Films give voice and vision to Asian American diversity By Hemant Shah Director, Asian American Studies Program, UW-Madison
The Asian population is one of the fastest growing and most diverse in America. Their numbers grew from 1.5 million in 1970 to about 11 million in 2000. Asians in American have ancestral origins in countries of East Asia, Southeast Asian and the Indian subcontinent. They hail from countries as culturally different as Pakistan, Vietnam, Tibet, and Taiwan. The three most populous Asian groups in America in 2000 were the Chinese (2.7 million), Filipinos (2.3 million), Indians (1.9 million), and Koreans (1.2 million). Vietnamese and Japanese numbered about 1 million each. They are all Asians living in America, but are they all Asian Americans? Is the international student from Taiwan, making her first trip to the United States, an Asian American the moment she lands at O’Hare International Airport? Or does she become Asian American only after living in America 5 years? Or 10 years? Must she first become a US citizen to become an Asian America? One common answer to the question is that an Asian American is someone who has significant knowledge about what it means to live and grow up Asian in America – that is, has experienced what it is to be a ethnic minority in predominantly white America. Defining Asian American cinema is as tricky as defining who qualifies to be Asian American. Complicating the matter is the trend toward multinational distribution and financing networks that characterize the increasingly global film industry. Like the slipperiness associated with defining Asian American identity, defining Asian American cinema in an age of media globalization also has its difficulties. Are all films written or directed by Asian Americans, regardless of subject matter, part of Asian American cinema? What about films with specifically Asian American subject matter? Are these part of Asian American cinema, regardless of who wrote or directed them? There is yet one other possibility: Films about themes of particular importance to Asian Americans that are created by Asian American filmmakers. The films in the Asian American cinema program at the 2004 Wisconsin Film Festival fall mainly into this last category. Asian American cinema has a relatively recent history. In response to Hollywood stereotypes of Asians, two short-lived efforts in the early part of the 20th century to create films by, for, and about Asians in America were made. In 1920, James B. Leong, a Chinese exchange student based in Muncie, Indiana, moved to Hollywood to try his hand at making films for the Chinese community in California. In 1928, Sessue Hayakawa, at the time one of the few successful Asian actors in Hollywood silent films, established Haworth Productions and produced about 25 films before going out of business. Asian American cinema did not come into its own until 1970s, on the heels of the civil rights movement. Asian American filmmaking evolved into so-called “triangular cinema,” signaling intent to make films that (1) contributed to building
Sumo East and West (Sun, Apr 4, 7:30pm) will make you fall in love with the sport.
Saigon, USA (Sun, Apr 4, 2:45pm) documents tensions in America’s largest Vietnamese community.
Asian American Cinema
We hear Asian languages, see the energy and pulse of a Chinatown or a Koreatown, feel the beat of modern fusion music, and smell the samosas being fried up at the Indian fast food shop.
Asian American community strength, (2) mobilized Asian American political activism, and (3) represented an Asian American aesthetic containing Asian American points of view and sensitive portrayals of Asian American characters and communities. Under the rubric of “triangular cinema,” several types of movies were made. One type was the documentary film that dealt with historical injustice and contemporary racism. These included Loni Ding’s The Color of Honor (1988), and Christine Choy’s and Renee Tajima’s Who Killed Vincent Chin? (1987). Several important Asian American experimental films also were made during this period. These films, typically dealing with identity, race, and gender, included such classics as Helen Lee’s Sally’s Beauty Spot (1990) and Shu Lea Chang’s Color Schemes (1989). A third type of Asian American film was the feature length drama such as Peter Wang’s A Great Wall (1986), Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala (1991), and Wayne Wang’s Joy Luck Club (1993). Even though it was the dramas that earned Asian American filmmakers popular and critical acclaim, as Asian American film scholar Jun Xing notes, documentaries remain the predominant genre
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of Asian American cinema today. This trend is reflected in the slate of films being screened at Wisconsin Film Festival this year. One of the common themes in the documentaries being screened this year is how new immigrants deal with myriad problems related to cultural adjustment. The frustrations of language acquisition, the confusion of dealing with legal issues, and the ache of nostalgic desire for “home” are some of the themes explored in the films. The documentaries also reveal the diversity within Asian America. Each Asian American group has varying points of origin, unique dilemmas, and different networks of community and family resources to tap. One might expect that Indian and Japanese immigrants, from cultures that are unrelated in almost every way, have little in the way of shared experiences as immigrants (aside from the fact that they are ex-patriots). But the documentaries also show that immigrants from the neighboring countries of Vietnam and Cambodia also have very different experiences. Asian American feature films also deal with issues of immigration and cultural
adjustment, but as film scholar Jun Xing notes, they place more emphasis than documentaries and experimental films on the Asian American aesthetic dimension of “triangular cinema.” Many of the films retain a sociopolitical edge by, for example, using humor and exaggeration to lay bare the racist logic of stereotypes or showing the arbitrary injustice of cultural discrimination. But in the feature films we also see genuine slices of Asian American life. We may hear Asian languages in everyday routine conversations, see the daily energy and pulse of a Chinatown or a Koreatown, feel the beat of modern Asian-American fusion music, or almost smell and taste the samosa being fried up at the Indian fast food shop. Asian American cinema is a fast growing, diverse, and complex form of cultural expression of fast growing, diverse, and complex ethnic communities with roots in Asia. The films are entertaining, thought provoking, and poignant. Above all, however, they provide audiences a sense of Asian life in America in the voice, with the vision, and from the perspective of Asian Americans themselves. ★