Celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month by Watching These Powerful Films and TV Shows

By Rosunnara RothLast Updated May 1, 2020 4:33:46 PM ET
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Photo Courtesy: Fox Searchlight Pictures/IMDb and Big Beach Films/IMDb

Representation matters. For decades in the entertainment industry, Asian Pacific Americans have been given roles that are often stereotyped. However, there have been more positive representations of Asian Pacific Americans in films and TV shows. There are also groundbreaking movies that are brilliant in quality or have made a big cultural impact. It's inspiring and important to see diverse faces and hear stories that haven't been told before.

With that being said, we’ve gathered a list of powerful and iconic films and TV shows to watch in honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.

The Joy Luck Club (1993)

In the early 1990s, studio executives insisted that people didn't want to see a film about Chinese-American women. They were wrong. Defying the odds, The Joy Luck Club banked $33 million at the box office with an impressive critical response in 1993.

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Photo Courtesy: Hollywood Pictures/IMDb

It brilliantly showcased complicated mother-daughter relationships and the sacrifices and hardships of immigrant parents. Most importantly, the tear-jerking movie is a reminder of how powerful personal stories can be.

The Joy Luck Club proved that diversity is important — and it sells at the box office. Despite this, there wasn't another major Asian-American Hollywood picture for 25 years until Crazy Rich Asians was produced.

Saving Face (2004)

Chinese-American Wil and her traditionalist mother are both in a dilemma: They don't want to break cultural taboos. However, the two have secret love lives. Wil is a lesbian, but her unaware mother keeps setting her up with bachelors. Wil's mom also shows up to her apartment unannounced to confess that she's pregnant. Who's the father?

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Photo Courtesy: YouTube Movies/YouTube

Directed by Alice Wu, Saving Face is a magical romantic comedy that highlights the journey of sexual identity and the challenges of upholding family honor. Although the film wasn't a box office hit, it influenced many Asian Pacific Americans in the entertainment industry, including Always Be My Maybe's Ali Wong.

The Namesake (2006)

The Namesake is an adaptation of ‎Jhumpa Lahiri’s best-selling novel of the same name. This film explores the conflicts of being Indian and American as well as the power of a name. It's also about the significance of family, love and identity.

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Photo Courtesy: Fox Searchlight Pictures/IMDb

Ashoke and Ashima (Irrfan Khan and Tabu), an Indian immigrant couple, steal the spotlight at the beginning of the film. However, the story eventually shifts to their American-born son, Gogol (Kal Penn). While Gogol works hard to fit in society, his parents stick to their traditional ways.

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (2018)

The letters are out. High-school junior Lara Jean Song Covey (Lana Condor) wrote secret love letters to five boys, but now they're mysteriously in the hands of her major crushes, including her sister's boyfriend.

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Photo Courtesy: Netflix/IMDb

Netflix's To All the Boys I've Loved Before is a fun love story featuring an Asian-American heroine at the front and center. Many fans love that she's just an ordinary teenager who doesn't fall into any stereotyped depictions of Asian women. Plus, it's not your typical teen movie in which the female protagonist needs a makeover at the end of the story.

Fresh Off the Boat (2015–2020)

In 2015, Fresh Off the Boat became the country's first Asian American TV show in more than 20 years. The comedy is based on the life of New York restaurateur and media personality Eddie Huang, who struggled with his identity at home and in society.

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Photo Courtesy: IGN/YouTube

Fresh Off the Boat shares experiences that many immigrant families can relate to, such as becoming citizens, the embarrassing lunch box moment and many cultural customs. Yet, the story is told from a unique perspective — that of a charming, hip-hop- and basketball-loving 11 year old.

Gook (2017)

Written and directed by actor Justin Chon, Gook boldly revisits the LA riots and offers a Korean-American point of view of racial tensions in 1992. After winning a film festival award, the independent movie was picked up by Samuel Goldwyn Films to be released in select theaters. However, Chon isn't in it for the money.

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Photo Courtesy: Birthday Soup Films/IMDb

"Let’s be honest, I’m not getting rich off this film. I did this because I feel like it matters," reveals Chon. Gook centers on two Korean-American brothers (David So and Chon) who own a shop and form an unlikely friendship with an African-American girl (Simone Baker). The three must protect the store amid the intense riots while facing challenges of racism and family.

Killing Eve (2018–Present)

What happens when you put an intelligent security operative and a psychopathic assassin together? A refreshing and thrilling TV show. Killing Eve is a fierce game of cat and mouse, featuring two women (Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer) who become obsessed with each other. Who will win this twisted game?

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Photo Courtesy: BBC/IMDb

Critics have given a standing ovation to the series, while fans call it "revolutionary." Oh became the first woman of Asian descent to be nominated for the Emmy Award for Best Lead Actress for her role as Eve in 2018. At the awards show, she proudly declared, "It's an honor just to be Asian."

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

Based on Kevin Kwan’s bestselling novel of the same name, Crazy Rich Asians made history as Hollywood's first blockbuster rom-com in 10 years. It took the world by storm, flashing the big screen with lavish mansions, expensive cars and extravagant parties. The game-changing film also caused some ugly crying in theaters.

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Beyond being a massive hit, Crazy Rich Asians is the first big Asian Hollywood film in 25 years. Plus, it kicked out stereotypical roles in favor of well-rounded, relatable Asian characters. The flick follows Chinese-American professor Rachel (Constance Wu) who learns that her boyfriend (Henry Golding) is the "Prince Harry of Asia."

The Farewell (2019)

This emotional film follows Chinese-American Billi (Awkwafina), who visits her grandmother Nai Nai in China. The problem? Everyone in the family is keeping a painful secret from the beloved matriarch — Nai Nai only has a few weeks left to live. Billi disagrees with the rest of her family, believing her grandmother should know her true fate.

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Photo Courtesy: Big Beach Films/IMDb

The equally heartbreaking and hilarious masterpiece captures the clashing of culture and multi-generational families. Despite dethroning Avengers: Endgame in earnings for the biggest theater average of 2019, The Farewell is more than just a successful movie. Lulu Wang, the film’s director and writer, explains, "It’s about loss, it’s about regret, it’s about guilt. It’s about gaps in communication, whether that’s geographical, or language, or cultural. It isn’t just about the way we look."

The Killing Fields (1984)

The Killing Fields is based on a true story that follows two journalists, Cambodian-American Dith Pran (Dr. Haing S. Ngor) and Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterston). The pair report the unforgettable horrors in Cambodia committed by the Khmer Rouge, a regime that killed two million people in the late ‘70s.

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Photo Courtesy: Goldcrest Films International/IMDb

Despite having no acting experience, Ngor won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal in the film. He was the first and only Asian man to receive that award.

The thrilling and deep story is about war and friendship. But most importantly, The Killing Fields honors those who died and those who survived. It also serves as a critical lesson to never repeat the mistakes of history.