The task of exploring “Asianness” in cinema falls on a variety of shoulders. In America, “Asian” usually means you’re Chinese or Japanese, or occasionally Korean, regardless of where in East Asia you’re from. In the U.K., it means you’re Indian or Pakistani. In reality, it’s a much wider umbrella, yet at the same time, a reductive pigeonhole. Such is the burden of post-colonial identity, the idea that even as filmmakers, one’s outlook as an immigrant — or as the child or grandchild of immigrants — must, at once, adhere to certain ideas of what constitutes “Asian” while simultaneously transcending them.
“You are not Asian; you are Other,” I remember being told as a teen in Mumbai, India, Asia, while filling out an SAT form. At the time I was called this thing, this “Other” — a mere category on paper that now feels insidious — I hadn’t even made my way to America to study yet, and I was already feeling an imposed contortion on my identity. But to what degree, I wonder, do I or my American-born cousins overlap with what is largely described as Asian-American culture? We work with the language (and within the boxes) prescribed by a white, English-speaking status quo, and whether we want to or not, our work in media constitutes a tapestry of what it means to be Asian in the rest of the world. And what a year it was to make a film that would inevitably be brought under the label of Asian, regardless of intent.
In America, “Asian August” was a watershed moment, wherein the teen rom-com To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, the Kevin Kwan adaptation Crazy Rich Asians and the screen-life thriller Searching were simultaneously on screens. Yet America’s year of Asian excellence arguably began in January: Cathy Yan’s yet-unreleased Dead Pigs made waves at Sundance, leading to her being tapped to direct DC’s Birds of Prey; Chloé Zhao’s monumental Native American Western The Rider finally hit screens in April, and she was subsequently hired to make Marvel movie The Eternals. In June, Chinese-Canadian empty-nest-syndrome short Bao by Domee Shi was seen by audiences worldwide before Incredibles 2, leading to her being hired for her first feature. Chinese-American Dave Callaham is all set to write Marvel’s Shang-Chi. And while superhero movies are by no means the only indicator of cinematic success, they’re a barometer of the ways in which Hollywood is slowly but surely widening its scope.
So, what exactly is the criteria for this list? The focus I had in mind was very specific — “the Asian diaspora” — though films comprising it are wildly varied in their viewpoints, their origins, and their relationships are part of “Asianness.” As if it serves to highlight just how much diversity can lie under one single label.
Abu (dir. Arshad Khan)
Arshad Khan’s documentary about coming out to his father is a courageous work of self-reflection. Abu details Khan’s family’s migration from Pakistan to Ontario, compiling a treatise on personal history from Bollywood clips, animated segments and deeply personal home videos. Khan grapples with questions of nature and nurture in his decades-long chronicle, capturing not only his family’s geographical trajectory from India to Pakistan to Mississauga, but their cultural evolution post-9/11, when faced with the binaries of either total assimilation, or a pivot towards fundamentalism and a return to a culture of repression. The film feels like a guiding hand as Khan entrusts us, the audience, with his family secrets.
Bitter Melon (dir. H.P. Mendoza)
Language: English, Ilocano
While it begins as a highly stylized, delightfully loopy Filipino-American Christmas story, H.P. Mendoza’s darkly comedic Bitter Melon soon evolves into a high-wire act that pivots around domestic abuse and cultural complicity. It starts out like any bi-coasting family reunion, with kids returning home to California and bringing their respective baggage — fears of parenthood, sexual discomfort, an assortment of petty jealousies — but the expected upheaval of family secrets (and the subsequent road to catharsis) turns the premise on its head. For this particular family, healing while home for the holidays might just entail an elaborate murder.
Bodied (dir. Joseph Kahn)
Country: Canada, U.S.
Busan-born and Houston-raised, Joseph Kahn is the most unapologetic filmmaker dropping the mic on us once every decade. His discourse-searing, rap-battle satire captures the turmoil of the current zeitgeist, placing in close proximity white Berkeley academic Adam Merkin (Calum Worthy), his poetry thesis subject Behn Grymm (Jackie Long) and an assortment of verse virtuosos from Korean-American Prospek (Dumbfoundead) to African-American Devine Write (Shoniqua Shandai) to Latino American Che Corleone (Walter Perez) as they explore and push the limits of what’s acceptable speech in an artistic context. Overflowing with adrenaline from its very first frame, Kahn’s film is one of the most audacious works of 2018 and one of the most enjoyable audience experiences you’re likely to have, as you laugh and cheer and wonder whether you even have permission to do so.
