Why The 1980s Was A Turning Point For Asian American Films
In 1982, Wayne Wang’s “Chan Is Missing” became the first feature film by an Asian American director to get a mainstream theatrical release. A decade later, Wang broke more ground when he directed “The Joy Luck Club,” widely considered the first major Hollywood studio movie featuring an all-Asian cast. (Famously and embarrassingly, it took 25 years to make another one: 2018’s “Crazy Rich Asians.”)
“Chan Is Missing” and other early films by Wang are featured in “Asian American ’80s,” a collection of 12 movies streaming this month on the Criterion Channel.
Spotlighting a formative decade for Asian American cinema, the series was curated by Brian Hu, an associate professor of film and television at San Diego State University. Last year, he programmed a Criterion series about Asian American independent films in the 2000s. Curators Abby Sun and Keisha N. Knight also developed a series about Asian American cinema in the 1990s.
“So I think [Criterion] figured: Let’s just keep connecting the dots backwards and see what we get,” Hu said in an interview with HuffPost.
“At some point, it becomes strange to go further back because the term ‘Asian American’ is fairly new. And then the idea of Asian American cinema is relatively new and has changed in terms of how it’s been defined. So at some point, if you keep moving back, you find that you’re inventing a notion of Asian American cinema out of nothing.
“I think the ’80s is where it really starts to coalesce into something, and I was really interested in that. When something is first being named and people are finding value in a term, what does it look like? And, also, how does it differ from today, to get a sense of how things have changed?”
As Hu explained, the 1980s marked a turning point in Asian American cinema because for the first time, Asian American directors were entering the arena of feature films. Prior to that, they were primarily making short films, documentaries and student productions. The growth in opportunities and visibility resulted from the confluence of several developments: a new wave of American independent film, the rise of art house cinemas in major U.S. cities, and the first generation of Asian American artists who came of age after the start of the Asian American movement in the 1960s now figuring out how to assert themselves.
“You have two circuits going on at the same time. You have that sort of white, upper-middle-class, New York-educated ‘we want to watch films that are outside of the box.’ And then you also have young Asian Americans — many of them the first generation that took Asian American studies classes — who are now saying, ‘Are we a market onto ourselves?’” Hu said. “Can going into the movies be a communal act, and can going to watch our movies be part of the larger political movement that we’ve been hoping to be part of since the late ’60s? So all of this is coming together in the 1980s.”
In addition, Asian Americans had more avenues to get their films funded and seen, like through grants from the National Endowment for the Arts (or NEA) and public television, and the rise of Asian American film festivals. They were also figuring out what Asian American cinema even meant, and to what extent their work should confront questions about identity.
“You have some filmmakers who are like: ‘I just want to make weird movies. I just want to make silly B movies. And do those things all go together?’” Hu said. “And what I love about this period is they don’t always. And you have people who are imagining what ‘Asian American’ can be in wildly different ways, that might not adhere perfectly to that sense of needing to be very clearly part of the Asian American movement as defined in the ’60s. So it was a moment of ‘anything goes,’ that there were no rules yet. They were making it up as they went along. So that’s really appealing.”
Speaking to HuffPost, Hu went on to detail some landmark Asian American films of the period, a few underappreciated gems, the connections and differences between Asian American cinema then and now, and how one might go about developing the idea of an Asian American film canon.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.
What specifically in the ’80s was different from how we think of Asian American cinema now, or the Asian American movement more broadly? What was different in the ’80s that sort of led to a lot of these filmmakers just trying to figure out what that meant, and how they fit — or how they maybe didn’t fit into that idea?
So, I’m interested in a filmmaker like Peter Wang. He made a film called “A Great Wall” in the 1980s. He’s a transnational figure in a sense that he’s originally from China, his family moved to Taiwan, he grew up in Taiwan, and then he came to the United States to become an engineer. He dabbled in theater in San Francisco, and then he worked on Wayne Wang’s “Chan Is Missing” as an actor in a small but memorable role. And then he directed his own film called “A Great Wall.”
So around this time, there was a lot of discussion about Asian Americans, [how] the Asian American community needs to emphasize its “Americanness,” that what makes us an important political faction is that people have to stop thinking about us as a perpetual foreigner. And yet he makes a film that’s set in China, and he, like, finds home via China.
