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David Magdael

Professional Film Expert

Best Asian American Film & Asian American Movies

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When asked about my choice for Best of the Best Asian American films, my mind started to go into rewind mode over the past 25 years, because even as the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival Produced by Visual Communications will be celebrating our 25th anniversary in May 2009, we are going through our own lists. As the festival’s co-director for the past twelve years of the largest Asian/Asian American film showcase of its kind in Southern California, I have seen tons of Asian American features and shorts from a multitude of diverse ethnicities and backgrounds covering so many stories, issues, and life events.

Our Asian American cinema is still at a growing stage with many new and exciting visual story tellers bringing their visions to the bring screen. When the festival first started out, there was only a handful of Asian American filmmakers. Now, there are many who are raising the bar of cinema excellence and making a mark. However, these are more of recent activity within the past two decades when finally these new artists had begun to explode onto the scene.

Our Asian American community continues to be hungry for our own stories and our own storytellers, as evidenced by the growth of our festival. Many more Asian Americans are in front of the camera, as well as behind the camera – so the timing now is extremely exciting and ever evolving with our amazingly growing talent pool. Also, many originally based Asian filmmakers have now crossed the Pacific and are making films in America including John Woo, Wong Kar Wai, the Pang Brothers and others adding to our own Asian American cultural richness as cinematic storytellers.

For the purposes of this list, we have a number of filmmakers who are Asian American and Asian directors who are here in the US – so I wanted to narrow it down to them and to the past 25 years. What was inspiring about looking at this entire genre of artists is that it encompassed so many different types of filmmakers, films and voices that continue to define Asian American cinema. This potpourri of visionaries include veterans and newbies such as Wayne Wang, Justin Lin, Mira Nair, Ang Lee, Gina Kim, So Young Kim, John Chu, the Bui Brothers, Jessica Yu, Arthur Dong, Stefane Gauger, Steven Okazaki, Frieda Lee Mock, Ham Tran, and Greg Pak, just to name a few.

The list below is culled from a “FOR US, BY US, and ABOUT US” thinking. What made these films stand out was their aesthetic in telling a story, staying true to the portrayals of the characters and how the film resonates with the viewer. It should be longer than the slots provide below – and because of this, I had to lump some films together into one slot to be included – mainly because these were important as a group.

Best of the Best:

These I consider essential viewing for Asian American films. Some are Asian American stories and some are from an Asian American perspective and may not star Asian Americans. Well, you will get it.

Learn how to find films by Asian Americans with the help of our experts, who have watched the best Asian American film genre unfold. We suggest classic Asian American movies that are must-have for your collection.

Best Asian American Films by David Magdael

The Best You Can Get

  • Better Luck Tomorrow – directed by Justin Lin

    David says: Lin broke new ground with his script and solo directorial debut of Asian American high school males caught up in their own angst. He turned the “model minority” myth on its head and showed that he has directing and writing chops. Prior to BLT (as fans affectionately call it), Lin did museum pieces, documentary shorts, short films, and co-directed indie SHOPPING FOR FANGS with fellow UCLA Film School class mate Quentin Lee. Released by MTV Films and Paramount Classics.

    BLT worked up feverish discussions at 2003 Sundance Film Festival at its premiere with famed film critic Roger Ebert leading the charge that “Asian Americans can make any movie they want to make – and they don’t have to ‘represent’ anyone” – as he yelled at a fellow critic who happened to be white and just lambasted Lin and his actors by telling them needed to be ashamed of themselves. Footage of Ebert standing on charge and yelling was caught on tape and was everywhere.

    Young, college-aged Asian Americans championed this film and rocked opening box office weekends, as BLT performs as highest per screen average on opening weekend with $27,000 per screen. For their distributor Paramount Classics, it was one of their success stories. For MTV FILMS, it was their first acquisition.

    If you like this film – you will like: FAST AND FURIOUS: TOKYO DRIFT – Justin Lin; DARK MATTER - Shi-Zheng Chen; 100 PERCENT – Eric Koyanagi; YELLOW – Chris Chan Lee.

    • BLT becomes a classic for Asian American teens and young adults
  • Chan Is Missing - directed by Wayne Wang

    David says: CHAN IS MISSING is considered one of the first Asian American films, as Wang put this genre on the map as a New York Times film critic championed, this raw drama about a taxi driver in Chinatown San Francisco looking for his friend. The rave notice catapulted Wang into the film public sphere and opened up an opportunity for all to get a glimpse of Asian American life in San Francisco. Wang opened the door for many other Asian American filmmakers to come through. Who knew history would repeat itself some twenty years later for Justin Lin when Roger Ebert championed him.

    If you like this film – you will like: FAST AND FURIOUS: TOKYO DRIFT – Justin Lin; DARK MATTER - Shi-Zheng Chen; 100 PERCENT – Eric Koyanagi; YELLOW – Chris Chan Lee.