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Border (dir. Ali Abbasi)
As an Iranian immigrant to Sweden, writer-director Ali Abbasi likely knows a thing or two about being an outsider. His modern fairytale Border smashes together numerous relevant metaphors, from immigration to gender to western standards of beauty, until they cease to resemble anything that makes real-world sense. What he leaves us with instead is an uncanny tale of two, troll-like characters whose worth is determined by how the state might use them (one is a border agent with a sixth sense, the other is a smuggler) and whose mutual isolation leads to one of the most bizarre and explosive romances put to screen this year. With commanding performances and expert creature-design, Border is born of the kind of unique magical realism that elevated Let the Right One In (the two films share a writer), navigating a minefield of potentially problematic material to deliver a poignant tale of belonging.
A Bread Factory, Part One: For the Sake of Gold and A Bread Factory, Part Two: Walk with Me a While (dir. Patrick Wang)
A two-part, four-hour film that defies simple classification, A Bread Factory is filmmaker and economist Patrick Wang’s paean to the arts. While beginning with the local activism of an elderly lesbian couple in upstate New York (Tyne Daly, Elizabeth Henry), the film soon turns to the a community arts center that they seek to save (the titular Bread Factory), while also drawing on fears of a global Chinese takeover as mysterious corporations begin to gentrify their neighborhood.
The way the film is shot, lit and staged makes it feel timeless — were it not for the occasional cell phone, it would feel right out of the ’70s — and yet, it isn’t bound by time. Whether long, unbroken stage performances, contemplative Chekhovian monologues, surrealist comedic asides or ... selfie-stick musical numbers about historical revisionism ... A Bread Factory has enough on its mind to not only argue, intellectually, for the existence of independent spaces to experiment with art, but enough by way of fearless zeal to embody those experiments in all their weird and sincere glory.
Crazy Rich Asians (dir. Jon M. Chu)
Language: English, Mandarin
The mainstream linchpin for this conversation. Taiwanese-American Jon M. Chu and his cast, from Constance Wu to Michelle Yeoh and everyone in between, overtook headlines with the first American studio film in decades to feature an all-Asian ensemble. What’s more, it turned out to be one of the best romantic comedies in ages, taking a premise that feels worn both in America and in Asia, and imbuing it with a story of cultural identity. Set against the extravagance of Singapore’s upper echelons, and with enough by way of class centric B-plots to fill a whole miniseries, the film yanks Wu’s Rachel Chu into a world of Southeast Asian royalty (via her fiancé Nick, played by Henry Golding) and forces her to find, and ultimately push back against, the limitations placed on her cultural duality.
Darkland (dir. Fenar Ahmad)
Language: Arabic, Danish
A vigilante superhero story turned shockingly relevant, Czechoslovakia-born Fenar Ahmad’s Underverden (or Darkland) is the tale of a Danish-Iraqi doctor forced to step off his privileged pedestal — one he ascends by turning his back on his people — and exact revenge for a dead brother who never managed to assimilate. Dar Salim’s explosive performance as Zaid anchors a tale in which a distinctly Batman-esque identity is constructed from cultural forces that feel larger (and more pressing) than anything we’ve seen Bruce Wayne go through in eight decades. Zaid’s survivor’s guilt comes not only from a deceased family member, but from an entire generation of Gulf War refugees who faced untold horrors so that he could live in comfort. The result? A film in which violence is both lamentable, as well as the only logical outcome.
A Family Tour (dir. Ying Liang)
Country: Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan
Language: Cantonese, Mandarin, Min Nan
Ying Liang is the only filmmaker on this list working mostly in Asia. In fact, he’s usually not far from his Chinese homeland, though the journey he’d have to take to return is more difficult than most of us can imagine. A Family Tour is a partial autobiography, in which filmmaker and political refugee Yang Shu (Gong Zhe) tip-toes around authoritarianism, as she tries to meet up with her mother at a festival in Taiwan. It’s a quiet film in which even the most still corners of the frame feel dangerous, as if the lurking presence of persecution has started to feel normal. Like his proxy, Ying was forced to leave China after questioning its laws on capital punishment, but like most political refugees, his sentence didn’t begin when he decided to speak out; as much as the film focuses on the trials of one filmmaker, A Family Tour’s biggest and most upsetting revelation is the degree to which political oppression is generationally inherited.
