Nearly 40 years ago, the filmmaker Wayne Wang cobbled together $22,000 and shot his debut feature on the streets of San Francisco’s Chinatown. The result was “Chan Is Missing,” widely considered the first Asian-American indie film and a work that managed to be at once a vérité peek into a neighborhood, a sly neo-noir buddy film, and an experimental, complex allegory about Chinese-American identity — or, at least, about the ambivalence of it.
That 1982 gem became an unlikely hit that broke through to the mainstream — only to be followed by a decades-long drought of similarly successful indies told with any sense of an Asian-American perspective. A few studio movies made waves, like Wang’s 1993 period drama, “The Joy Luck Club.” And then, in 2018, the blockbuster “Crazy Rich Asians” arrived with its all-Asian cast.
The last few years have heralded a rush of bracing works helmed by a new generation of so-called Asian-American auteurs. But these films — like Justin Chon’s “Gook,” about the friendship between a Korean-American shoe store owner and a young Black girl, or Bing Liu’s “Minding the Gap,” a 2018 documentary about the hidden traumas of his Rockford, Ill., skateboarding friends — tell vastly different stories, some seemingly unconcerned with what we might consider Asian-American themes. The notion of Asian-American cinema, in short, has always been a bit of a flimsy concept. What makes these movies Asian-American?
The very notion of identifying as Asian-American, a political term coined in the late 1960s that encompasses a practically borderless stretch of peoples, can be of vague consequence. “I identify as me,” Sandi Tan, the Singaporean-American director of the experimental documentary “Shirkers” (2018) said when we spoke recently.
In recent years, as more artists and writers in the mainstream ponder Asian-American identity in their work, the unifying refrain has often been about its nebulousness. Lulu Wang’s deeply specific vision of a 1.5-generation Chinese-American’s dilemma in “The Farewell” (2019), for instance, is utterly alien to the textures of a Korean-American upbringing in rural Arkansas, as chronicled in Lee Isaac Chung’s new film, “Minari.”
Over the last year or so, a cohort of these filmmakers — Chon, Tan, Liu, Chung, Wang (“The Farewell”), and Alan Yang (“Tigertail”) along with the veteran Mira Nair (“Salaam Bombay!”) — spoke about their films and how they fit into the budding wave of works by and about Asian-Americans. Like this new vision of Asian-American cinema, their answers often contained a searching nature. These are edited excerpts from the conversations.
Do the last few years feel like a distinct shift in Hollywood?
ALAN YANG It’s 100 percent unprecedented. One of the crazier things that’s happened was a white guy sent me a script that was all Asian characters, and I was like, oh, it must be in vogue!
JUSTIN CHON I felt like [the] late ’90s was a renaissance of Asian-American films. There was Chris Chan Lee, Justin Lin, all those guys were trying to break through. There was a ton of people trying to make indie films. And then people realized we should just stick to the game. It wasn’t cool to make Asian-American films. When “Gook” was coming out, they were still talking about [Lin’s] “Better Luck Tomorrow,” I was like, OK, cool, you’re referencing my film with a film that came out 15 years prior. Since , it’s an entirely different landscape. There’s good and bad to that.
What’s the bad?
CHON I see a lot of people just using it as a marketing tool. They see a golden ticket, a window that’s open and they’re going to climb through regardless of what they’re peddling. For example, I’ve been sent — I’m not even joking — around nine or 10 K-pop scripts. I’ve heard a lot of weird or very subpar stuff. A lot of things just talking about how Asian we are.
Many of your works came out before that window was seen as open. What were things like before then?
LULU WANG Ninety percent of the producers who called loved the [episode of] “This American Life” [a podcast telling of the story that wound up being “The Farewell”], but felt it had to be done differently in order for it to work as a movie. Can we set it in Chinatown in New York instead of in China, that way the family could speak English instead of Chinese? All of these ways around what I was trying to do.
CHON There was a big impetus for [“Gook”]. I’m going to talk about it now, because the show’s not on air anymore. [When I was acting] I went to an audition for “2 Broke Girls.” It was for this guy, and in the [script], it doesn’t say anything about an accent. I see [every actor] under the sun sitting in the room. And then somebody says, “Hey listen, man, just so you know, when you get in there, they’re going to make you do an accent. They’re going to spring it on you when you get in the room.” And I said, well, I’m not doing that.
So my agent calls me back and says, the casting director said if you don’t like it, leave. I said, OK. I just looked at everybody in the room. I said, You guys are just going to stay here and get [screwed] with like this? This is why we kept getting [screwed] with — we’re all willing to do this.
Mira, what did that landscape look like for you in the ’90s after the success of your debut fiction feature “Salaam Bombay!”?
MIRA NAIR I had several meetings with heads of studios. And one real head of studio, after I pitched “Mississippi Masala” and had Denzel Washington — he had just won the Oscar — point-blank asked me, “Can’t you make room for a white protagonist?” And I just looked at him, pretty amused, and smiled. “I promise you one thing, sir, all the waiters in the film will be white.” And he laughed, and I laughed, and I was shown the door.
Has there been more of a freedom of voice in the films you can make now?
NAIR Always it’s about tightening your belt. It’s still about that. At this stage with “‘The Crown’ in Brown” [her description for her recent television adaptation “A Suitable Boy”] I made it for a fraction of “The Crown” because that is what they give us, if we can do it at all. We have to always do it for a price.
