A still from “The Farewell”
By Vanessa Zimmer
Each May, we celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month across the United States.
At the Sundance Institute, we find this month a good time to appreciate and honor the AAPI voices in independent film. We particularly enjoy combing through our archives and rediscovering those films by AAPI directors that have informed and entertained us through the years.
Who could forget Justin Chon’s Gook or Nanfu Wang’s COVID documentary In the Same Breath? What about an elephant named Popeye or the multiple award–winning, warmhearted Minari?
Following are just a few of the AAPI-directed films with Sundance ties. We invite you to rediscover them as well.
Three Seasons (1999 Sundance Film Festival) — The first American film shot in Vietnam following the war, the sweeping and poetic Three Seasons by writer-director Tony Bui explores a changing Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) through the stories of four individuals. Three are Vietnamese, and they are connected to the three seasons of their country by the way they make their living. The fourth is an American, a soldier (Harvey Keitel) searching for the daughter he’s never seen. This film won the Grand Jury Prize, the Audience Award, and the Excellence in Cinematography Award in the Dramatic category at the Festival; it was supported by the Directors and Screenwriters Labs at the Sundance Institute in 1996. Available on DVD.
Saving Face (2005 Sundance Film Festival) — Wilhelmina (Michelle Krusiec) and her mother (Joan Chen) come from a traditional Chinese family in Queens, but both are secretly challenging their culture’s standards. Wil is a successful surgeon — and a lesbian romantically interested in a dancer (Lynn Chen). Ma is a widow — pregnant and adamantly not revealing the father. Writer-director Alice Wu’s “debut feature, Saving Face, is a delightful and inspired addition to the roster of films that take on the dynamics of family and love amid clashing traditional and contemporary mores,” Shari Frilot writes in the Festival Program Guide. Check viewing options here.
In Between Days (2006 Sundance Film Festival) — Aimie (Jiseon Kim) is a Korean teenager just recently immigrated to North America and discovering how to navigate this new life and culture. She falls for her best (and only) friend, Tran (Taegu Andy Kang), but she’s uncertain how — and whether — to express it. “In Between Days is the kind of distinctive filmmaking that leaves you enriched but also melancholy,” writes Trevor Groth in the Festival Program Guide. “It is at once a love story and a neorealist depiction of assimilation, as well as an exploration of intimacy, communication, and human need.” Directed and co-written by So Yong Kim, the film won a Special Jury Prize for Independent Vision at the Festival. Check viewing options here.
Gook (2017 Sundance Film Festival) — Two Korean American brothers run a struggling shoe store in Los Angeles, where 11-year-old Kamilla, a Black girl from the neighborhood, loves to hang out. It’s a fateful day in 1992, when the Rodney King verdict is delivered, and riots break out. “With humor, heart, and scrappy immediacy, writer/director/lead actor Justin Chon re-centers this moment in history to tell a story about a first generation of Korean Americans amid the chaos and complexity of a multiracial LA, where everybody is looking to survive on their own terms and their own values,” writes Kim Yutani in the Festival Program Guide. Winner of the Audience Award: Next, Presented by Adobe, and recipient of a Sundance Institute film grant. Check viewing options here.
Pop Aye (2017 Sundance Film Festival) — Thana, disenchanted with his work as an architect and his marriage unraveling, unexpectedly runs into an old friend one day in Bangkok. It’s his childhood pet, Popeye the elephant. A newly excited Thana and Popeye embark on a trip across Thailand to the small village where Thana grew up. In her feature debut, writer-director Kirsten Tan “deftly weaves the poignance and humor of Popeye and Thana’s journey with a series of indelibly beautiful cinematic images of the film’s gigantic star in this lyrical road-trip dramedy,” writes Heidi Zwicker in the Festival Program Guide. Tan won a Special Jury Award for her screenplay in the world cinema dramatic category at the Festival. Check viewing options here.
The Farewell (2019 Sundance Film Festival) — A Chinese American family decides not to tell their matriarch that she is terminally ill, instead planning a trip to China to see her by scheduling a wedding. Headstrong Billi (Awkwafina), who lives in New York, disagrees with the decision, and her family fears she will share the “secret” with her beloved grandmother. “A heartfelt celebration of both the way we perform family and the way we live it, The Farewell masterfully interweaves a gently humorous depiction of the good lie in action with a thoughtful exploration of how our cultural heritage does and does not travel with us when we leave our homes,” writes Heidi Zwicker in the Festival Program Guide. Writer-director Lulu Wang based the film, in part, on her own life experiences. Check viewing options here.
Minari (2020 Sundance Film Festival) — Minari burst out of the Sundance Film Festival gate, snagging a Grand Jury Prize and an audience award, and then a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Youn Yuh-Jung as the grandmother character — as well as Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Actor for Steven Yeun. The film is about a Korean American father (Yeun) who moves his wife and two young kids from the West Coast to rural Arkansas to start a farm. The sassy grandmother soon joins them from Korea. “Inspired by his own upbringing, writer-director Lee Isaac Chung creates a gorgeous, delicate American Dream story by infusing it with Korean melodrama and the playful charm of a Yasujirō Ozu film, as the Yi family embraces their highs and endures their lows,” Kim Yutani writes in the Festival Program Guide. Check viewing options here.
I Was a Simple Man (2021 Sundance Film Festival) — Writer-director Christopher Makoto Yogi has created a film about life and death, the visual and aural beauty of O‘ahu, and (in the words of the Festival Program Guide) nature as a “driving force and a spiritual indicator.” Family patriarch Masao (Steve Iwamoto) is nearing the end of his life, and the ghosts of his past, including his wife (Constance Wu), come to visit in this quiet film. This project received multiple forms of Sundance Institute support, including development at Directors and Screenwriters Labs and a Film Fund Grant. Check viewing options here.
In the Same Breath (2021 Sundance Film Festival) — Intrepid filmmaker Nanfu Wang, known for such brave documentaries as Hooligan Sparrow and One Child Nation, navigates sensitive territory once again, as she explores the origins of COVID-19 in Wuhan, China. “By detailing scores of firsthand Chinese and Americans interviews, Wang methodically builds a devastating indictment of leadership’s response to the pandemic, pointing to an unprecedented level of deception and ineptitude from the highest levels of government,” according to the Festival Program Guide. That’s in China and the United States. Winner of a Peabody Award. Check viewing options here.
Free Chol Soo Lee (2022 Sundance Film Festival) — Chol Soo Lee was a 20-year-old Korean immigrant wrongly convicted of a gang murder in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1973. He spent several years in prison before Korean American journalist K.W. Lee came to the younger man’s defense with a series of articles. “The intrepid reporter’s investigation would galvanize a first-of-its-kind pan-Asian American grassroots movement to fight for Chol Soo Lee’s freedom, ultimately inspiring a new generation of social justice activists,” according to the Festival Program Guide. Julie Ha and Eugene Yi directed the documentary. Check viewing options here.
Every Day in Kaimukī (2022 Sundance Film Festival) — Twentysomething Naz (Naz Kawakami) has lived his whole life in O‘ahu. He skateboards with his friends and hosts a radio show featuring emerging musicians. When his girlfriend takes a job in New York, Naz prepares to accompany her. “Even when dreaming about what life outside the island might look like, however, Naz wonders whether uprooting his world is the right decision, and if anywhere will ever really feel like home when he’s always been an eternal outsider,” according to the Festival Program Guide. Check viewing options here.