For Izzy (dir. Alex Chu)
Language: Cantonese, English
Part-mockumentary, part straightforward narrative, For Izzy is a wildly fun and sentimental relationship drama that tries to draw from as many corners of Asian-American experience as possible — and succeeds. Alex Chu, who’s lived everywhere from Libya to Canada to East Asia, crafts simultaneous coming-of-age and second-chance stories, as divorced lesbian photojournalist Dede moves back in with her Mother Anna, a single immigrant from Hong Kong. They find themselves next door to fellow Hong Kong native Peter and his autistic daughter Laura in the California suburbs. While Peter and Anna bond over shared cultural nostalgia, their respective daughters don’t gel so well at first (owing, in part, to Dede’s spiral into addiction).
But despite the resurfacing of long-suppressed demons, and regrets of parenthood that feel specific to Asian immigrants in the West, the four corners of this messy frame slowly come together in the form of a uniquely loving portrait. With framing and editing occasionally drawn from the likes of Vine, YouTube and other new media, and using animated scenes to augment its more expensive segments, For Izzy hits the ground running with pulsating verve and only ever lets up so its characters can reflect on how to be better to each other.
The Hungry (dir. Bornila Chatterjee)
Country: India, U.K.
Language: English, Hindi
One of Shakespeare’s most maligned works, Titus Andronicus finds itself remixed by Kolkata-born, Brooklyn-based filmmaker Bornila Chatterjee. She crafts a mesmerizing display of splendor and bloodlust, anchored by the alluring Naseeruddin Shah (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) as Tathagat Ahuja, the film’s Titus analogue, a North Indian industrialist embedded in a dirty game of New Delhi politics. While the gory plot still creeps its way into film, Chatterjee scales back on blood in favor of drawn-out responses to assault and dismemberment. The characters’ violence against one another comes not through selfishness or ambition, but rather as an extension of long-held pain; in a modern twist, Indian, American and British performers, all of South Asian origin yet making no effort to blend their accents, coalesce to mourn over a shared traumatic history. It’s a tale of opulence, pleasing to the eye while mildly unsettling to the ear, as if something, somewhere is amiss.
Invisible Hands (dir. Shraysi Tandon)
Country: China, Ghana, India, Indonesia, U.S.
I can’t decide what’s more stunning about Invisible Hands: that its montages of familiar products made with child labour go on as long as long they do (to the point that you wonder which cookies or detergents from your local markets they didn’t include), or that the filmmakers bought and freed numerous child slaves in Ghana during the production while cameras rolled. Perhaps it’s the various corporate spokespeople who sat down for interviews and said nothing at all, or the ones who spoke volumes by refusing an interview in the first place.
Bookended by the efforts being made in India to free children from slavery, Shraysi Tandon’s depressingly necessary documentary stops in various countries along the way including America in order to interview children forced to work in fields and factories, all while seeking to hold consumers accountable as much as corporations. It gives a voice to those living in bondage, but it also provides a hopeful glimmer by taking a peek at kids who’ve been rehabilitated. As if some sense of normalcy, despite horrifying trauma, is still possible.
Meditation Park (dir. Mina Shum)
Language: Cantonese, English
Vancouver usually stands in for other cities, but in Mina Shum’s Meditation Park, its Chinatown enclave takes center stage, in a story of the specific nuances and struggles of Chinese-Canadians. When Maria (Cheng Pei-pei), an elderly immigrant from Hong Kong, discovers her husband’s (Tzi Ma) secret affair, she begins oscillating between her desire to break free from him, and her continued, culturally-ingrained spousal loyalty. Her Canadian-born daughter (Sandra Oh) remains mostly outside this equation, begging her to secretly attend the wedding of her disowned son. But Maria’s silent struggle makes her increasingly isolated — that is, until she’s able to find the strength to connect with her neighbors, both Chinese and otherwise.
Cheng Pei-pei weathers the storm with a withheld smile, in one of the most endearing yet pained performances this year, as the film steps into well-worn narrative territory and shifts its focus. For Maria, freedom is simply a matter of being able to speak her mind, and Shum expertly contextualizes the cost of doing so. Meditation Park is a sweet, warm and ultimately uplifting film, focusing on the unspoken corners of immigrant women’s experiences in ways that imbue even the smallest of moments with what feels like world-upending stakes.
Stream it on Netflix
Minding the Gap (dir. Bing Liu)
One of a trio of great skating films this year, Bing Liu’s powerful, self-investigating documentary spans years, though it feels like entire lifetimes lived. The Rockford, Illinois, native follows his friends — lower-middle class skaters Zack and Kiere — as their lives grow and intersect, causing Bing to reflect on his own circumstances. Zack, a white kid, becomes a father as his relationship grows more tumultuous, and maybe even abusive. Kiere, his black friend, deals with his anger and his history of parental abuse by skating, something that feels like freedom to the three of them. Liu captures the rush of the skateboard by employing a style similar to skate videos of the ’90s, only he replaces the extremities of the Fish-Eye with a lens that, while short enough to make the world zip by, approximates the human eye.
