Arts & Life

What to watch: AAPI Heritage Month recommendations

May 30, 2022, 8:26 p.m.

May is National Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, honoring the history and culture of AAPI communities around the world. To uplift AAPI voices, The Daily’s writers share their recommendations on films and TV shows that tell AAPI stories.

Everything Everywhere All at Once” (2022). Recommended by Eric Zhu ’25. Directed by DANIELS. In theaters now.

Everything Everywhere All at Once” is a trippy, hilariously self-aware, beautiful multiverse action movie filled to the brim with carefully curated chaos. Behind the film’s innovative blending of genres and unorthodox multimedia shots and action sequences is, at its core, the story of an Asian American family. The film begins and ends with Evelyn Wang, a Chinese American laundromat owner and mother to Joy Wang, a lesbian teenager. Through her supernatural journey, Evelyn fights not only evil IRS workers from other dimensions but also her own self-doubt and unwillingness to accept her daughter’s identity. The movie tackles controversial and complex themes of Asian American stereotypes in creative and far out ways that immerse the viewer in an absurd, over-the-top multiverse.

Evelyn’s identity in the main universe presents a relatable narrative of a Chinese working-class immigrant. In this universe, Evelyn’s marriage is crumbling and she has to work long hours to put money on the table. The Evelyns in the alternate universes where she goes on to live out her dreams represent the American Dream. In one particular recurring universe, Evelyn goes on to fulfill her dream of becoming a famous singer. Her life here is filled with wealth and success, representing an idealized world in which the idea that anyone can become anything through hard work is realized. The contrast between her glamorized alternate life and her reality tempt her into remaining a different version of herself, which she ultimately rejects due to her love for her daughter. 

“Everything Everywhere All at Once” is an authentic and moving story of the Asian American experience that ventures far outside the bounds of realism. Even with its innovative unorthodoxy and hot-dog-finger dimensions, I felt a personal connection with the movie throughout every moment of its story.

Minari” (2020). Recommended by Kristofer Roland Nino ’25. Directed by Lee Isaac Chung. Watch on Showtime. 

Tender, heartbreaking and true to the Korean American experience, “Minari” is a film that takes its time to paint a small but intimate family portrait that is placed within the wide landscape of the American Dream. Through gorgeous cinematography and poignant performances, the movie explores the life of a Korean American family settling in the rural Ozarks, in search of their own piece of happiness. On their way to that dream, they face setbacks and family tensions — and throughout, the story never drags its feet. The plot has a perfect balance of humor, hardship and hope. Each family member’s performance carries its own weight — the parents, grandmother and children each bring unique brightness to the screen.

While “Minari” is set in the 1980s, it doesn’t default to nostalgia, instead paving its own path through the period with clever writing, expertly crafted imagery and raw, honest performances. It’s a film that will feel deeply familiar to many Asian Americans and embodies many of the sacrifices and beauties of the immigrant experience. Overall, “Minari” defies formula by representing Asian Americans, but also by simply focusing on the humanity of its characters.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” (2021). Recommended by Kristofer Roland Nino ’25 . Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton. Watch on Disney Plus.

It was about time there was an Asian American superhero! While “Shang-Chi” breaks ground culturally with its stellar cast comprised of mostly Asians and Asian Americans, it is also a genuinely entertaining watch that manages to have both the spectacle of a typical superhero flick and a surprising amount of heart.

The film follows Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) and his journey to stop Wenwu (Tony Leung), his father and the leader of a crime syndicate called the Ten Rings. Through this adventure, he teams up with his best friend, Katy (Awkwafina) and his sister, Xu Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), and uses his martial arts to stop the Ten Rings from unleashing a great evil. “Shang-Chi” is a fun romp, with excellent humor and impressive martial arts choreography. While the second half of the film does somewhat taper into a typical Marvel, CGI battle, I believe its merits outshine its flaws. Simu Liu gives a stand-out performance as a new superhero, and is complemented well by Awkwafina’s comedy. Furthermore, the film’s villain, Wenwu, is one of the most compelling in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with heartbreaking motivations for why he is fighting against his son.

Saving Face” (2004). Recommended by Peyton Lee ’24. Directed by Alice Wu ’90 M.S. ’92. Watch on Hulu.

After receiving two computer science degrees from Stanford and working at Microsoft, Alice Wu ’90 M.S. ’92 decided — naturally — to write and direct her very first feature-length film. And how lucky we are that she did. “Saving Face” is a heartfelt treatise on the Chinese American experience that effectively combines both cultural appreciation and a compelling story. Based loosely on Wu’s own experience coming out to her mother, the film follows Wil (Michelle Krusiec) as she navigates her professional, romantic and familial lives. While juggling her career as a surgeon and her relationship with dancer Vivian (Lynn Chen) should be difficult enough, her life is turned upside-down when her mother (Joan Chen) is abruptly disowned by Wil’s grandfather for being pregnant out of wedlock.

Critically, Wu infuses discussions of Chinese culture into her narrative. Rejecting big studios’ offers in fear of losing her voice, Wu sought to project her personal experience in the Taiwanese American community onto the silver screen. Wil’s relationship with her mother and the draconian expectations of the family’s social circle are refreshing, evocative portrayals of Chinese social culture. Yet the movie remains accessible: Wu employs romcom conventions — including at least one major plot twist — but subverts traditional romcom expectations. The mastery of “Saving Face” lies in the balance and synergy between all these concepts, a truly remarkable achievement that makes it enjoyable for all.

