses on Gogol, offers a nuanced look at the first-generation experience and the difficult task of juggling two cultures at once. It can be profoundly relatable for Desis — Gogol’s struggle to explain his culture to his partner is a common struggle for many of us. With incredible performances from the entire cast, it’s a tear-jerking story of the beauty of everyday life.
Available on Starz.
Set in San Francisco, “Bitter Melon” tells the story of a dysfunctional Filipino American family’s Christmas reunion. The movie focuses on Declan (Jon Norman Schneider), a closeted gay man, returning to his family for the first time in many years. During his visit, Declan learns that his brother, Troy (Patrick Epino), who lives at home with their parents, is abusive towards his wife and his mother. When Declan sees this behavior, he wonders: “Why don’t we kill Troy?” So begins the story of his collaboration with his other brother Moe (Brian Rivera) to figure out how to put an end to the abuse.
The film is shot in San Francisco’s Excelsior District, a neighborhood that isn’t often in the spotlight in films about San Francisco. The movie captures the beauty of the often-overlooked areas of the city and the communities there. Though it carefully explores themes of generational trauma and ending cycles of violence, it still retains a sense of dark humor, making its audience laugh even at the most uncomfortable moments. Full of unexpected twists and turns, it’s also sensitive and well-written.
Available on Prime Video, Tubi and Crackle
Decidedly one of the more comedic films on this list, “Finding ‘Ohana” is a film about two siblings, Pili (Kea Peahu) and E (Alex Aiono), and their summer in rural Oahu with their grandfather. 12-year-old Pili is an expert geocacher who discovers an old journal in her grandfather’s art studio detailing the location of lost treasure from centuries past. After overhearing that her grandfather could lose his home, Pili, accompanied by her brother and a few other quirky characters, takes it upon herself to find the treasure.
Though the film is aimed at kids, it’s still a fun watch at any age. The movie is action-packed, and the precocious protagonist makes it truly a delight to watch. Filled with one-liners and all sorts of wacky hijinks, the movie is a feel-good film about the importance of family and appreciating your roots.
Available on Netflix.
Perhaps one of the more famous films on this list due to its Academy Award nominations, “Minari” tells the story of a Korean American family that moves to a farm in Arkansas. The movie explores familial tensions, as the father’s (Steven Yeun) entrepreneurial ambitions clash with other family members’ desire for community and financial security. Filled with unexpected friendships and unforgettable moments, it’s touching, funny and a visual masterpiece that captures the natural beauty of rural America.
Every actor in this movie delivers a standout performance — from the eccentric, swearing grandmother (Yuh-Jung Youn) to the two children trying to fit in at their new school (Kate Cho and Alan Kim). Though perhaps not always action-packed, it doesn’t need to be; “Minari” celebrates the slow beauty that can be found in nature while exploring the immigrant experience and how the American dream can be an intense motivator.
Available on YouTube and Tubi.
“First Vote” explores how despite being a fast-growing ethnic group, Asian Americans have not voted in large numbers in the United States. From exploring how the Asian American vote could impact battleground states to rethinking ways to reach groups that are less motivated to vote, the film provides a meaningful commentary on democracy through the individual stories of four voters.
The film thrives because of its commitment to exposing a breadth of perspectives —a Trump supporter in Ohio gets just as much screen time as a progressive University of North Carolina professor. Through this diversity of viewpoints, the film is able to capture the variety of the Asian American experience and provides insight into Asian American political engagement.
Available on PBS.
‘The Donut King’
Another documentary, “The Donut King” is a suspenseful tale about what was, for a period of time, one of the most successful donut chains in the country. Founded by Cambodian refugee Ted Ngoy, Christy’s Doughnuts was a rapidly expanding empire, so much so that Dunkin’ Donuts struggled to compete with the chain. After founding his first store, Ngoy would sponsor hundreds of visas for Cambodian refugees, who he offered steady employment in his donut shops.
The documentary is told masterfully, as it maintains the element of suspense throughout its telling. As you learn about the rapid success of Christy’s Doughnuts, you wonder how things could have gone south — and have to keep watching to find out.
Available on Amazon Prime, Apple TV and Hulu.
This movie begins by providing a glimpse into a lesser-known history: the expulsion of Ugandan Indians from Uganda. The film follows a Ugandan Indian family — Jay (Roshan Seth), his wife Kinnu (Sharmila Tagore) and their daughter Mina (Sarita Choudhury) — as they are forced to relocate and end up settling in Greenwood, Mississippi. Mina eventually falls in love with Demetrius Williams (Denzel Washington), a carpet cleaner from Greenwood. Mina’s family refuses to accept Demetrius because he is Black, forcing the couple to make difficult decisions.
Though very much a love story, this film defies genre classification. In addition to portraying the relationship between Mina and Demetrius, it provides insight into how Asian Americans can struggle to fit into the racial binary in the U.S., as well as the classism and anti-Blackness that can manifest in Desi communities. While a story about the power of love, the film is painful and realistic in its depiction of what it’s like to love someone when your community says you can’t.
Available on Amazon and Roku.
Indigo Mudbhary is a University news senior staff writer covering student government. In her free time, she enjoys running around Providence and finding new routes.