10 Films and TV Shows That Tell Asian American Stories
One writer highlights 10 impactful films and TV shows from Asian American creators in honor of Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month.
In honor of Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, I’ve decided to highlight some incredible works in film and television from East and South Asian American artists. However, the meaning of Asian American is far and wide, so these works only begin to skim the surface of the diversity of Asian American experiences.
1. Everything, Everywhere, All at Once (2022)
It’s no secret that “Everything, Everywhere, All at Once” was one of the most talked about movies of 2022, and for good reason. Grappling with the tension of generational trauma through the science fiction genre, “Everything, Everywhere, All at Once” is a truly unique film. The movie follows Evelyn Wang and her husband Waymond as they try to keep their laundromat open, while Evelyn also struggles to accept her daughter Joy’s sexuality. After a trip to meet an IRS inspector leads Evelyn to explore the multiverse, she also confronts the foundations of her relationship with her husband and her daughter, as well as her parents. With absolutely stunning costumes, outstanding special effects and award-winning acting, “Everything, Everywhere, All at Once” proves that a list about Asian American media would not be complete without mention of it.
2. The Farewell (2019)
If “Everything, Everywhere, All at Once” focuses on the struggles of immigrant parents, then “The Farewell” highlights the experiences of immigrant children. Based on director Lulu Wang’s real-life experience with her dying grandmother, the film centers on Billi, a Chinese American woman, as she discovers that her matriarch grandmother is terminally ill. Her superstitious family decides not to tell her grandmother about the illness, as they believe that telling her would cause stress that would certainly lead to worsening her condition, so instead they plan a fake wedding to gather all family members to say goodbye to the grandmother one last time. As Billi returns to China for the fake wedding, she grapples with her family’s questionable decision, and she also confronts her relationship with her heritage.
3. Minari (2020)
Another semi-autobiographical film, the heart-wrenching film “Minari” is based on director Lee Isaac Chung’s childhood and revolves around a family of Korean American immigrants in the 1980s. The Yi family, led by parents Jacob and Monica, moves to rural Arkansas with hopes of starting a successful farm, but they quickly begin to face challenges, which are exacerbated by their son’s heart condition and the arrival of Monica’s mother from Korea. These issues begin to bleed into Jacob and Monica’s marriage as well. It’s a story about the sacrifices of immigrant parents, persistence and survival. Chung weaves an incredibly intimate story through both Korean and English, allowing us a peek into his world.
4. The Joy Luck Club (1993)
Before “Crazy Rich Asians” was released in 2018, “The Joy Luck Club” was the most recent Hollywood film with an Asian ensemble cast. Based on the novel of the same name by Amy Tan, the film revolves around the titular Joy Luck Club, which includes four immigrant Chinese women living in San Francisco. The four women all have daughters, for whom they all have high hopes, but all of the daughters face different challenges. A story about not only Asian Americans but the complicated relationship between mother and daughter, “The Joy Luck Club” tugs at your heartstrings, makes you laugh and makes you cry.
5. The Mindy Project (2012-2017)
Contrary to the dramas previously mentioned, “The Mindy Project” is distinctly a comedy. Based on the mother of show creator, star actor and Dartmouth alumna Mindy Kaling ’01, the show follows Mindy Lahiri as she navigates being a gynecologist in New York City and the antics of her coworkers at her small medical practice. Along the way, she explores love, friendship and work difficulties. Not all Asian American shows need to highlight the protagonist’s identity as a driving force of the plot, and “The Mindy Project” is an example of this. Heartwarming, romantic and uplifting, “The Mindy Project” is exactly the type of feel-good show to curl up with on a night in.
6. Beef (2023)
If anything demonstrates the wide range of Asian American experiences, “Beef” is it. The television show follows two seemingly opposite people — Amy, a wealthy business owner, and Danny, a not-nearly-as-wealthy contractor. Despite coming from very different socioeconomic backgrounds, the two share one major thing in common: their anger. They are deeply angry people — angry both at themselves and with the world. It is this simmering anger which boils over when their stories collide in a road rage incident, a catalytic moment setting the rest of the show into motion. Set within a Southern Californian setting, “Beef” explores the emotional and psychological turmoil that plagues many first-generation Asian Americans, demonstrating the unexpected and lasting consequences of attempting to navigate these struggles alone. Witty and engaging, “Beef” keeps you strapped to your seat until the very end.
7. Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
In British-Indian actor Dev Patel’s debut film performance, “Slumdog Millionaire,” Patel plays Jamal, an 18 year old from the Juhu slums of Mumbai, who decides to enter an Indian version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” Jamal answers every question correctly, and right before he is able to answer the final question, the police detain him as they suspect him of cheating in the competition. To prove that he actually knew all of the answers, Jamal walks the police officers through moments of his life that provided him insight for every answer. The movie speaks to the experiences of English-speaking South Asian diaspora audiences, grounding the lives of its characters in a palpable sense of reality. It is a classic rags-to-riches story made new again in its unique execution. With an exciting soundtrack, fantastic acting and exceptional editing, “Slumdog Millionaire” is an emotional journey that you’ll want to be a part of.
8. Kim’s Convenience (2016-2021)
“Kim’s Convenience” is also not an American creation; it’s a Canadian television series. Just like “Slumdog Millionaire,” though, the show speaks to the broader hyphenated Asian experience — the Asian experience in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and other non-Asian countries. Set in Toronto, the series focuses on the Kim family, who own a convenience store. The family is made up of Umma and Appa — Korean for mom and dad — as well as their children Janet and Jung, and they all deal with challenges, both related and unrelated to running the store. “Kim’s Convenience” tackles the struggle of being caught between two cultures, but it also highlights other typical problems related to love and family dynamics. It’s hilarious and endearing, and it’s the perfect show to watch with your family.
9. Yellow Rose (2019)
Like “Minari,” “Yellow Rose” is a gripping tale about the immigrant experience. The protagonist, Rose, is a Filipina American teenager in Texas whose life is upended when her mother is detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. This event leads her to discover that her family is undocumented. Armed only with her love of music as a reprieve, Rose flees her small hometown. “Yellow Rose” is a touching musical-drama that brings the well-known, coming-of-age story to new heights.
10. Saving Face (2004)
Alice Wu’s “Saving Face” captures the hardships of appearing perfect throughout multiple generations, dealing with questions of identity and sexuality. Wil, a Chinese-American surgeon living in New York City, is a lesbian but has not come out to her mother, Hwei-Lan. When she meets the daughter of a family friend named Vivian, Wil is immediately infatuated with her. Meanwhile, Hwei-Lan becomes pregnant out of wedlock, and is shunned by her parents. “Saving Face” gives the authenticity that we all crave in films, and its realness makes the 2004 film feel like it was created yesterday, tackling themes of queer identity and multi-generational conflict head-on.