We, essentially, fly alongside them in their brief moments of respite. Which, of course, makes the film’s eventual turning point feel all the more personal, as Bing reflects off the stories of his friends and interviews his immigrant mother, finally unearthing stories about the stepfather who beat them. Minding the Gap is incredibly intimate, yet the ways in which it explores people, their histories and their eventual trajectories makes it feel enormous.
Stream it on Hulu
The Rider (dir. Chloé Zhao)
Like Minding the Gap, The Rider blurs the lines between dramatized narrative and documented reality. Chinese filmmaker Chloé Zhao, whose Songs My Brothers Taught Me explored the world of modern Native Americans, returns to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation of North Dakota and to Brady Jandreau, who plays the film’s Brady Blackburn. The fictional Brady, like his real-world counterpart, is a modern cowboy living with a head-injury that, if aggravated, could lead to death or paralysis. A boy whose entire sense of self hinged on old-world ideas of manhood, Brady’s search for purpose after having all that he loves stripped away from him makes for one of the year’s most grueling soul-searching quests.
Brady Jandreau’s real father plays Brady Blackburn’s father. His developmentally disabled sister plays his developmentally disabled sister. His quadriplegic best friend plays his quadriplegic best friend (the film lets scars, burns and disabilities simply be) and Brady himself, a rider and horse-wrangler by blood and passion, re-lives his own struggle to find some semblance of meaning after having meaninglessness thrust upon him. While undoubtedly an investigation into modern masculinity, The Rider is also a poetic answer to the question of how to move on once your world has ended.
Searching (dir. Aneesh Chaganty)
Where the plot of Crazy Rich Asians spotlights questions of Asian-American identity, Aneesh Chaganty’s Searching (written with Sev Ohanian) weaves a tapestry wherein Asianness is both incidental and ubiquitous.
A missing-persons thriller taking place entirely on a computer screen — the best film of its kind, for my money — Searching isn’t a story that needs to happen to a Korean-American family with mostly South and East Asian background characters. Then again, it isn’t a story that needs to happen to anyone of any ethnicity in particular, yet its Indian-American director peppers the backdrop, dialogue and backstory with little details that make the world feel as lived-in as his own. This is reality as experienced by millions of Asian Americans, even when their Asian-American-ness is incidental. It’s a world experienced by all of us, in which social media, regardless of identity, is both a glue that binds and a reflection of personal isolation.
While the plot is about David Kim (John Cho) retracing the digital footprints of his missing daughter Margot (Michelle La), the tale it tells from the minute it opens is of the stories we miss when we refuse to look beyond the surface. In order to find Margot, David needs to reverse-engineer meaning itself, as poured out into the vast digital cosmos (both subtly and overtly) by a troubled girl with whom he can’t seem to connect. In effect, the film reverse-engineers an entire character and set of life experiences in ways that we, the users of social media, could probably afford to if want to better understand each other.
Shirkers (dir. Sandi Tan)
Country: U.S., Singapore
Sandi Tan’s Shirkers should have been a Singaporean cult film. Instead, it spent the last few decades traveling the world in 70 perfectly-preserved film canisters in the possession of a mysterious, obsessive white man who sought to steal dreams from people. Splitting time between Tan revisiting her teenage cinematic instincts and a bizarre character portrait of her late benefactor, Georges Cardona, this found-footage documentary feels like the re-righting of history.
Tan grew up in Singapore before following her filmic influences and moving west, and her story is a microcosm of a much larger cultural dynamic. Whether it’s because the world never got to see Shirkers before similar ideas and aesthetics cropped up in Bottle Rocket or Ghost World, or whether it’s the historical forces at play — nations like Singapore wrestle not only with their own histories, but with the influence of British colonialism then, and American media now — Sandi Tan’s circumstances feel all too familiar. The documentary, which re-assembles old footage like flashing and fading memories while its creators reflect on it today, is a powerful testament to the exploration of identity through art. Shirkers, robbed by Cardona, was a time capsule of place and identity. Shirkers, as it exists now, is a devastating look at how that identity was stolen.