I’m sure the film is also about wanting to say how Chinese Americans are different from people in China. But they are sort of not afraid of thinking about one’s Asian American identity as necessarily transnational. And I think we’ve come around to that now because of, like, K-pop. I think Asian Americans think it’s fine to consume stuff from Asia, even though that sort of marks us as not necessarily, like, homegrown American in our pop cultural interests, for instance. But Peter Wang was really, at that time, thinking beyond the boundaries of the nation. His subsequent films — he made a feature in Taiwan. He lives in Taiwan now. So how does he fit within the Asian American rubric? So, there’s someone like him.
There’s Elliott Hong, who made “They Call Me Bruce,” which in some ways, when you’re watching it, feels, like, politically regressive. It’s about a guy who — people think he’s Bruce Lee, and he’ll play along with it. I think for a lot of Asian Americans, especially in the 1980s, I’ve talked to so many, especially Asian American men, who grew up in the ’80s, and they didn’t have anything in the media that represented them. But suddenly, even though this is a guy who’s playing on stereotypes, he also seemed to be winking at them at the same time, and that was refreshing.
So watching it now, it’s cringey. It’s a creature of its time. But we could say that it’s a creature of its time before a certain kind of, like, savviness about Asian American pop cultural politics. It was like, we didn’t have the liberty to ask for everything. We had to play within the rules of certain kinds of B movie tropes and bad B movies with a lot of stereotypes in them. How do we use these kinds of forms to get a little bit of us in there?
What also was happening within the industry at the time, in independent film, that opened up these opportunities for Asian American directors to get their foot in the door and start making these films?
Yeah, that’s a great question. Because the late ’70s, early ’80s, that’s when Hollywood was starting to say, all right, we were interested in independent cinema in the late ’60s, early ’70s, with “Easy Rider” and that sort of thing. By the late ’70s, you have “Jaws,” you have “Star Wars” — Hollywood is saying, “Let’s pivot back to the blockbuster.” But you have this institutionalization of, you have film schools, you have distributors who have been dabbling in art cinema.
And so in the 1980s, you have really a refining of, like, all right, independent cinema doesn’t have to just be an “Easy Rider,” kind of druggie youth movies. It could also be movies for adults and movies for people who just want to think at the movies — that sort of cliché of independent cinema that persists today. And “Chan Is Missing” fed really into that, this idea of “let’s watch some movie to see something new.” And “Chan Is Missing” still feels so fresh today.
So there was this sort of urban hunger for new kinds of cinema. And a lot of these films were being subsidized not by the market, but by grants from, like, the NEA and stuff. And so those institutions were in place. Independent cinema was also entering its straight-to-video phase. So you have films like “They Call Me Bruce,” that has that sort of exploitation, straight-to-video — it’s playing upon those genres.
Oh, and then you also have the rise of public media, public television saying, “Hey, we’re also interested in narrative.” Public television had understood that documentary needs to be a big part of their mission. But they’re starting to say, ”Oh, what if we did, like, little TV plays?” So a film like “The Wash” was essentially made for public television. And so those opportunities were arising too. So in the American independent scene, I think those are the major shifts that were inspiring filmmakers to say: “We can do this. We can make feature-length narrative films, which had not existed in Asian American cinema before this.”
And then of course, the rise of the Asian American film festival circuit, which was more than just a place to show movies, because you’re not getting paid for being shown in an Asian American film festival. But it creates a certain ecosystem for building audiences, for getting reviews of your films. And then you have, for instance, what’s now known as the Center for Asian American Media in San Francisco. And they were also funding films that could be shown on PBS. So yeah, there was a certain ecosystem for finding audiences, for cultivating one’s professional identity — but also the possibility of sustaining one’s career financially.
You mentioned Wayne Wang’s “Chan Is Missing” already. What were some of the landmark Asian American films you immediately knew you had to include in this series?
A question we asked was: “How much Wayne Wang is there? Is there too much Wayne Wang?” And I think we decided no.
He’s the central figure of Asian American cinema in the ’80s, at least on the narrative side, for sure. He got so much prominence through “Chan Is Missing,” and the stylistic daring of it became the inspiration, I think, for a lot of other filmmakers to say: “Wait, I can do that as well. I’m not just making a film, but I can do anything I want with this film, without caring as much about, say, narrative development in the traditional sense.” It could blur the lines between fiction and documentary, especially since at this point, Asian American filmmakers had been mostly working in documentary. This is a film that’s sort of a natural transition from that documentary moment to one that embraces narrative feature filmmaking.
