AAPI Heritage Month and Film; A Retrospection and Appreciation of Asian American and Pacific Islander Cinema and History

Photo by Yaopey Yong on Unsplash

The month of May marks the designation of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, which celebrates and recognizes Asian American and Pacific Islander culture, history, and achievements. With this piece, I wanted to delve into the influences that Asian and Pacific Islander culture has made in the way of film. Obviously, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have so much more to offer, but film is something that can easily bridge two cultures that might be radically different and make them seen and heard. Also, the wider appeal that film can grasp, and how many Asian and Pacific Islanders have helped pave the way or be groundbreakers is not insignificant. Another reason is more personal, and these examples are obviously not exhaustive.

These are just a few voices or personalities that have influenced me, in my life, and that I want to highlight to both bring more attention and celebrate their achievements in a month dedicated to precisely that.

To begin with, I’d like to give a brief history of why exactly the month of May is designated as AAPI Heritage month. The ’70s was the first time it was brought up, during the American bicentennial celebrations. Various members of Congress proposed that May be a month of recognition for Asian Pacific Islanders, initially only being a week but further expanded to encompass the entire month.

There are two main reasons for the designation of May as AAPI Heritage Month. For one, on May 7th, 1843, the first Japanese immigrant arrived in the United States. Second, on May 10th, 1869, the golden spike was driven into the First Transcontinental Railroad, with the railroads using Chinese labor to construct the line.

The initial person I want to highlight needs no introduction. Bruce Lee was a pioneer and a revolutionary martial artist that brought America into the medium of Hong Kong action and martial arts films. While not born in the U.S., Bruce Lee immigrated to the United States from China, already a huge name in his home country, but was a relative unknown in the States. Time named Lee one of the 100 most important people of the 20th century and his work has stood the test of time. Lee was an icon throughout the world, and in the U.S., he was a breaker of stereotypes. Lee defied the stereotype of the emasculated Asian male, being a master of various martial arts (including Wing Chun, tai chi, and street fighting) and even creating his own style, Jeet Kune Do — The Way of the Intercepting Fist.

Specifically, I’d like to focus on 1973’s Enter the Dragon, starring Bruce Lee, and a co-production with the U.S. and Hong Kong. Enter the Dragon is a classic and regarded as one of the best martial arts of all time. The movie is a masterclass, with its blend of spy thriller and action. From start to finish, it is a riveting experience and it is Bruce Lee at his finest. The cinematography is perfect and every fight is brilliantly captured. Lee is electric, the fights are well thought out and realistic, and the action is intense. Enter the Dragon is worth a watch, even if it is not your type of movie, I promise there will be something that captivates you. The film, and Bruce Lee’s legacy, haven’t just stood the test of time but themselves influenced media to this day. Classics in their own right, like Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball, or the fighting games Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat, and a slew of others, draw direct reference and influence from the 1973 film. Enter the Dragon is so iconic that even if you haven’t seen the movie, you’ve probably seen at least one piece inspired by it.

Jumping into the more modern era and that of digital platforms, I’d like to talk a bit about a Youtuber who’s been there since its beginning and continues to make content, Ryan Higa (NigaHiga). Ryan was born in Hawaii and is of Okinawan descent and started posting comedy sketches on YouTube all the way back in 2006. Ryan, along with a few of his high school buddies posted various sketches and lip-sync videos onto the fledgling social media platform. That, in turn, made him one of the most subscribed YouTubers in the era, amassing three million subscribers in the 2010s. Ryan Higa exemplifies perfectly the early years of YouTube, where just a couple of friends posting some funny videos could explode into stardom and entertain millions, like me. I still remember the first times that I watched a NigaHiga video with friends and just repeatedly watched and laughed. His channel was one of the first I watched, and it always resonated with me, enough that I still remember a decade later. Ryan Higa’s channel now sits on over 21 million subscribers and has accumulated over 4 billion views and was listed on Forbes’s top 30 under 30.