LEE ISAAC CHUNG Initially what we saw of Asian-American films tended to be more exotic portrayals of Asians when you see them in Hollywood. Then I felt like there was a movement of just more pure identity cinema, a struggle to get our faces on the screen, to also explain ourselves in a way to a wide audience. What’s happening now is that shift where we’re just telling our stories as people and it doesn’t have to be in relation to white America or a majority culture. We’re just people. We didn’t want [“Minari”] to be a “by us, for us” sort of film. Because I felt like that was also something that we need to get beyond as well.
Does it feel pigeonholing to consider yourselves Asian-American filmmakers?
ALAN YANG It is helpful in some ways because some of these films are describing or analyzing emotionally the same kind of experience. I get why people are doing this sort of categorization, and one of the reasons is there aren’t that many of us yet. No one wants to be reduced by a label, but I understand why it’s happening.
SANDI TAN I’m mostly not interested in thinking and working within the “Asian-American sphere” or addressing its issues. [My forthcoming novel] has a couple of Asian-American lead characters but they are as ambivalent about foregrounding “identity politics” as I am. I do think you can change the game by talking more about who people are and what they can do, rather than harping on perceived handicaps. The other film and TV projects I am working on do not have any Asian-American themes in it, except maybe incidentally, which is how I think best to “mainstream” Asian-American interests and concerns.
CHUNG If you were to ask me if I feel like I’m trying to make Asian-American films, I would have to think about that. I would never really feel like that’s what I’m doing. With [“Minari”] I intentionally wanted to make a film about this family and not try to make it an identity piece. I bite my lip a little bit about it — I hear the American dream thrown around a lot [about “Minari”], and that could mean all kinds of things that I was intentionally not getting into with the movie. I feel like people don’t know how to look at films except through the lenses of the discourse that’s out there.
Does some of the ambivalence come from a similar feeling about Asian-American identity itself?
LIU Coming out to the West Coast for the first time in my late teens and early 20s, seeing massive amounts of Asian-American communities, I [felt] like, wow, this is weird, I wish I grew up here, I would feel a stronger sense of confidence in who I was. And then getting beyond the weirdness and realizing — oh no, there’s a sort of boba tea culture where it’s surface-level identification. There’s something even within the community that needs to be explored.
CHUNG I had this Q. and A. with Sandra Oh and Sandra was articulating [that she found] her own experience deeply isolating. And it’s not just an isolation that happens between us and society that tells us we’re foreigners often. It’s like an isolation that happens within our own families, where we don’t understand our parents very well and they don’t understand us. So we’re all just trying to grasp and figure out our place in this country, where often what we’re told is: your place is not having a place. That kind of becomes our identity. There’s nothing for us to really conform to. And maybe that’s why this conversation has to feel like that as well. There’s an existential process to this whole thing.
Do you see your works, then, gesturing toward a congealing of identity, or some collective sensibility?
CHON If this piece ultimately leads to what is it to be Asian-American, I think there’s no blanket statement I can make that answers that. But when we watch each other’s work, there’s something that we see of ourselves. But then, also a lot of [ourselves] that I don’t see.
When I was watching “Minding the Gap” or “The Farewell,” I was just constantly watching the Asian-American characters and comparing notes. Oh, that’s what she feels like with her Chinese family in China — how does that compare to how I feel with my Korean family when I’m in Korea? Or when Bing’s hanging out with those white skater dudes, he’s the only Asian guy — now I’m comparing notes about how he’s feeling. I’m really reading into the scenes because I can relate.
LIU That’s the great sort of tragedy within the Asian-American experience, this lack of community, connection, systems of internalized racism. I don’t necessarily agree that there’s a solution to this. Those feelings are part of what it means to be Asian-American sometimes, and part of the internalized racism might be the [reaction to] that sense of aloneness. Sometimes that aloneness can feel sublime and beautiful in a way.
Does the lack of a collective vision put Asian-Americans in a gray area when it comes to conversations around race or equity in the industry?
WANG We’ve been raised with this mentality of be the model minority, don’t start trouble. But also this sense of, if you don’t look at it, then it doesn’t exist. The more that you focus on it, the bigger of a problem it is. So I think that so much of that comes from our own sense of, don’t play the victim and everything is fine. At least that’s how I was raised. We haven’t been as outspoken about our own lack of representation.
LIU In Wesley Yang’s book [“The Souls of Yellow Folk”], he’s specifically talking about the Asian-American man’s place as an honorary white person, yet also someone who feels like they’re not truly a part of the diversity movement. I think that’s true of what we have to grapple with as creators as well. How do we stand in that spectrum? I don’t know the answer to that, but it’s something I’ve been wrestling with. If we veer too far-off, we fracture what could become a solidarity movement against the powers that be.
Considering the fraught nature of all of this, do you feel a pressure or responsibility in the stories you tell?
NAIR I have very much resisted that as pressure. In the beginning, especially the early ’80s, there was hardly any representation of India at all in this country. [My] films would be shown here and I would speak with them, and the audience would be full of Indians. They would be thrilled to come out there and look at themselves — and they would be outraged with what they saw. They said, why can’t you show us as who we are? As doctors in Porsches. One [man] said to me, why do you have to show the ugly side of life? And I would say, as soon as doctors in Porsches become interesting, I’ll be right there with the camera.
LIU I spent a lot of time making “Minding the Gap” digestible to as wide an audience as possible. For the work I’m doing now, which is Asian-American-centric, I’m finding it hard to write Asian-American experiences for white audiences. It’s not working for me. I wrestle with the guilt of telling stories about my community if they do not include a sense of exploration and critique of power.
These images were made via Zoom calls between the photographer and the directors that were then projected into the photographer’s space.