They say numbers don’t lie. For the past few years, the Asian American market has made its consumption power known, and that groundswell of enthusiasm, especially in new media, has trickled up to those with the power to take a chance on stories and faces that don’t typically pass for mass entertainment.
On network TV, Fresh off the Boat premiered, soon to be joined by Quantico, Dr. Ken, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Netflix, one of the new titans of media delivery, took bold leaps of faith on Cary Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation and Jennifer Phang’s Advantageous, putting Asian American-directed work on the forefront of new distribution models for independent film. Vimeo picked up Wong Fu Productions’ Everything Before Us the day after its world premiere at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, closing a gap between traditional and new independent distribution platforms. And of course there was another Netflix production, Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang’s Master of None, widely considered the crowning achievement of Asian American media production this year, packaging stories of intergenerational difference, ethnic joy, racial discrimination, and immigrant tribulations as a hip and hilarious snapshot of dating in New York City today. The fact that 2015 saw such an explosion of such productions means that Asian American consumption – and the possibility that non-Asian audiences are willing to consume Asian stories – was no longer an open secret, and became a strategy.
At least that’s the rosy picture. As Ansari lampoons in Master of None, the struggle between Asian American artists and network executives continues in deep-seated, baffling ways that are only swayed when the persistence of independent minority voices refuse to be pigeonholed and diminished. The mainstream didn’t simply descend upon the riches promised by Asian America this year; behind decades of protest, Asian Americans carved a place for themselves and demanded to be heard. The numbers were just a negotiation point. What’s at stake for Asian America isn’t just the money but the opportunity for expression. And if all we care about are the numbers, then we’re just lying to ourselves about what’s important and what we’re actually accomplishing.
The truth is that Asian American media production had a banner year in 2015 even without the aforementioned mainstream recognition. For those who have been attending Asian American film festivals, reading blogs, and following projects on social media, 2015 was one of the most impressive years for narrative feature films directed by Asian Americans in recent memory. Here at Asia Pacific Arts, we’ve been making this annual list (now in its tenth edition!) long enough to know that output and quality come in waves, but we’re encouraged by this year’s films in the same way we were by those from 2006, a year of so much surprising quality that it first proved a top 10 list could even be possible. And if we also consider the landmark “class of 1997,” we’re looking at benchmark moments every nine years, each more diverse than the one before.
This year’s list reflects the places Asian American cinema has traveled, including mainstream spaces that didn’t inspire as much buzz or pride from Asian American circles. It was a big year for Asian Americans at Sundance, and our list includes three films that premiered there in January. We’re also including two titles that played at the Cannes Film Festival and two more that played Berlin, reflecting Asian Americans’ continued ascendance in global art cinema. We probably should include Karyn Kusama’s chilling The Invitation, her best film in years, but we’ve decided to save it for 2016 when it gets a commercial release.
And then there are titles you could have only seen on the Asian American festival circuit, titles too quirky, too “minor,” too curious for any established mainstream. Together, they portray Asian American cinema as triumphing in so many directions, in so many circles, and with so much sense of possibility. It’s been years since we’ve toyed with the idea of expanding our list, but this year had us again wondering if we should. Once again, the numbers only tell part of the story: that these are the only 10 films and that this is the order they should be ranked obscures what a year of continued surprises and achievement it’s been. –Brian Hu
1. Female Pervert
dir: Jiyoung Lee
Jiyoung Lee's work can be quite polarizing, but there's no denying you've never seen anything like it before. Lee takes her unique voice that was honed with her first feature Moral Sleaze and teases it out into a more complete story in Female Pervert, starring the hilariously committed Jennifer Kim. According to Variety, the film "focuses on a young Asian-American woman whose social awkwardness and sexual obsessions evidently are intended to be amusing and engaging" and "as [it] progresses, Phoebe comes across as someone not merely self-absorbed, but increasingly unhinged." The Hollywood Reporter called it "almost as painfully awkward as the titular main character." Full disclosure, these are awful reviews, and these critics did not appreciate the film at all. In fact, they seem pretty grouchy about the "borderline-predatory" Asian American woman protagonist and the "film about a titular deviant that lacks any sex scenes."
But we're hear to tell you that the film is laugh-out-loud funny, though not in ways we necessarily expect. It's real mean: to men, to Murakami book clubs, to colonial fetishism. And it's about how its quirky meanness leads to a kind of loneliness -- which can be said about the fate of the film itself, banished into a corner by all of these lame critics. But for us, loving Jiyoung Lee is also loving the fact that she makes movies that don't care about that kind of approval, which makes her more dangerous, valuable, personal, uncategorizable, and thus probably exactly what we want from Asian American filmmaking.
2. The Grief of Others
dir: Patrick Wang
Four years after he set tremors in American independent cinema (and topped this annual list) with his powerful In the Family, Patrick Wang returns with a film both smaller – in length, in scope – and utterly giant in its ambition and grip on matters of the heart. Following a family after a death and a surprise arrival, the film whips from formal exasperations of emotional breathlessness to sweet, disarming humor with the charm and wisdom of a story written on a child’s toy from another century.