Your Lie in April” (2015). Recommended by Linda Liu ’25. Directed by Kyohei Ishiguro. Watch on Hulu.

Growing up in an Asian culture, I have always been surrounded by anime-lovers, but I scoffed at the genre. I saw it as detached from reality or containing too many cliches based on the snippets that I had seen from my sister’s computer screen. But when my friend introduced me to “Your Lie in April” over winter break, I felt as if my life was changed.

The 22-episode anime series traces the growth of the 13-year-old former piano prodigy Kosei Arima, who becomes unable to hear the notes he plays after the death of his mother. Kaori Miyazono, a free-spirited violinist, walks into his world and helps him rediscover his love for music and reshape his understanding of music from being dictated by composers to a free medium through which one can send desired messages to listeners.

“Your Lie in April” is brilliant in its ability to entrance the audience with such a simple and seemingly cliched storyline of a middle-school romance and a musician’s personal growth. It is also a feast for the ears, containing masterful renditions of famous classical solo pieces. As a musician who has struggled to find joy in playing music for a year since losing access to ensembles at the start of the pandemic, I was touched by the expression in the music and transformed by the anime’s main theme. Regardless of skill level, at the heart of every musician’s mission is a devotion to communicating with listeners via harmonies delivered through their unique touch.

Kumu Hina” (2014). Recommended by Kirsten Mettler ’23. Directed by Joe Wilson and Dean Hamer. Watch on Tubi.

I first watched “Kumu Hina” for “Race, Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary American Film,” taught by former American Studies Lecturer William Gow. The documentary explores the intersection of colonization and gender by following Hina, a third gender (or “māhū”) hula teacher. Hina is as lovable as can be, as she works to mentor Ho’onani, a student who wants to join the school’s all-male hula group despite their assigned-at-birth identity. We also observe Hina’s life as the island continues to be developed for tourism and she struggles in her relationship with a man from Tonga.

Documentaries really sing when they are both educational and compelling. “Kumu Hina” expertly zooms in and out to educate viewers deeply about Hina’s life but also about the larger context of gender conception in Hawaii. Māhū, or “the in-between,” are cultural and spiritual leaders who embody male and female spirits. When Western missionaries came to Hawaii, they gave the term “māhū” a derogatory connotation and spread binary conceptions of gender identity. Through Hina’s experiences, we see the impact that this history has on the everyday lives of people in Hawaii. This learning feels intimate, like a conversation, as Hina gifts viewers with an unfiltered view of her life and her home.

Eat, Drink, Man, Women” (1994). Recommended by Kirsten Mettler ’23. Directed by Ang Lee. Watch on Tubi.

This film follows famous and aging chef Zhu and his three daughters as the family moves into new stages of their lives. Zhu faces his impending retirement as time deteriorates his senses, and he feels increasingly lonely when his daughters move out and start their independent, adult lives. Set in Taipei, “Eat, Drink, Man, Woman” is a fresh and moving exploration of love, family and adulthood.

I’ve probably watched the movie a half dozen times, but each watch just makes me like it more. The characters are painfully relatable. Zhu is grumpy and withholding, but makes your heart melt as he works to take care of his family friend’s daughter, Shan-Shan, in the only way he knows how — with food. I personally connect most with Jia-Chien, Zhu’s middle child, as she struggles to balance work with family. Every character in this film is so moving and three-dimensional that anyone can find a figment of themselves in “Eat, Drink, Man, Women.”

Never Have I Ever” (2020). Recommended by Kirsten Mettler ’23. Created by Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher. Watch on Netflix.

Corny teen romance? I’m there. “Never Have I Ever” is a Netflix Original series following first-generation Indian American teenager Devi as she navigates love, friendship and the death of her father. Devi makes mistake after mistake: choosing love over her friends, going for the popular guy instead of the crush right in front of her and picking fights over the little things. Yet, even as Devi fails time and time again, we are right there with her, remembering the pain of our teenage years.

“Never Have I Ever” is certainly not the best show of all time, and I’d say the first season was significantly better than the ones that have followed, but it is a sweet, enjoyable watch, perfect for plowing through in a weekend.

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and contains subjective opinions, thoughts and critiques.

Kristofer Nino is a writer for the Arts & Life section. contact arts 'at' stanforddaily.comEric Zhu '25 is a writer for the Arts & Left section. He is a freshman from New York City interested in Data Science and Symbolic Systems. In his free time, he enjoys playing basketball and playing the one song he knows on the ukulele. Contact The Daily’s Arts & Life section at arts ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.Kirsten Mettler '23 is the Managing Editor for Arts & Life. She is the former desk editor for Vol. 259 Academic News and writes for both News and Arts & Life. Contact The Daily’s Arts & Life section at arts ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.Peyton Lee '24 is a Managing Editor for The Stanford Daily's Arts & Life section. His interest is classical music performance, but he also enjoys pop, R&B, and jazz. Contact Peyton at plee 'at' stanforddaily.comYuanlin (Linda) Liu ‘25 is a writer for the Opinions section of the Stanford Daily. Contact her at opinions 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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