What — and who — to watch this Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month
Any month dedicated to celebrating representation requires an investigation into the impact of diversity and representation in film industry data. We should never forget that the major studies — spearheaded by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism — start with reporting on diversity in popular films, television and digital content, focusing specifically on inclusivity onscreen and behind the camera.
As a film and streaming critic, I get to examine the narrative content that reaches audiences directly and assess its value on a more qualitative scale, which offers the opportunity for a bit more nuance than the raw data. How does the content represent and reflect on a culture for broad audiences? Are we presented with cultural exposure and information that expands upon how we may (or may not) see and appreciate our own experiences?
That's why, for Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, I've broken down my monthly 10 elements a bit more than usual. I want to explore selections (both film and streaming) from the past few years, but in addition, it felt necessary to spotlight some of the people whose contributions have risen to the forefront and established them as more mainstream ambassadors, if you will, for the continued change to come.
Never Have I Ever (Netflix series)
Back in 2020, co-creator Mindy Kaling, along with Lang Fisher, introduced audiences to Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), a first-generation Indian-American teenager whose suburban experiences were narrated by John McEnroe. It was a fun yet sometimes jarring scenario, but the coming-of-age series blossomed far beyond this one narrative conceit. Never Have I Ever was a revelatory journey into the everyday multicultural world that truly exists for people of color. Devi's best friends are Asian and biracial, and each, very much like Devi, struggle to weave together the intersectional facets of their identities. And with Season 4 set to kick off in June, life's transitions await Devi and us.
Beef (Netflix series)
Who knew that an instance of road rage could create such an opportunity to delve into the American psyche? Series creator Lee Sung Jin was born in Seoul, Korea, but has written for It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, 2 Broke Girls, Silicon Valley and Dave. With Beef, where he has added directing to his multihyphenate reach, the comedy attains such a dark and fevered pitch that it runs headlong into tragedy with enough force to shake not only its two amazing lead characters, played by Steven Yeun and Ali Wong, but its audience to the core.
Taste the Nation (Hulu series)
As a would-be foodie in love with cooking competitions, especially the godfather of them all, Top Chef, I was fully willing to follow Padma Lakshmi anywhere in the world. But I never dreamed that Lakshmi's excursions out of the Top Chef kitchen would nourish my stomach and soul in such a profound ways. Over the course of two full seasons and a short holiday sampler, Taste the Nation has crisscrossed the United States, introducing us to immigrant groups who settled in this country and expanded the notion of what being "a melting pot" really means. Eating becomes the most powerful and uniting political act that any of us can participate in, and Lakshmi is the perfect leader of this movement.
Boogie (available on streaming)
Writer-director Eddie Huang (Fresh Off the Boat) dropped his feature debut Boogie in 2021. It was a very different coming-of-age story, exploring the gritty experiences of Alfred "Boogie" Chin (Taylor Takahashi), a high school basketball player living in Queens who dreamed of making it to the NBA. While not exactly what his immigrant parents imagined for him, Boogie remains committed despite also bumping up against other outside expectations from classmates, his new girlfriend and on-court rivals, none of whom believes in him as much as he continues to believe in himself.
Fast X (May 19)
Even in the very beginning, back in 2001, The Fast and the Furious sermonized on the idea of family being the most important thing. And that sense of family wasn't strictly rooted in the family of your birth, which meant that the found bonds that have developed over the course of now 10 movies is the living embodiment of our professed multicultural dreams. This matters more than the notion that the franchise has evolved from criminal-minded street racers who became indestructible international spies to rocket scientists able to send a jacked-up car into space. "Justice for Han" is more than a simple slogan for a movement to bring back a dearly departed character; it is a reminder that we all have a place at this family's table.
Joy Ride (July 7)
The friends-on-a-road-trip genre gets a kick in the pants from Adele Lim, the director and co-writer (along with Cherry Chevapravatdumrong and Teresa Hsiao), as her Asian American cohort embark on a journey across Asia in order to find the birth mother of one of its members. Lim served as one of the screenwriters for Crazy Rich Asians, but with Joy Ride, it feels like she's plotting her own version of Girls Trip, which to my mind, is a wonderfully messy and worthy destination.
Creators to watch across streaming, film and TV
Born to Korean parents in Ontario, Canada, Oh has over 90 credits to her name — everything from indie dramas like Last Night, The Red Violin, and Owning Mahowny to mainstream fare like Under the Tuscan Sun and Sideways to television and streaming (Grey's Anatomy and The Chair), but nothing has showcased her diverse range quite like Killing Eve. The character of Eve Polastri, a security operative driven to leave her desk for a field assignment that will change her life forever, could have been written for anyone, but Oh grants Eve dimensions beyond words jumping off the page and not just in her dynamic interactions with Jodie Comer's impervious assassin Villanelle. Oh's Eve isn't simply an Everywoman, she is Everything.
By now, we all know Nora Lum only as Awkwafina, who started out as a rapper and has become a multi-faceted actress. Do you need a supporting player with scene-stealing flair (Ocean's 8, Crazy Rich Asians)? How about someone who can transition from comedy to drama in the same role (The Farewell)? Maybe a best friend for a comic book hero (Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings)? Or voice work for an animated feature (Raya and the Last Dragon)? Awkwafina has not only done all of that, she's also earned a BAFTA (EE Rising Star Award) and a gaggle of nominations (Golden Globe, Critics Choice and Hollywood Critics Association, among others) for The Farewell. That's why it was no surprise to watch Awkwafina hold her own opposite Nicholas Hoult and Nicolas Cage in the recent horror-comedy Renfield.
The films of Taiwanese-American director Justin Lin have grossed $2 billion worldwide, according to IMDB. From his indie introduction (Better Luck Tomorrow) to blockbuster fare (The Fast and the Furious installments 3-6 and 9, plus Star Trek Beyond). His impact is so legendary, Lin was able to incorporate one of his characters from Better Luck Tomorrow (Sung Kang's Han) into The Fast and the Furious series, although Better Luck is not officially part of the franchise. Now that's representative justice.
Wan, an Australian by way of Malaysia and China, was mainly known for directing horror, thanks to his early work on the first Saw back in 2004; then films like Dead Silence, Death Sentence, Insidious and The Conjuring before making the leap into more mainstream projects Furious 7 (again with The Fast and the Furious). Having caught the action franchise bug, he's now also helmed Aquaman and its upcoming sequel Aquaman and The Lost Kingdom. Opportunity breeds success and Wan proves that you can achieve on your own terms.