3. Crush the Skull
dir: Viet Nguyen
Bottom line: Viet Nguyen's comedy horror feature is so incredibly fun. Co-written by Nguyen and star Chris Dinh, the film is about a couple of robbers (played by Dinh and Katie Savoy) who have agreed to do one last job before escaping for their romantic new life together. Unfortunately, due to some poor planning by their hapless collaborators, played by Chris Riedell and Tim Chiou, the four of them end up being locked in a serial killer's house, fearing for their lives. How is this funny? It's funny in the way that an uncooperative severed head is funny, and it's a testament to the clever writing and pitch-perfect performances that the scares and laughs are equally joyful.
4. Songs My Brothers Taught Me
dir: Chloe Zhao
Life on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation comes to life in whispers that let out dreams, personal yearnings, and bad romances. Instead of reducing poverty and alcoholism to the well-worn tropes of the social problem film, Chloe Zhao warms her viewers to the final traces of youthful idealism amidst a bath of closed doors and the surreal pessimism in a town of half-siblings. The narrative wanders ever so vaporously, like the characters as they find their place in adulthood and like the sun as it marks yet another day on the reservation.
dir: Jennifer Phang
In the sci-fi film Asian America has been waiting too long for, Jacqueline Kim plays a single mother in a near future where even an energetic, passionate 40-something woman like herself is considered expired goods. And so, to send her daughter to the top school, she undergoes a surgical procedure that rewires memories, appearances, work, and family. It’s the rare Asian American film today that unabashedly brings up race, not by proclaiming it, but by evoking it on the skin of everyday life, especially in tandem with the social cruelty of gender and age that is hardly just a problem of the future.
6. Out of My Hand
dir: Takeshi Fukunaga
Ghosts of war haunt a Liberian rubber farmer who finds that a move to New York City is no escape from a violent past. One of three major Africa-set features by Asian American directors this year, Out of My Hand grittily captures an African transnationalism in the shadows of global business, both in the US and in Africa. Fukunaga proves a major new chronicler of a global labor, taking us across continents and culminating with a final shot that returns us back to a solemn silence, sharply making connections and wrangling its characters back into a dead knot.
7. How to Win at Checkers (Every Time)
dir: Josh Kim
The parenthetical in the title of Josh Kim’s feature debut captures both the winking cuteness and the ironic sadness at the heart of this story of an 11-year-old in Thailand who learns the hard way that there’s no manual for winning at life. Taken under the wing by a transgender stunner and with less frequency by his gay older brother, the boy watches a subculture reveal its economics, a nation reveal its class structure, and a family reveal its sacrifices. Sweetly but frankly, How to Win at Checkers (Every Time) has a confidence rare for a first-time feature filmmaker in either Asian American or Thai cinema.
8. Seoul Searching
dir: Benson Lee
A tribute to a John Hughes' 80s films, Seoul Searching takes place at a Korean government-created summer camp designed for international youth of Korean descent to get back in touch with their culture. Of course, in reality, it was where young kids went to party. This feel-good ensemble film features several storylines, from alcohol-filled flirtations with Justin Chon as wannabe Billy Idol and Jessika Van as wannabe Madonna, to more dramatic moments featuring a strict, grieving teacher (Cha In-pyo) and an adoptee (Rosalina Leigh) looking for her birth mother with her cute Korean German classmate (Teo Yoo), and it's interspersed with moments of comic relief from the scene-stealing Korean Mexican loverboy (Esteban Ahn) and loud-mouthed rapper (Heejun Han). The end result is a bundle of emotions that will make you want to go karaoke "Don't You Forget About Me" over some shots of soju.
9. Miss India America
dir: Ravi Kapoor
Tiya Sircar, Asian America's answer to Reese Witherspoon in Election, is an irresistible comedic lead in Miss India America. An overachiever who is obsessed with winning, her character Lily has a life plan, meticulously documented in a scrapbook, which gets turned upside down when her longtime boyfriend breaks up with her and starts dating a beauty queen. Unwilling to admit defeat, Lily recruits her best friend to help transform her into an Indian American pageant contestant. The film is directed by actor Ravi Kapoor and co-written by actress Meera Simhan, who pokes fun at her own past beauty pageant experience, and it also features a cameo by executive producer Hannah Simone (New Girl), who has the power to dent the confidence of an otherwise fearless Type-A academic by just gracefully entering a room.
10. There is a New World Somewhere
dir: Li Lu
Li Lu's debut feature is a delicate look at the anxiety and instability that can come in one's mid-twenties, when the real world starts taking its toll and youthful optimism seems to be running dry. There Is a New World Somewhere stars Agnes Bruckner, who plays a hard-working artist grasping at a career that always seems just out of reach. A visit to her hometown to attend an old friend's wedding makes her feel especially vulnerable, and instead of dealing with her insecurities, she escapes on a road trip with a charming stranger, who is going through some growing pains himself.
Honorable mentions: Beasts of No Nation (Cary Fukunaga), Furious 7 (James Wan), It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong (Emily Ting), Mina Walking (Yosef Baraki), Someone Else (Nelson Kim)
Best of 2014 (#1. In Her Place)
Best of 2013 (#1. Siddarth)
Best of 2012 (#1. Life of Pi)
Best of 2011 (#1. In the Family)
Best of 2010 (#1. Etienne!)
Best of 2009 (#1. Treeless Mountain)
Best of 2008 (#1. The Fall)
Best of 2007 (#1. Munyurangabo)
Best of 2006 (#1. Colma: The Musical)