So the Wayne Wang films for sure. “Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart” is to me as important as “Chan Is Missing,” or at least as satisfying a film as “Chan Is Missing.” But it’s a lot lesser known.
“Living on Tokyo Time” was a very important one for me to get. It’s just about slacker type Asian Americans who want to be in bands. It was important that this was not the cliché of independent Asian American cinema that we think of, what I often joke as the “my mom won’t let me date this person” movie — the movies that are about intergenerational conflict, cross-racial encounters or often about …
Yeah, or about queerness. Sometimes it’s about that too. But sometimes it’s just about young people who are not that great. [Laughs.] But that are charming in their own way, and just worthy of a story too.
I think a lot of Asian American folks around this time were trying to define their identities vis-à-vis Asian culturalness. So for instance, in the 1970s, there was this great short documentary about Asian Americans who are defining their culture through Japanese music. So what sets us apart from the rest of America, perhaps, is the fact that we’ve inherited these different kinds of musical traditions, and then we can fuse that with rock-and-roll and folk and stuff like that. Whereas “Living on Tokyo Time” says, “No, I just like punk rock.” It’s just about being oneself in a mundane sense.
I loved “The Wash.” It’s one of the first and few Asian American films about two Asian Americans in love, an Asian American couple. It is shockingly rare, until maybe 10 years ago, just to see in the movies two Asian Americans who are in a relationship. They’re not always in a happy relationship in this movie, but you get the sense of where their affection comes from and their history of romance. It’s shockingly rare. And so that was a really important movie for me to include here as well.
Were there films that you as a film scholar didn’t even really know about, that you unearthed or rediscovered through putting together this series?
A lot of my research was actually spent on the short films, because there are certain feature films that are well known to people who’ve been investigating it, as I have. There aren’t that many on the feature side. I feel like I watched a pretty high percentage of Asian American feature-length narrative films for this project. Short films, though, that’s a lot harder, one, to research to even know what’s out there, and then secondly, to find them. And so I did a lot of research into film festival catalogs, into writing that was happening around that time, reviews of film festivals, to see what people were getting excited by. The writing of the filmmaker, critic, scholar, everything, Renée Tajima-Peña — who ended up directing the  “Asian Americans” series on PBS, as well as co-directing [the documentary] “Who Killed Vincent Chin?” — she was writing a lot during the 1980s as a commentator, as sort of an insider-outsider.
And her writing was very important because I think she understood why short films are so important, because until the 1980s, it was just short films. The feature films were the novelty in this decade. But the short films had been the lifeblood, and continue to be a certain lifeblood. But of course, these are the films that are not on the tip of anybody’s tongue. So [I did] a lot of research and then working with distributors, working with filmmakers — like for the film “Otemba,” which became one of my favorites, a 16-minute short film, a student film at [the University of California, Los Angeles]. … The filmmaker passed away over a decade ago, and I worked with her sister on securing the rights to this film. And so these short films don’t necessarily have distribution. They’re not necessarily in catalogs of films for people to see. So a lot of it I had not seen before.
Something you said earlier: In the ’80s, there are films about identity, and then there are films that aren’t about identity at all. And I feel like we’re sort of in that moment now as well, both in film and on TV. We’re figuring out the balance of things made by Asian Americans about being Asian American, versus things where the characters happen to be Asian American, but the film isn’t really about that at all. Do you see connections, or are those things very different between then and now?
There are both kinds of films in the ’80s. There are films that are very much “who are we?”
“Chan Is Missing” is like that. “What is a Chinese person in the United States?” is what it’s asking. It doesn’t feel like the kind of identity film that we’ve come to know of, which is that “I brought food to school and people think it’s stinky” kind of an identity film. I feel like in the 1980s, both kinds of films — the identity films versus the ones that were “characters just happened to be Asian” films — they were coexisting without there being debate, or a sense of which is better or not.
By the 1990s, I think this starts to change, especially as these films get more visibility. And also, the possibility of mainstream success becomes part of the equation. Within the 1980s, it really wasn’t, except for “Chan Is Missing.” None of these films became national phenomena.