Stream it on Netflix
A Touch of Spring (dir. Xiaodan He)
Country: Canada, China
Language: French, Mandarin
Beijing-Montreal transplant Xiaodan He’s Un Printemps d’Ailleurs (A Touch of Spring) is a most elegant dramatization of being torn between cultures. After Li Fang’s relationship woes in Quebec (and in many ways, with Quebec itself), she moves back to her hometown of Dazu in a desperate search for herself. She reconnects with family only to find out how disconnected she now is from them, in a film that feels like returning home and all the complications that brings. With one foot in each home, neither place feels entirely whole, and neither does Li Fang. But even beginning to heal a wound so deep, one which those who can’t feel it don’t seem to understand, isn’t something she can do alone.
Toward a Common Tenderness (dir. Kaori Oda)
Country: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Japan
Language: Bosnian, Japanese
The camera is a tool, one that Kaori Oda used to come out to her mother with her short film Thus a Noise Speaks, but one that caused a fundamental rift between them. The camera, thus, is also an aggressor, one that she explores as she journeys backward through old footage of films like Aragane, the Bosnian coal-miner documentary Oda shot under the mentorship of Béla Tarr.
Oda’s voice-over here is more contemplative than factual, rarely stating but always questioning her desire to document (and to be remembered) and the ethics therein, as she points her lens at people she doesn’t understand in order to capture some semblance of life. The product of a perpetual outsider whether at home or abroad, Toward a Common Tenderness is a meditative piece that sits comfortably alongside the recent documentary Cameraperson by Kirsten Johnson, in that it explores a life lived through creation, doubts expressed through images and statements — both general, and deeply personal — spoken through the interpreter that is cinema itself.
What Will People Say (dir. Iram Haq)
Country: Germany, Norway, Sweden
Language: Norwegian, Urdu
The brain of a first-gen culture-clash story in the body of a horror film, Hva vil folk si (or What Will People Say, a translation of the ubiquitous Hindi/Urdu warning of shame, “Log kya kahenge?”), establishes its tone and intended audience up front. While returning home after curfew is a common violation of family code, the film opens with Maria Mozhdah’s Nisha sprinting desperately homeward, as if failure to do so is a matter of life and death, something with which many South Asian girls in the west are familiar.
In Iram Haq’s film, drawn from her experiences as a Norwegian-Pakistani, everything feels like a matter of life and death. Marriage is a matter of life and death. Sex is a matter of life and death. Listening to your parents is a matter of life and death. Implicating them in violence, even the kind they may have actually committed, is life and death. And being forcefully shipped off to small-town Pakistan, and to family you don’t know, when you’re caught bringing a boy home and bringing shame upon your family, is also… you get the idea. At one point, the expression even becomes literal. Mozhdah navigates difficult material with an expert performance, torn between expression and repression, between modes of cultural existence, and even between languages, just as Adil Hussain, who plays her father, struggles between the love he has for his daughter and his violent instincts to protect her the only way he knows how. From its brief nuggets of joy to its overwhelming sense of dread, What Will People Say is one of 2018’s finest mood pieces.
Rent or purchase it on Amazon
When We Grow Up (dir. Zorinah Juan)
A film much calmer and simpler in scope than everything else on this list, When We Grow Up is a delightful family reunion comedy in which reflections on race and cultural upbringing are of secondary concern, and yet, they loom over each scene like a specter. In the film, the Barnes family — white parents Holly and Brian, biological daughter Louise and their Black and Asian adopted kids Elijah and Maris — comes together for their dog’s funeral. They have their various eccentricities, their own quirks and nuances that surface when they’re in close proximity (or while trying to rekindle old hometown flames) but where second-generation Filipina-American Zorinah Juan makes the film stand apart, is with her eye for cultural questions that may not be fully articulable.
Race wasn’t a factor in adopting or raising Elijah and Maris, but given that the siblings are on the verge of adoption and solo pregnancy respectively, the question of what race of child to adopt or what race of biological father to choose inevitably comes up. While it shouldn’t matter in theory — it certainly doesn’t to Holly and Brian — Elijah and Maris have questions about the world in which they were raised, even though their own upbringings were healthy. What would they be able to give their children, and what would be missing if they chose one ethnicity over another? Who in their family would object, approve or be uncomfortable given their own place in the larger culture?
In When We Grow Up, race doesn’t matter, and yet it does. It’s the least important thing to this particular family, a household unit that feels like a microcosm of a post-racial America that isn’t quite here yet. It’s irrelevant, ideally speaking, yet something the entire film hinges on, even when the characters can’t fully put their fingers on why.
Siddhant Adlakha is an actor, independent filmmaker, television writer and freelance film critic. He lives in Mumbai, New York and online.