    • CHAN is studied on many university campuses across the US in Asian American Studies Classes both from a media standpoint and a sociological theme
    • CHAN gave film audiences insight to an array of characters from first generation to second generation Asian Americans and their adaptations to life as Americans
  • Who Killed Vincent Chin – by Christine Choy and Renee Tajima Pena

    David says: Gritty, moving, and heart wrenching historic documentary that tells the story of the 1982 Detroit, Michigan murder of Vincent Chin, an automotive engineer mistaken as Japanese who slain by an assembly line worker who blamed him for the competition by the Japanese auto makers that were threatening his job. The film covers the mishandling of the trial where eventually Ron Ebens – the man who beat Chin over the head with a baseball bat – is cleared of all charges even with witnesses and a confession.

    Other documentary recommendations from Asian American filmmakers worth taking a look at: MAYA LIN - from Freida Lee Mock; HOLLYWOOD CHINESE – Arthur Dong; LICENSE TO KILL – Arthur Dong; UP THE YANGTZE – Yung Chang; DAYS OF WAITING – directed by Steven Okazaki; KELLY LOVES TONY – Spencer Nakasako; REFUGEE – Spencer Nakasako; BLACK LIGHT, WHITE RAIN – Steven Okazaki;

    • Insightful story about the injustice system that many people of color in America must face
    • Even though this haunting story is from the 80s, it is even more relevant in post 9/11 America
    • Multi-layered film that asks the question, “Who really killed Vincent Chin?”; was it the murderer himself or the economic times of Detroit or the racism that continues to be prevalent?
    • Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature 1988
  • Brokeback Mountain – Ang Lee

    David says: Although this was not starring Asian Americans in his cast, the sensibility of this film is truly Asian American. For me, this is Lee’s ultimate film bringing everything together from all of his films up to this point in his career. His use of staging, scenery, music, script, and amazing acting all to evoke the feeling of loneliness and love loss in this brave film about love between two unlikely souls. BROKEBACK has a little Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Pushing Hands, Wedding Banquet, Eat, Drink, Man, Woman, and even The Hulk all poured into this one film.

    Other recommended Ang Lee films – WEDDING BANQUET; CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON; LUST; CAUTION (wow); PUSHING HANDS; EAT, DRINK, MAN WOMAN; and SENSE AND SENSIBILITY.

    • This film gave Ang Lee his long time well deserved Best Director Oscar®
    • Released by DreamWorks
    • Film won many awards and was nominated for 8 Oscars
    • Lee is truly an actors’ director, as you will see in all of his films
  • Journey from the Fall – Ham Tran

    David says: First time feature filmmaker Ham Tran hits it out of the ballpark in this small film of epic proportions about the lives of the people from Vietnam after the fall of Saigon in 1975. Tran brings together stories that are most likely thousands of similar stories for the Vietnamese immigrants who fled to the US at that time and their lives here afterward.

    JOURNEY is a very important film in the NEW VIETNAMESE AMERICAN WAVE of cinema made up of Vietnamese American filmmakers who are writing stories about Vietnam and who many have gone back to their country to shoot them. This includes Tony Bui, Tim Bui, Stefane Gauger, Charlie Nguyen, and Ham Tran.

    The interesting note about this NEW VIETNAMESE AMERICAN WAVE is that the directors in this collective work together on each other’s film from assisting on set to producing to crewing to almost anything that will help get the project out.

    JOURNEY takes us into the lives of the Vietnamese immigrants who came to America right after the 1975 fall of Saigon. Visually moving, the film ignited Vietnamese Americans to go to their local cinemas and fill theaters repeatedly each weekend. Powerful acting and cinematography make this film pop.

    Other recommendations in this NEW VIETNAMESE AMERICAN WAVE include; OWL AND THE SPARROW – Stefane Gauger; THE REBEL – Charlie Nguyen; THREE SEASONS – Tony Bui; GREEN DRAGON – Tim Bui.

You will be happy with any of these

  • The Namesake – Mira Nair

    David says: Mira Nair takes the book of the same name and gives it cinematic life. The identity story of the second generation trying to find themselves is a main topic here and is not only confined to Asian Americans who are 1.5 or 2nd generation – but of all children of immigrant parents in the US. Told in her very unique fashion, Nair brings the characters full to life from the mother who migrates from India to New York in an arranged marriage to the son who is now in college and must face who he really is after denouncing his culture for most of his life. The trip to India and the son’s revelation as to who is father truly is makes this film even more heartfelt. Nair has certain story telling style that works in all of her films even when dealing with non-Asian subjects for example in HYSTERICAL BLINDNESS.

