This Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, I took it upon myself to watch more Asian cinema because, truthfully, international movies are not usually my first choice when settling down for the night. As I am not an expert, these may not be the greatest of the greats. If you love any films from a country I’ve yet to watch, feel free to leave a recommendation in the comments.
27 Steps of May (2018)
dir. Ravi L. Bharwani
In the opening scene of 27 Steps of May, a teenage May (Raihaanun) walks home from a fair by herself. Although it is not immediately clear to this non-Indonesian individual, the eventual gang rape that May experiences on her walk home is part of a series of targeted attacks against Chinese-Indonesians. Now known as the May 1998 riots of Indonesia (or the 1998 tragedy), an economic collapse within the country triggered violent outbreaks. Shaken up and traumatized, May returns home to her almost equally distressed father (Lukman Sardi).
Eight years pass and May has isolated herself from the world. She occupies a single room for most of the day – her bedroom that doubles as her office. By day, she and her father work a two-person assembly line in their own home, crafting and dressing premade dolls that are delivered to the house each day. At night, May stays home while her father boxes in back alley competitions, but it isn’t the victory or the money that is worth physically taxing his body as he gets older. Consumed by guilt for not being able to protect his daughter the night she was raped, boxing is his method for dealing with the shame and resentment he feels.
On their own timelines and in their own ways, father and daughter learn to overcome their shared trauma. 27 Steps of May handles the sensitive topic of trauma and its aftermath in a respectable way, showing that the healing process is not always linear. When May meets her neighbor through a hole in the wall of her bedroom, she slowly forges a trusting friendship, but when their hands touch through the whole, she backpedals even further than where she began. Still fearful of others, May isn’t quite ready to leave her bare room. And her father questions if she will ever be ready.
27 Steps of May is streaming on Netflix.
Eat Drink Man Woman (1994)
Country: Taiwan & USA
dir. Ang Lee
Ang Lee invites us to his home country in Eat Drink Man Woman, which is his only film shot entirely in Taiwan. Following the lives of the Chu family composed of widowed retired-chef, Chu, (Shihun Lung) and his three daughters who all live in their childhood home together, the film explores the progression of the daughters' lives as they leave the nest.
The oldest daughter Jia-Jen (Keui-Mei Yang), a reserved and recently religious school teacher, becomes infatuated with the new volleyball coach. The second oldest Jia-Ning (Yu-Wen Wang) dreamed of becoming a chef like her father but was discouraged by him because she is a woman and is now a big wig airline executive. The baby of the family, Jia-Chien (Chien-Lien Wu), works in fast food while she attends college. Kind-hearted and innocent, she befriends and consoles a boy being strung along by her friend.
Chu also receives his own storyline, and rightfully so. When needed, he returns to the kitchen that he once ran with his best friend. And in the most superior subplot of the film (maybe in cinema as a whole), Chu cooks extravagant school lunches for his young neighbor when he notices that the girl either buys her lunch or takes what her mom packs her (admittedly sustainable but not at all scrumptious).
Eat Drink Man Woman has been my favorite watch in this series thus far. Although embarrassingly wacky and tragically depressing at times, this film still manages to feel like a warm embrace.
Eat Drink Man Woman is available to rent on Amazon Prime for $3.99 and streaming for free on Pluto and Tubi.
In Between Days (2007)
Countries: South Korea, USA & Canada
dir. So Yong Kim
Premiering at Sundance in 2006 and earning the Special Jury Prize, So Yong Kim’s directorial debut In Between Days was an immediate darling.
Aimie (Jiseon Kim) is a high schooler who has recently moved from South Korea to Canada with her mother (Bokja Kim). Not fully comfortable speaking English and suffering from the self-conscious awkwardness that all teenagers must trudge through, Aimie only has one friend: Tran (Taegu Andy Kang), a fellow student with whom she can speak her native language. Many aspects of Aimie’s life are a toss-up (hence the title In Between Days). Not only does she struggle to adjust to a new school, but Aimie must adjust to a new country with a busy mother and absent father.
Despite Tran introducing Aimie to fellow Asian classmates, she still feels detached from the group as they are more assimilated – the cherry on top being one of the other girls who has her eyes set on Tran. Throughout the film, Aimie and Tran’s relationship toes the line between platonic and romantic, influencing Aimie to prioritize the wrong things in life.
In Between Days is a charmingly honest depiction of a coming of age inspired by her own young adulthood. Nearly all shots are hand-held, long lens, and close-ups focused entirely on Aimie, giving In Between Days a cinéma verité and personal feel. I had to pause the movie five minutes in to make sure that I chose a narrative film for this write-up. Upon further research, the mostly teenage cast also improvised the majority of the scenes. Although it is not a groundbreaking film, In Between Days’ distinct and low-budget style that emphasizes Aimie’s isolation and blossoming feelings for her friend is a time machine that can suck you back into high school for better or for worse.
In Between Days is streaming on The Criterion Channel.
Chutney Popcorn (1999)
dir. Nisha Ganatra
Indian-American films about family and motherhood are few and far between – even fewer exist that emphasize LGBT+ voices. When I found out that every above-the-line position in Chutney Popcorn was headed by a woman, I knew I had to watch it.
With her family and girlfriend regarding her as a selfish and irresponsible person due to her commitment to her photography, Reena (Nisha Ganatra) commits to a weighty altruistic act. She volunteers to be a surrogate for her older sister, Sarita (Sakina Jaffrey), who recently learned she cannot conceive. This decision sends shockwaves through Reena’s relationships. Her mother (Madhur Jaffrey) hopes that carrying a child will “fix” Reena’s sexuality. Sarita questions whether or not she wants her sister to be her child’s biological mother. And Reena’s girlfriend, Lisa (Jill Hennessy), discovers that surrogacy may become an obstacle in their relationship.
Although colorful, entertaining, and progressive for its time, Chutney Popcorn does have its flaws. All supporting characters are white despite Reena living in New York City which could be a nod toward a hypothetical attempt for Reena to assimilate into American culture. However, with a mere 92-minute runtime, Reena and Sarita’s experience with being Indian-American is not really touched on in order to prioritize the busy plot. The resolution is tear-jerking but, at the same time, unsatisfying.
I could see this being re-made into a successful mini-series in order to give each subplot room to breathe and wrap up in its own time. In fact, I’d love to see this re-made. The theme of family is Chutney Popcorn’s strength and how Reena’s perception of herself is dependent on how her mother and sister treat her. Relatable and a spotlight for minority voices, Chutney Popcorn is a pertinent watch even twenty-some years later.
Chutney Popcorn is streaming on Amazon Prime.
Hungry for more movies from Asian filmmakers? Do not fret! I will be back this month with a second installment.