A discussion about supporting Asian American cinema inspired blogger and R&B/hip-hop scholar Oliver Wang to invite experts on Asian American cinema to post their lists of six films they would recommend to people whose idea of an Asian American film is Rush Hour. Phil Yu of angry asian man, who helped spread the word about Wang's little starting six project, contributed his own starting six and had a couple of surprising picks on his list, like the corny Flower Drum Song, which he even admitted had some cheesy moments.
I saw Wang's starting six and wanted to post my idea of a starting six on my blog to show people who are underwhelmed by a lot of Asian American cinema that there are a few gems out there.
1. The Breakthrough Film: Chan Is Missing (director: Wayne Wang, 1982)
I first saw Wang's comedy about assimilation and Asian American identity on KQED when I was in high school, and I dug how the film is unsentimental, smart and documentary-like, whereas Wang's other signature Asian American film, the Joy Luck Club adaptation, is annoyingly sentimental, syrupy and cartoonish, with a point of view that constantly and Frankenstein-ishly screams out "Asian man bad!"
2. The Serious Filipino American Film: The Fall of the I-Hotel (director: Curtis Choy, 1983)
This outstanding hour-long documentary about the razing of San Francisco's Manilatown is a landmark work in the short history of Filipino American cinema, and it contains powerful footage of the 1977 protests against the eviction of 50 manongs (elderly Filipinos) from their soon-to-be-demolished Manilatown residential hotel.
3. The Actioner: Big Trouble in Little China (director: John Carpenter, 1986)
Twentieth Century Fox marketed BTILC as a movie in which Kurt Russell's Jack Burton is the hero ("Jack Burton's coming to rescue your summer"). In actuality, Jack is the buffoonish sidekick in a role that's usually reserved for the Asian guy, while the real heroes of the piece are the resourceful badass Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) and the wizardly tour bus driver Egg Shen (Victor Wong). That sly and subversive role reversal is one of the reasons why I admire Carpenter. It's a shame that no Asian American filmmaker has yet made an Asian American-centric action flick as enjoyable and empowering for APA viewers as BTILC (Enter the Dragon and later vehicles for the likes of Brandon Lee, Keanu Reeves, Jackie Chan and Lucy Liu don't count as APA-centric). When are we going to see the APA equivalent of Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, Shaft, Coffy or El Mariachi?
4. The Humorous Filipino American Film: The Flip Side (director: Rod Pulido, 2001)
José Sáenz is a comedic standout as an untalented Pinoy baller who thinks he's black in the most obscure of my six choices (it's never made it to DVD). Though Pulido's only feature film is more like an 80-minute sitcom than a movie, I prefer it over The Debut, and the sharpest and most dead-on parts of Pulido's screenplay deal with Pinoys who wish they were black and Pinays who pass themselves off as "Hawaiian," whitewash their looks and date only white guys. No other Asian American feature film has irreverently poked fun at self-hating Asian women like The Flip Side did (c'mon Pinoy screenwriters, it's time to rip Michelle Malkin a new one like Law & Order: Criminal Intent and Boston Legal did to Nancy Grace).
5. The Indie Film: Better Luck Tomorrow (director: Justin Lin, 2002)
I prefer the pre-MTV Films version with the ballsier, Taxi Driver-esque ending over the final cut with the slightly modified ending. The conclusion Lin opted for in the final cut is like if Martin Scorsese took Paul Schrader's Taxi Driver screenplay and tacked on a couple of lines at the end in which Travis Bickle says he plans to turn himself in for murder because he suddenly felt sorry for slaughtering all those pimps.
6. The Mainstream Film: Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (director: Danny Leiner, 2004)
This hilarious cult favorite annoys Asian American film scholars who find it misogynist and slam it for being lowbrow. But it's lowbrow humor for smart people, and even Stephanie "Actresses with not-so-toned bodies should be allowed to do nude scenes too" Zacharek didn't call it misogynist and enjoyed how it's "so unaggressive in the way it addresses the issue of what it means to be a minority in this country that it coaxes you into thinking about it." (If those haters want to see better-written female characters, the somewhat inferior sequel Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay is up their alley. It appears to have been written to appease them.) The fact that many Asian American viewers like myself find Harold & Kumar--which was written and directed by white guys--to be more accurate about our experience than rather shrill and heavy-handed indie dramas with similarly aged lead characters made by Asian American filmmakers is a sign that those indie filmmakers need to step their game up.
Six honorable mentions
The Crimson Kimono (director: Samuel Fuller, 1959)
A lengthy Asian male/white female kiss in 1959? Wow. We have Fuller and his brass ones to thank for that.
Who Killed Vincent Chin? (directors: Christine Choy and Renee Tajima-Peña, 1987)
I don't think I can watch this hard-hitting staple of Asian American studies movie screenings again because the subject matter infuriates me so much.
Robot Stories (director: Greg Pak, 2003)
Matt Zoller Seitz is right. This low-budget anthology from Greg, whom I'm honored to be in the same graphic novel with, is a great sci-fi movie. It contains several terrifically written roles for actresses of color. Lesser-known actresses like Wai Ching Ho (as a grieving mother with a comatose son) and Julienne Hanzelka Kim (as a laconic yet very expressive android) are among the standouts in the cast. If that silent movie I always wanted to write ever gets made, Kim would be perfect for it.
Sucker Free City (director: Spike Lee, 2004)
I know it's a made-for-TV Spike Lee Joint, but this Alex Tse-penned unsold pilot about San Francisco gang life, which co-stars the always superb Ken Leung, premiered first at the Toronto International Film Festival before debuting on Showtime. It ranks with the Twin Peaks and EZ Streets pilots as one of the best feature-length pilots ever made, and it's a more satisfying Tse film than Tse's Watchmen adaptation.
The Motel (director: Michael Kang, 2005)
I appreciate how this indie comedy has none of the formulaic touches that Rotten Tomatoes Show hosts Ellen Fox and Brett Erlich skewered in their "Ode to the Indie."
Beerfest (director: Jay Chandrasekhar, 2006)
The first Broken Lizard flick I ever saw is the funniest one the troupe has done so far, with a hilarious performance by Chandrasekhar as a fallen beer pong legend who's turned to whoring himself out and giving $15 "ZJs."
Coming either later this year or next year: My starting six for Asian American comic books and graphic novels.