Why Independent Asian American Cinema Exists

By Max Lin

The tendency in Hollywood to stereotype Asian Americans is a problematic one because it lumps a rich and varied group into a rigid set of traits, regardless of whether they are negative or “positive.” The emergence of Asian American independent cinema presented a fresh perspective on Asian heritage in America that often defied mainstream norms. With that came a general understanding that the purpose of Asian American film and video was to counter Hollywood stereotypes. This is also a problematic viewpoint because it suggests that Asian American film exists solely in relation to Hollywood Orientalism, even if it is to fight it. Putting this forth as the goal of Asian American cinema limits it equally by using Hollywood stereotypes as a guideline to proceed. In a way, it would mean that Asian film seeks the approval (or rather, disapproval) of Hollywood by saying, “Look at our Asian characters who don’t fit your mold!” Simply put by Margaret Hillenbrand in her essay “Of Myths and Men,” “the battle against stereotyping will always be a self-defeating one, for the simple reason that to resist a stereotype is to acknowledge…its representational power.” While the opposition of stereotypes can occur often in Asian American film and video, I would say that its bigger purpose is to acknowledge something other than stereotypes: the distinct and influential presence of Asians in every different facet and era of America. The medium seeks to make their stories heard when they are so often neglected.

Asian American independent cinema’s goal of showcasing Asian Americans as a robust presence in this country begins first with historically-geared films. What films like History and Memory, Days of Waiting, and Picture Bride do is send a message that the existence of Asian Americans in history cannot and should not be ignored or overlooked. History and Memory and Days of Waiting showcase an event in World War II rarely explored in American films or history textbooks – the Japanese American internment. History and Memory showcases the inaccuracies of mainstream Hollywood representations of the event by comparing “official” footage with the memory of filmmaker Rea Tajiri’s mother. The personal experiences of her mother during the internment differ vastly from what is shown in Hollywood film clips, giving viewers of the film one instance in which Hollywood has failed to accurately portray the Asian American experience. In “The Gendering of Historical Trauma,” found in Countervisions, Elena Tajima Creef writes that independent films like History and Memory “not only define, but make clear, just who is allowed to be a central subject for Hollywood’s selective historical memory” (Creef 166).

So if Hollywood mainstream films misrepresent or simply ignore the Asian American experience in history, how can Asian Americans be heard? The film Picture Bride answers just that. Picture Bride, directed by Kayo Hatta, first and foremost delves into another uncharted element of U.S. history – Japanese immigrant plantation laborers in Hawaii and the notion of picture brides as a solution to American anti-miscegenation laws. Told entirely from an Asian American perspective, we are first able to learn about this piece of Asian history in America that may very well have been lost. Secondly, the film’s character of Riyo showcases an element of the Asian American experience rarely investigated but widely shared – a progression from the longing for one’s home country to the eventual acceptance of living in America.

Asian American films set in more contemporary times illustrate how Asians in America run the gamut of every social class, occupation, and personality type possible. They highlight the ubiquitous presence of Asian Americans in every corner of this nation. Films like Chan is Missing and The Grace Lee Project come to mind because their brief character studies provide viewers with the rich spectrum that is Asian America. Chan is Missing, a film noir story about two cabbies searching for an elusive Chan, paints a colorful cross-section of Chinatown. We meet individuals that range from a short-order cook who despises churning out orders of sweet-and-sour pork to a young sociology student who attempts to dissect the fallacies of English for Asian Americans just learning the language. These characters inherently do not adhere to any stereotypes yet they are not manufactured to oppose them either. Instead, the empowering aspect of Chan is Missing comes from its seemingly effortless portrayal of Chinese Americans one can realistically meet and its acknowledgment of their presence virtually everywhere.

Meanwhile, an initial endeavor of The Grace Lee Project was for the filmmaker to find a Grace Lee that did not fit the overachieving and demure stereotype so often attributed to women with her name. As the film continued however, she began to lose sight of this goal as she became more invested in the personal stories of each subject. The story of Grace Lee Boggs became a testament to the powerful force Asian Americans as well as women could be. The attributes of the director’s name became a second thought to her near the end of the film when she learned the story of Grace Lee, a hard-of-hearing single mother who took in an abused family. Indeed, instances like this continue to demonstrate that Asian Americans have fascinating stories that need to be heard outside of the often niche market for Asian American independent cinema.

The goal of Asian American film and video to more accurately illustrate the strong presence and impact of Asian Americans in society almost seems to culminate in this course with Justin Lin’s Better Luck Tomorrow. Better Luck Tomorrow is a fascinating piece to study because it puts Asian Americans into the roles of a typical Hollywood movie. As stated by Margaret Hillenbrand in “Of Myths and Men,” “the mainstream teen movie is a white, and usually middle-class, affair” and “Asian Americans remain anonymous to the point of invisibility in the profitable teen market.” Lin’s decision to have just about an all Asian American cast in this mainstream film, aside from the racially satiric possibilities, gave Asian Americans a chance to be seen and heard by the wider public. The presentation of Asian American actors as the typical high school student allowed for a perspective just about anyone could relate to. Speaking the language of Hollywood gave Lin a chance to inject the Asian American perspective in a manner that wasn’t so alienating. On a surface level, Better Luck Tomorrow could be taken as a basic crime film. However, a deeper analysis brings up questions of Asian masculinity and societal pressures towards the model minority, which are unique to the Asian American experience.

Ultimately, the broader, more major goal of Asian American film and video is simply to bring Asian Americans and their stories into the spotlight. Whether the film is an outright look into identity or a balance of identity exploration and story, the medium seeks to provide a stage for the Asians who have always been a large part of Anytown, USA. These individuals hold rich and varied experiences that have rarely been analyzed by Hollywood but deserve to be heard. Asian American films may reverse or even affirm certain stereotypes in the process of achieving this purpose, but this is not the point. Rather, in a big picture sense, as stated by Peter Feng in his essay, “In Search of Asian American Cinema,” “those of us who are interested in Asian American Cinema are interested in Asian American perspectives, whether the subject matter is ourselves, American culture more generally, or the whole world of cinematic possibility.”