Known as the little film that could despite being turned down by every major studio because of its all-Asian cast and despite being made using maxed out credit cards (and with an assist by MC Hammer), Better Luck Tomorrow is something of a legend in Asian American filmmaking lore. The film debuted at Sundance, where the late Roger Ebert famously defended Asian Americans’ “right to be whatever the hell they want to be” in response to a white audience member deploring director Justin Lin’s “amoral” portrayal of Asian Americans. Following Sundance, the film was bought by MTV Films for general distribution, launching Justin Lin’s career and becoming the highest-profile Hollywood film to feature an all-Asian American cast since The Joy Luck Club (1993) and Flower Drum Song (1961).
Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (2004)
Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (2008)
A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas (2011)
If Better Luck Tomorrow revealed the dark side of the model minority myth, the Harold and Kumar trilogy takes the myth and flips it on its head, to hilarious effect. Made by Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg (“that white guy who directed Dude, Where’s my Car?”), the films turned John Cho (“that Asian guy from American Pie”) and Kal Penn (“that Indian guy from Van Wilder”) into household names, and reignited Neil Patrick Harris’s career. (And made us all really, really want to eat at White Castle.) Watch for cameos from an unrecognizable Christopher Meloni and supporting roles from Rob Corddry and Danny Trejo (in a Christmas sweater, no less). And an anthropomorphic bag of weed.
The Namesake (2006)
Fans of Pulitizer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri’s bestselling book will be pleased by this faithful and moving adaptation directed by Mira Nair. Nair skillfully transfers Lahiri’s prose to the screen, and the casting is stellar, with Bollywood stars Irrfan Khan and Tabu as first generation immigrant parents and Kal Penn in one of his first leading roles outside of Harold and Kumar. That the film wasn’t nominated for an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay still chaps to this day.
Who Killed Vincent Chin? (1987) / Vincent Who? (2009)
Often taught in college courses, Renee Tajima-Pena and Christine Choy’s Academy Award-nominated documentary about the slaying of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American in Detroit who was killed because his attackers thought he was Japanese, is just as timely and resonant today as it was in the ‘80’s, especially with China replacing Japan as today’s economic boogeyman. The light sentence that Chin’s killers received outraged and united Asian American communities across nationalities in a pan-Asian effort to seek justice. Curtis Chin’s 2009 follow-up documentary looks at Vincent Chin’s legacy and how familiar younger Asian Americans are with his name. (Hint: not a whole lot.) Both films are a must-see for viewers interested in social justice and American history.
American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs (2014)
Director Grace Lee has given us the documentary about Grace Lee Boggs - the standout figure in Lee’s 2005 film, The Grace Lee Project - that we were waiting for and that she richly deserves. The film chronicles Bogg’s lifetime of political and social activism, from her involvement in the labor, civil rights and Black Power movements; her marriage to fellow activist James Boggs; her friendships and partnerships with luminaries such as Angela Davis, Bill Moyers, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, and Danny Glover, to her present day initiatives to revitalize and rebuild Detroit, her hometown. At the age of 99, Boggs still possesses a keen mind and wit and is seen vigorously debating with her surviving friends and colleagues throughout the film. Like Yuri Kochiyama, Boggs more than smashes the stereotype of the passive, retiring Asian American who does not make waves. To expand upon the Blue Scholars’ most well-known song, when I grow up, I want to be just like Yuri Kochiyama – and Grace Lee Boggs.
By Eugenia Beh
photo credit: dumplingmag.com