I’ve always seen this sort of as a pendulum swing. Like in the 1990s and early 2000s, there were a lot of these kinds of identity films, especially in South Asian American films. A ton of them were about parents trying to get their kids married off, and it was like “no, but I’m American.” And then it sort of swung the other way a little bit after “Better Luck Tomorrow,” which was very much of a “no, we’re just a bunch of bad kids in school.” So, an anti-model minority film.
But really, I see the pendulum swing all the way to the other end with the [filmmaking group] Wong Fu Productions age in the late 2000s, early 2010s, when YouTube opened up a possibility for young people to just make films on their own. And they’re not sitting around talking about identity all the time. They’re making films, like, silly little rom-coms or “what I did in school,” and they happened to be Asian. Of course, there’s also a little bit of “we’re actually white, but we just happen to be Asian.” There’s some projection of a kind of assimilated middle-class, suburban identity.
I feel like I’m seeing the pendulum swing a little bit back now. I mean, [2020′s] “Minari” is very much in that sort of immigrant identity film. [Last year’s] “Everything Everywhere All At Once” is as well.
And 2019′s “The Farewell.”
“The Farewell,” for sure. For me, “The Farewell” goes back to Peter Wang and “A Great Wall.” These are both films about Chinese Americans going back to China and discovering their own Americanness through differences with someone from China. So are we swinging back a little bit, or are we finding some comfortable space in between? Right now, I’m not seeing so much of the grumbling about another identity film. I mean, 15 years ago, people grumbled so much about that: “Please don’t make me do another movie about how I’m different from my parents.”
But I think that maybe it’s because these films are now getting a lot more prestige — and they’re cool. I mean, what’s cooler than “Everything Everywhere All At Once”? Maybe Asian Americans have settled into this point where it’s like, “I’m OK with these stories representing us now again.” But I also see it as, the mainstream still requires us to represent, to have the burden of representation, and say, like, “Well, we want to give you space, but tell us how you are different.” Anyway, so we’ll see how this continues to swing — and if [production and distribution company] A24 will continue to have an outsized role in telling these stories, which is a whole other issue.
I’m curious about what you think about the idea of an Asian American canon. I feel like I’m always sort of thinking about that as an Asian American culture reporter, and this series got me rethinking about that. How do you feel about that idea? And as Asian Americans, how do we go about actually bringing that idea out into the open?
Yeah, because “canon” could be a dirty word.
It could be about gatekeeping, or about, I mean, who is represented by a canon? If the Asian American film project has been about undoing canons, why are we therefore settling into a new one? As well as the fact that a lot of Asian American cinema has always been invested in things like queerness, that’s about breaking categories and rethinking institutions like history-making and boundaries. And yet, what I was starting to feel, especially after “Crazy Rich Asians,” was the sense that nobody knew the history of Asian American cinema, because everyone was saying, “‘Crazy Rich Asians,’ the first since ‘Joy Luck Club.’” And then everyone had to walk that back and say, like, “first Hollywood film [since ‘The Joy Luck Club’],” because they realized they don’t know anything about the independent side. Or they know it exists — they may have heard of “Better Luck Tomorrow” — but they don’t feel well versed enough to talk about it.
I did a project with the … [Los Angeles] Times where I polled people who I knew were observers in the scene: film festival curators, critics. I intentionally didn’t poll filmmakers because they were just going to pick their own friends’ films. I’m not saying that to be sort of mean about it. Much of Asian cinema has been built on helping each other, lifting each other. But to me, canon-making is also about — I hate to use the word “expertise” — but who has actually watched everything in order to say, “These are important films that we should be talking about.”
So for me, it was less about greatness and more about memory — and so, the extent to which we can think about canon as memory-making, or just reminding us of what came before. Because I think for us to have a future, it helps to have a sense of a shared memory, right? A set of narratives and characters that we can draw from. Because otherwise, I guess I was thinking about “do Asian Americans have nostalgia for something common?” The same way that mainstream white Americans can say [1942′s] “Casablanca” is part of our cultural heritage, even though maybe you’ve never seen it before — all these classic American films that you’ve never seen before, but you’ve accepted as part of our cultural history.
Can Asian Americans sort of invent that themselves? Can we know of Peter Wang’s cameo in “Chan Is Missing” or something like that as a touchstone that we can all refer to? Inventing this cultural history — I think that is, for me, why this thing that resembles canon-making is important. And that really was a major inspiration for how I approached not just this series, but also, the 2000s one.