    Must see MIRA NAIR FILMS include: SALAAM BOMBAY; HYSTERICAL BLINDNESS; MONSOON WEDDING; MISSISSIPPI MASALA and THE LAUGHING CLUB OF INDIA.


  • Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle – Danny Leiner

    David says: Though directed by a non-Asian filmmaker, HAROLD KUMAR GO TO WHITE CASTLE and HAROLD AND KUMAR EXSCAPE FROM GUANTANAMO BAY possess a strong Asian American feel in both the main actors and the writing of these characters. Written by Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Scholssberg who went on to direct the even funnier and raunchier sequel HAROLD AND KUMAR ESCAPE FROM GUANTANAMO BAY developed their characters based on real people they grew up with in New Jersey. Yes, there are real people who grew up in New Jersey who are named Harold and Kumar. What made this a true Asian American film was the realness that the characters Harold and Kumar gave – both coming from the actors and the writers who developed the characters.

    Bottom Line: Franchise is a lot of fun while keeping its perspective.

    Released by New Line.

    If you like HAROLD AND KUMAR – you will like BETTER LUCK TOMORROW – Justin Lin; FAST AND FURIOUS: TOKYO DRIFT – Justin Lin; FAKIN’ DA FUNK – Timothy Chey; COLMA: THE MUSICAL – Richard Wong and HP Mendoza.

    Starring John Cho and Kal Penn, the film made history with posters in bus shelters in major cities with the two faces of the lead characters everywhere. While performing only OK at the box office, WHITE CASTLE did great on DVD and spawned the sequel which opened with high box office numbers and which now has spawned a third installment.


    • HAROLD AND KUMAR is important because it is one of the few films that did not have to explain why the characters were Asian - they just were people
    • The targeted audience of young adult college agers finally had characters they could relate to
    • Because of the success of Better Luck Tomorrow, Harold and Kumar was given a green light and kept the main characters intact as Asian American
    • Film helped to launch the careers of John Cho and Kal Penn and ease America into viewing two Asian American males as lead characters who do not do martial arts or speak English as second language
  • Never Forever – directed by Gina Kim

    David says: NEVER FOREVER won accolades at 2007 Sundance Film Festival for its storytelling and acting ability of Vera Farmiga, David Lee McInnis and Jung-woo Ha. It tells the story about a young couple where the wife is white and the husband is Asian American – but who is also having a hard time with the passing of his mother and possible impotency. The wife then seeks out someone who looks like her husband at a local sperm bank to help her become pregnant. What started out as a business relationship fast became an emotionally dependent affair.

    Other Recommendations: ROADS AND BRIDGES by Abraham Lim; CHARLOTTE SOMETIMES – Eric Byler; ROBOT STORIES – Greg Pak; PICTURE BRIDE – Kayo Hata.

    • Gina Kim brought her own sense of drama and tension to the screen and her actors gave it their all; could be Vera Farmiga’s best role to date
    • Kim establishes herself with this film as a storyteller and an actors’ director
  • Colma: The Musical – Richard Wong and HP Mendoza

    David says: Released in theaters by Roadside Attractions, this coming of age/teen angst film set in a small suburb outside of San Francisco where cemetery headstones outnumber the living population, took film festival audiences across the board (Asian, mainstream, gay, straight, etc.…) by surprise and them singing in the aisles. Shot for $15,000 – COLMA gave new life to the movie musical and to independent filmmaking – where telling a story became first and foremost. Basic story line is three best friends (an aspiring actor; a gay boy trying to define himself; and their best female friend) recently graduated high school seniors spend their summer trying find themselves before they begin the next phase of their lives come fall. Musical numbers are fun and lyrics and script are right on point.

    If you like COLMA, you will also like: THE DEBUT – Gene Cajayon; FAKIN’ DA FUNK – Timothy Chey; BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM – Gurinder Chadha; THE FLIP SIDE – Rod Pulido; SUNSETS – Eric Nakamura; and HAROLD AND KUMAR series.

  • In the Mood for Love – Wong Kar-Wai

    David says: Although not an Asian American film, this film is a classic for all Asian American film lovers and filmmakers. Beautifully shot, outstanding performances, and great story telling. This film oozes sexiness, loneliness, and the heartache of searching for love all in one film. Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung and the soundtrack were all sizzling in this very poetic and engrossing film. Kar-Wai always tends to please even in his softball MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS – he still leaves a mark on the viewer. His use of color, getting nuanced performances from his actors and just over all cinematic storytelling – he hits it on the head.

    Other recommendations: CHUNGKING EXPRESS – Wong Kar Wai; ASHES OF TIME - REDUX – Wong Kar Wai; DAYS OF BEING WILD – Wong Kar Wai; FALLEN ANGELS – Wong Kar Wai; LUST CAUTION – Ang Lee; HAPPY TOGETHER – Wong Kar Wai; OLD BOY – Park Chan-Wook.

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