The search for meaning has never been more prominent as Asians in multi-cultural environments are galvanized into taking action. Whether it’s a stance against anti-Asian racism, the search of one’s place amidst a diverse environment, or the requestionning of established rules, Asian American identity is resurgent. One galvanizing change is the rise of Asian Americans in the film industry. Even though Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (2019) is a film made and produced in South Korea, it still broke a new frontier for Asians in the film industry, similarly to Crazy Rich Asians (2018),The Farewell (2019) and the recent Minari (2020). These films highlight the importance of film and diverse representation of Asians on screen.
So, Let’s dive in personal territory, a microcosm of this Asian cinematic movement. A lot of people say that kids don’t see race, that their minds aren’t very stained by social constructs yet, in a way it is true — but subconsciously…maybe not! Growing up, I was watching typical American content, cartoons, superheroes, blockbusters, but I was also watching Hong Kong Wuxia and comedy films with my father which added a Chinese mix in my juvenile taste. As days went by, I watched less and less Mandarin/Cantonese films and naturally shifted into watching what was popular, what was being talked about at school. My curiosity and passion for cinema kept growing and in the blink of an eye, a whole decade passes. The weird thing was that all my favorite films by 2017 only starred white talents in front and behind the screen. Blade Runner, Lost in Translation, Her, Denis Villeneuve’s films, literally all Marvel movies, films from legendary directors and hundreds more. This subconsciously made me feel alienated from cinema.
It’s not that I couldn’t relate to the characters, but that they made me feel like people who looked like me weren’t part of this American experience. This lack of identity was not only present in film, it also bled in other aspects of my life, such as the music I was listening to, the friends I had, the way I saw things in life. While there is nothing ethically wrong with it, it distanced me from my Asian identity and at some point, I felt it.
I was trapped in a bubble until my sister popped it. She watched this Hong Kong film called Chungking Express (1994), starring legendary icon Faye Wong, retired legend Brigitte Lin, veteran legend Tony Leung, and the charismatic Takeshi Kaneshiro, — directed by one of the most memorable architects of Chinese cinema, Wong Kar-wai. In 2018, I was an uninspired and quite depressed student in architecture, where I was almost completely surrounded by white students and teachers. I was doing an assignment while my sister was watching the film, and I lifted my eyes up from time to time, semi-watching the film. At some point, my eyes were glued to the screen…leaving my assignment completely dry. It’s a film that is separated into 2 stories. One is about a detective falling for a mysterious woman who turns out to be an illegal smuggler, and the second is simply about Faye having a crush on Tony Leung’s character who’s still hung up on his ex. What enlightened me was not just Christopher Doyle’s amazing way of capturing the electricity that was 90’s Hong Kong, but also how these were cool and charismatic characters who looked like me. They didn’t fit into any stereotype: Faye is a quirky, energetic and shy girl who just does what she wants and feels what she wants, Kaneshiro is a charismatic detective who’s looking for love. I felt like I was brought back to to life watching these people be weird, cool, attractive and mysterious. Can I only see Asians play layered and interesting characters in Asian films?
That same year, Crazy Rich Asians (2018) broke the box office and Searching (2018) was a huge success, two films led by Asian talents in America. Suddenly I was rediscovering Chinese music (obviously Faye Wong’s legendary discography), I began discovering independent Korean cinema and I began asking my father to tell me stories about my grandfather from China and him in Vietnam. You can call it coincidence or whatever, I like to call it a wake up call! Notably in the wake of COVID-19, one thing it has solidified is the Asian American community. We need to be recognized, and we cannot retreat back to the olden ways or distance ourselves further away from our culture and history. We are part of a branch of multiculturism and we have to represent our experience, not in a way that differentiates us from others, but in a way that makes us human.
Author: Andrew Luk
DeclarASIAN Blog Contributor