This next one will be another cheat as he is technically not born in the U.S., but his films are both wonderful and a great insight into Maori and New Zealand culture. I’m talking about Taika Waititi, born in Raukokore, New Zealand. One of the better directors in the present catalog, Taika brings a unique style full of wit and humor. Both Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) and Boy (2010) is focused on Maori and New Zealand life and culture and offer an insight into Waititi’s life. Another gem, also set in New Zealand but less at the forefront is What We Do in The Shadows, a mockumentary that follows a flat of vampires living in the modern-day. This movie is a gem, and it really highlights Waititi’s writing and acting in the foray of comedy. Seeing the general hijinks of hundreds of years old vampires who are maladjusted to the modern era and just the general silliness of the plot and situations is an entertaining viewing that doesn’t lose its charm on subsequent re-watches.

Of course, Taika has exploded in relevancy in recent years, starting off as a great indie director with some hidden gems, to helming two of the biggest franchises in film. Waititi’s debut in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with his film Thor: Ragnarök, catapulted the character and fully rejuvenated MCU Thor and finally gave him a succinct style, one that used Waititi’s unique humor and got to flex Chris Hemsworth’s comedic timing. He’s also been behind the scenes with Star Wars, helming a few episodes of the Mandalorian, and even has his own movie lined up in the future. Aside from blockbusters, Taika also received his first Oscar, for best adapted screenplay, for the black comedy Jojo Rabbit in which he wrote, directed, and co-starred. It will be interesting seeing how this director’s future unfolds, and hopefully, it is as good as his past endeavors; but if you’ve never heard of Taika Waititi, or have never seen his films I highly recommend it.

Finally, I’d like to conclude with a look at two future Marvel movies that are helmed by two Asian Americans and one film that draws heavy reference to Asian culture. One thing I can say about Marvel movies is that they offer an entertaining experience that will keep you engaged through its runtime, and while some may fall flat on further introspection or thought it’s hard to not admit that they are fun. The first film I’d like to highlight is Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Slated to come out on September 3rd, 2021, Shang-Chi will feature the first Asian lead in a Marvel movie, with Simu Liu starring as the titular hero. The movie will also star Nora Lum, or more commonly known as Awkwafina, an American comedian and internet celebrity. Since the movie has yet to come out, I would rather put the focus on how exactly Simu Liu, a relative unknown, got the role. Well, it all came from a Twitter post. On December 3rd, 2018, Simu tweeted a simple “OK @Marvel are we gonna talk or what #ShangChi,” and eight months later, Marvel announced Shang Chi starring Simu Liu. Shang-Chi is primed as a blockbuster, and it solidifies Marvel’s goals of continuing the superhero genre and exploring lesser-known properties.

Another Marvel project, The Eternals, is headed by the recent Oscar-winning director Chloe Zhao. Zhao recently won an Academy Award for Director, the first non-white woman to win, and the second woman overall to take home the award, with her film Nomadland. The film also received the Oscar for Best Picture. Zhao was slated to direct Marvel’s The Eternals before her historic wins, but the awards will surely help prop up the upcoming superhero movie at the box office. The Eternal’s will star Kumail Nanjiani, a Pakistani American comedian and actor, and Don Lee, a Korean American actor well known in Korean film. The film will also star Angelina Jolie, Richard Madden, and Kit Harrington of Game of Thrones fame, along with a bevy of others. The Eternals is slated for a November 2021 release.

This list is neither exhaustive nor covers the entire medium. The contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to film are immense and it only adds to the greatness that film can achieve. Neither does film entirely encompass an entire people’s culture, history, or beliefs Although it does give a window and a spark with which to seek further knowledge. It is also good to acknowledge that their history is tumultuous and that in the past many atrocities and much discrimination were laid bare on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Yet appreciation can go a long way. While more personal to me, this list gives homage to figures who I both look up to and enjoy watching. An outlet that might not exist if prejudice remained the popular stance against these communities.

Film is only a gateway, but it is a gateway that can lead to many different experiences, and maybe you will find that one door to lead you into a rabbit hole of cascading mystery and intrigue.

(Contributed by Sean Duffy)