Asian American Filmmaking in the 21st Century: The Perils and Pleasures of Narrative Plentitude

Enjoyed participating in an animated discussion with fellow panelists and attendees at AAAS Seattle on topics ranging from A24 prestige films and marketing, experimental film/videos, transnational filmic archives, and narrative structures and strategies.

(Photos by Tosh Tanaka)

A24 and the Asian American Prestige Film

by Brian Hu

Some of the most visible and acclaimed recent Asian American films (Minari, The Farewell, After Yang, Everything Everywhere All At Once, Past Lives) are all financed or distributed by the Hollywood studio A24. This paper explores A24’s “winning formula” for Asian American prestige, a package of discourses around race, independent film, and Asian American representation that appeals to both Oscar voters and Asian American filmgoers ready to venerate the films on social media and in journalistic writing. Specifically, in its advertising and other paratextual materials, A24 uses discourses of cultural authenticity, often around familiar and legible narratives of Asian immigrant families, to position these films as “quality” works worthy of official recognition. Their success in doing so speaks to a moment when Hollywood insiders both recognize the industry’s historical inability to represent Asian stories and desperately want to commend any efforts at doing so.

As Long As There Is Breath: Recent Experimental Asian American Filmmaking

by Valerie Soe

Following a conversation I had recently with a friend who’s worked in the independent Asian American film community for a long time, this presentation looks at Asian American films at a crossroads. In this conversation my friend postulated that Asian American films in 2023 have achieved what they set out to do back in the 1970s, which to him meant increasing the visibility and voices of Asian Americans in the US filmmaking landscape. In some ways his observation is very on target, with EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE winning the 2023 Best Picture Oscar and streamers such as netflix and amazon prime regularly programming Asian American content of all types. But what spaces remain for Asian American films that do not fit into the commercial narrative feature or PBS-style documentary film template? Some of the filmmakers discussed in this presentation include Rea Tajiri, Leslie Tai, and Emily Chao, all of whom create work which remains rooted in their communities while also challenging formal and stylistic filmmaking conventions. I argue that we should aspire to be confounded and surprised by Asian American movies, and not just want to see the same stories that we’ve seen before. How can Asian American filmmaking avoid obsolescence and remain relevant in the 21st century?

Asian American Affinities

by Viola Lasmana

What does it mean to go beyond representation? The recent successes of Asian American films in Hollywood (Crazy Rich Asians in 2018, The Farewell in 2019, Parasite in 2020, and Everything Everywhere All At Once in 2023) have prompted not only a celebration of Asian American representation, but also debates about what it means to be Asian and Asian American. Combined with significant flows of global capital from industry giants and investments in organizations like Gold House, the rise in visibility for Asian Americans in mainstream popular culture suggests that we are in a moment of narrative plenitude, to use Viet Thanh Nguyen’s term. Ours is a time of immense possibilities, but it is, in fact, also one of complex incommensurabilities and disparities. This paper asks how we can imagine, practice, and articulate transnational and intersectional networks of Asian American affinities amidst such heterogeneities in Asian America. Considering works by Alice Wu, Gregg Araki, Spencer Nakasako, and Trinh T. Minh-ha (among others) that span genres and issues including queer identities, subcultures, refugee experiences, and experimental subjectivities, what are the poetics and politics of what I call Asian American Affinities, especially through exploring films about historically marginalized identities in Asian America? Beyond the positive/negative image binary, what possibilities exist for a transformative and “authentic” mediascape of Asian representation? If affinity is a relational word rooted in the concept border, Asian American Affinities suggests the possibility of thinking with border, gaps, and ellipses for expansive definitions of Asian American filmmaking.

How to Go Beyond a Central Conflict: Narrative Challenges in Asian American Filmmaking

by Anita Wen-Shin Chang

As a child of Taiwanese immigrants who fled to the U.S. in the 1960s during turbulent times both in Taiwan and the U.S., I discuss the challenges undertaken in my non-fiction films to address what the late experimental narrative filmmaker Raúl Ruiz terms “the central conflict theory,” a dramatic construction dominant in commercial cinemas, and I would argue mainstream documentary films. Aware of the politics of the cinematic image within the central conflict narrative structure that is tied to neocolonialism and the conditions of production under capitalism, how can Asian American filmmaking engage in decolonial aesthetics and practices that build connections and solidarities across the borders of nation, race, ethnicity, disability, gender, sexuality and class? Films discussed include 62 Years and 6500 Miles Between (2005), Joyful Life (2007) and Tongues of Heaven (2013).