AAPI Representation in 2018: A Retrospective
December 31, 2018
Following the disappointments in casting in 2016’s Dr. Strange and 2017’s Ghost in the Shell for Asian American audiences, there were a lot of strides made in 2018 that are worth mentioning as the year draws to a close. I’ve compiled a year-end review list of notable AAPI performers and creators on the silver screen in 2018. How many have you seen? Which films stood out and which ones fell flat? What do these films mean for Asian Americans in media going forward?
Most of these films received major theatrical releases — for your independent Asian American filmmaking needs, look no further than the Seattle Asian American Film Festival on February 21-24, 2019. Screenings will be held at Broadway Performance Hall and Northwest Film Forum in Capitol Hill.
Crazy Rich Asians
Crazy Rich Asians was perhaps the most visible stride in AAPI representation in 2018. It was extravagant to the point of being over-the-top, but the film was groundbreaking in that it featured an all-Asian cast. I also appreciated that it dove into some of the different identities that make up the spectrum of Asian and Asian American. The sociocultural gaps between Rachel, an academic of Chinese descent who grew up in America, and Nick Young’s family, who live a life of immense privilege in Singapore, are some of the most realistic and relatable parts of the film. It otherwise showcases levels of wealth several times beyond what most viewers could hope to see in their lifetimes in a pretty unapologetic manner.
John Cho delivers a moving performance as David Kim, whose daughter Margot has gone missing after a sleepover. The film uses a video chat interface throughout, exemplifying how to integrate contemporary technology in a way that doesn’t look campy or unusual to the viewer. In terms of Asian American representation in media, Searching strikes chords of parental concern and technology-based anxiety that many viewers can understand. Placing John Cho front and center demonstrates the universality of such themes.
To All the Boys I Loved Before
Similarly placing an Asian American face front and center in a very familiar story, To All the Boys I Loved Before features Vietnamese American actress Lana Condor as Laura Jean Covey, a high school student who writes letters to current and former crushes, yet stops short of mailing them. When her little sister decides to do so on her behalf, romantic dilemmas ensue! Adapted by a book of the same name written by Jenny Han, the movie came close to not having an Asian American protagonist at all. As the author details in this interview, one of the biggest hurdles in production was over concerns that casting an Asian American actress risked the film’s greenlight. Lana Condor’s casting speaks to the efforts made to further solidify the entertainment industry as a platform for Asian Americans.
Sorry to Bother You
Sorry to Bother You doesn’t integrate elements of the Asian American experience as visibly as the earlier three films on this list, but Steven Yeun’s role as labor organizer Squeeze echoes the roles of Yuri Kochiyama, Fred Ho, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, and Larry Itliong as notable Asian/Asian American activists protesting institutional racism, economic inequality, and colonialism in twentieth century. Infiltrating a telemarketing company and rallying its underpaid workers to strike, Squeeze plays a pivotal role in convincing the movie’s protagonist, Cassius Green, to bite the hand that feeds him for the sake of solidarity with the marginalized. It’s a film that is often described as “out there” but isn’t really that out there, especially from the perspective of labor rights violations from multinational corporations and the tense intersections of contemporary art, race, and power.
Asian American actresses Awkafina and Mindy Kaling contribute to a star-studded cast in this past summer’s action-packed blockbuster. Full of characters delivering catchy one-liners in glamorous dresses amidst a heist, this film exhibited both performers in new contexts. Like all of the Ocean’s movies, plot holes can probably be found. But the fun of it is just to enjoy all the flashy effects and stay along for the ride. I do appreciate that not only did this film feature a main cast made up of women, but that there were women of color represented on screen.
A Wrinkle in Time
It was a busy year for Mindy Kaling! She also starred in Ava Duvernay’s cinematic retelling of A Wrinkle in Time alongside Reese Witherspoon and Oprah. Gorgeous special effects and costumes made this film so engaging for viewers, especially those who treasured the original book. When casting the film, Duvernay had Kaling in mind, mentioning that she wanted Mrs. Which, Mrs. Whatsit, and Mrs. Who to be a black woman, a white woman, and a woman who was neither black nor white, respectively. From her beloved role as Kelly on the Office to the big screen, Mindy Kaling has made great strides to be name-checked specifically for such enormous projects.
Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse
I don’t think it’s a controversial statement to say that American creators have a tough time when trying to integrate elements of anime in their work. For every Avatar: The Last Airbender, there’s a horrible live-action remake of an existing series that was perfect on its own (Dragonball Evolution, anyone?) – but Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse is not that! Peni Parker is a spider-person from another dimension who warps into the world of Miles Morales. Voiced by Kimiko Glenn, an actual Asian person (a low standard, I know, but unfortunately this is the world we live in), Peni Parker jets around in a spider-themed mecha named SP//Dr and represents everything people love about anime without being stereotypical.
Short films deserve love too! Especially when they feature a lovingly rendered baozi-making opening scene that literally had me in tears in the first couple minutes of the film. Domee Shi, the film’s director, became the first woman in Pixar’s 32-year history to direct a short film at the studio. About time! Bao tells the story of a Chinese mother living in North America who struggles with her son growing up. She eventually reconciles with him, welcomes his non-Chinese girlfriend into their lives, and they all make baozi together. Shi is currently in early stages of directing a feature-length film for Pixar. In a recent interview, she stated, “Hopefully, there will be more different stories down the road from these big studios because I think they’ve just all realized now that they can’t keep drawing from the same creative well over and over again. […] If Pixar wants to stay at the forefront of animation and storytelling, they’ll have to look for different sources.”
Yaoyao’s Pick: Dead Pigs (海上浮城)
Directed by Chinese American filmmaker Cathy Yan, Dead Pigs or 《海上浮城》 (my rough translation is “The Floating City of Shanghai”) explores the intersecting lives of various characters in contemporary Shanghai. In the film, a migrant worker befriends a restless fuerdai (a Chinese term that refers to the children of the ultra-wealthy in China), a pig farmer copes with sickened livestock, a beauty salon owner resists the impending demolition of her home, and a naïve American navigates the twists and artificialities of the new city he calls home. The film is beautifully shot, simultaneously hilarious and intensely tragic, and presents a view of life in a Chinese city that resonates deeply with my experience as a Chinese American witnessing all of this firsthand when I lived in China for two years.