Updated: Aug 15, 2021
As AAPI month comes to a close, I’d like to shed some light on underrepresentation amongst Asian Americans and in Asian cinema. Culturally and historically, even up to today, East Asians and East Asian Americans have been the main source of representation for AAPI people in film. And for what it’s worth, Chinese and Korean cinema have been beasts of their own in terms of quality cinema produced over the years. From the likes of Sandra Oh and Lucy Liu, to the great directors Kar-wai Wong and Bong Joon-ho, most of the Asian films we appreciate have been done by East Asian filmmakers and actors themselves.
However, there is little talk and representation for Southeast Asians in film, much less South Asians. One could say there isn’t as much quality cinema produced from either or. One could also say that there still exist barriers and stigmatizations today against Asians who don’t have the porcelain white skin fit enough for the white aesthetic and majority in film. Both, I’d say, play a factor in this lack of Southeast Asians in film. On that note, I’d like to respond with 5 picks of fantastic Southeast Asian films to look out for and check out. We too have our gold nuggets, and we too are still valid Asians.
1. Lingua Franca (2019) dir. Isabel Sandoval
Directed by and starring a transgender Filipina-American woman, Isabel Sandoval’s film delves into an intricate and well-crafted story of an undocumented Filipina woman struggling to survive in America. The story revolves around Olivia, whose plans to get into a green card marriage get foiled, to which she finds herself involved with another man who’s unaware she’s transgender. The film tackles the ongoing issues of undocumented immigrants living in the US today with its sensual cinematography, and no holds barred on its emotional candor and intensity.
Lingua Franca is streaming now on Netflix.
2. Aruna & Her Palate (2018) dir. Edwin
A fun and comedic film about Aruna (Dian Sastrowardoyo), an Indonesian epidemiologist who uses her bird flu investigation as an excuse to savor the local cuisine around her in Indonesia. Though it's not without its romantic entanglement between its characters, it's a mouthwatering and comforting watch to have a laugh while getting that appetite going.
Aruna & Her Palate is streaming now on Netflix.
3. Float (2019) dir. Bobby Rubio
Float is another Filipino-American film (or short, for that matter), this time from Pixar, directed by Filipino-American filmmaker Bobby Rubio. A delicate take on the story of a father (Bobby Rubio) who finds out that his son (Eli Fucile) can float in the air, and what lengths he goes to to avoid judgment from those around them. Short, yet still manages to communicate a compelling message on what it means to be different and looked upon as such.
4. Furie (2019) dir. Lê Văn Kiệt
I’ve written about this film before. The lighting, the action choreography, and the fast-paced driven story as Hai Phuong (Veronica Ngô Thanh Vân) relentlessly pursues those who have kidnapped her daughter in a deal gone wrong- so many things that both make this film iconic and one of Vietnamese cinema’s finest to date. The purply action martial arts film about a mother who goes to great lengths to rescue her daughter back pulls at the heartstrings, while still offering the signature crass humor that has continuously defined Vietnamese film.
Furie is streaming now on Netflix.
5. After The Curfew (1954) dir. Usmar Ismail
The Indonesian War was a hard-fought 4 year war for Indonesia to gain independence from the Dutch Empire. Taking place in the post-war era, After The Curfew follows the story of a man who returns from the war and finds that his surroundings and community back home are vastly different from the things he’s learned and fought for in the war. Stunningly shot, and celebrated as one of the early defining Indonesian films, Ismail’s film tells a tender and intense story of accepting the differences between yourself and the society you make a home in.
After The Curfew is streaming now on Criterion Channel.