Earlier this month, sociologist and writer Nancy Wang Yuen penned an essay for TODAY.com titled, “As an immigrant kid, I learned about Christmas from TV — and it nearly broke my heart.” Born in Taiwan, Yuen discovered Christmas after immigrating to America through films like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town. However, she was devastated upon realizing that her family’s Christmas was very different from the idealized “American” Christmas she saw on screen.
Her essay deeply touched me in a lot of ways. I feel lucky that I grew up with parents who loved celebrating Christmas and were intent on bringing holiday magic to my childhood every December. However, I definitely resonated with the exclusion Yuen felt from watching Christmas films. When I reflect on my own childhood movie favorites, they’re easy to recall. Films like How the Grinch Stole Christmas, A Charlie Brown Christmas, The Santa Clause and Elf – all of which had little to no representation of what Asian and Asian Americans looked like celebrating Christmas. No families that resembled my own.
Christmas often looks different for many Asian Americans, with some creating their own familial traditions and others not celebrating the holiday at all. However, the holiday is inescapable in American culture. Come December, you can bet you’ll hear talk of Christmas carols, Santa Claus and presents under the tree.
That’s why it’s all the more refreshing to see more and more films (and other forms of media) that showcase Asian American stories around the holidays. Yuen calls out a few in her essay: there is A Sugar & Spice Holiday on Lifetime and Hallmark’s Boyfriends of Christmas Past. One of my personal favorite holiday TV shows in recent years was Netflix’s Dash and Lily, which featured Japanese American actress Midori Francis. It’s worth noting that overall quality of these projects isn’t always consistent; some feel like they’ve pasted Lunar New Year decorations on top of a standard white Hallmark movie. However, there is no denying we’re starting to see more and more films that are showcasing the wide breadth of experiences around Christmas featuring Asian American families.
In this month’s Short Takes, we’re highlighting some of these new additions that you should be aware of. Happy Holidays from all of us at CAAM and we hope you enjoy checking out some of our suggestions below!
A Big Fat Family Christmas, Dir. Jennifer Liao
I’ve never been one for Hallmark Christmas movies but when I heard about A Big Fat Family Christmas, I knew I had to give it a chance. Directed by Jennifer Liao based on a script from Justine Wetzell-Chang, the film centers on an Asian American woman named Liv Rose Chang (played by Shannon Chan-Kent), a photojournalist for the San Francisco Chronicle who is determined to “make it” on her own terms. Insistent on keeping her work and family life separate, she shortens her name to Liv Rose in her professional pursuits and hides the fact that her parents are the masterminds behind one of the largest holiday parties in town. However, her worlds begin to collide when her boss assigns her and her new co-worker Henry (played by Shannon Kook) their first front page assignment: covering Liv’s family’s annual holiday party.
Sure, the film does have some over-the-top scenes and cringe-inducing moments that you might expect from a Hallmark movie. And forget about the whole topic of journalistic ethics – some writers at the San Francisco Chronicle actually dive into that subject in their writeup of the movie. But aside from all of that, I will admit there were a couple touching scenes and moments that made me reflect. For much of the beginning of the film, Liv seems embarrassed by her family and wants to avoid being associated with her parents’ loud and extravagant celebrations. However, with the help of her family and Henry, she slowly learns to embrace her Chinese heritage and her larger community. There’s a sweet moment toward the end of the film when her brother reminds her that she isn’t just Asian, nor is she just American. He tells her, “You know, you don’t have to be one thing or another. You can be everything you are.”
The film is not groundbreaking Asian American cinema but I’d argue that it doesn’t have to be. At the end of the day, I found it refreshing to watch a cheesy, heartwarming holiday film – with a vibrant and loud Asian American family featured right at the center.
A Hollywood Christmas, Dir. Alex Ranarivelo
Released on HBO Max earlier this month, A Hollywood Christmas centers on an up-and-coming filmmaker named Jessica (played by Jessika Van, star of CAAMFest 2015 Opening Night film Seoul Searching) who has found her niche in the filmmaking industry making Christmas movies. However, her world is rocked when a network executive named Christopher (played by Josh Swickard) shows up on the set of her latest film and informs her that the network is shutting down its Christmas movie division and Jessica may soon be out of a job.
Part of the charm and originality from this movie comes from the fact that it is very self aware. A Hollywood Christmas doesn’t just present the various Christmas movie tropes viewers know and love; it actively draws attention to them and even pokes fun at them at times. Toward the beginning of the film, Jessica’s quirky assistant (played by Anissa Borrego) even points out the irony in Jessica’s whole situation: Jessica isn’t just trying to save her own Christmas film, she may be starring in her own Christmas story (and romance) as well.
I was pleasantly surprised from watching A Hollywood Christmas and enjoyed most of the “meta” aspects that made the film feel more unique. The storyline (though predictable, as one would expect) was easy to follow and the performances from all of the leads are nothing short of stellar. I also appreciated how the film touched upon just why holiday movies are so beloved: though predictable and often cheesy with their formulaic storylines, Christmas movies bring a feeling of genuine love and joy that delight its audiences.
The Santa Clauses, Created by Jack Burditt
My family has a tradition of watching The Santa Clause every Christmas, so I was actually excited to hear about the release of The Santa Clauses on Disney+, a miniseries created by Jack Burditt which takes place after the film trilogy.
The TV show finds Scott Calvin (played by Tim Allen) on the brink of his 65th birthday, making the realization that he can’t be Santa forever. After deciding to retire, Scott begins looking for a suitable replacement Santa and initially lands on Simon Choksi (played by Gujarathi American actor Kal Penn), a game developer and single father who dreams of being a successful businessman in the tech world.
I’ve been really impressed by Penn’s performance as the character, and it’s so special to see an Asian American take on such a big role alongside a cast of characters from the original Santa Clause films that I grew up with. On the topic of landing this role in The Santa Clauses, Penn notes that he didn’t actually think about how Santa would be presented as a person of color while he embodied the role, he merely gravitated toward the arc of the character and the overall story the team was trying to tell.
“I think, oftentimes, Hollywood mistakes tokenization for representation. And this seems to be an example of real representation,” Penn told Metacritic in an interview last month. “Characters need to be grounded, and so, there’s no reason why the characters can’t reflect what we all look like today, in the America of 2022.”
Madeleine Fernando is a second-generation Asian American writer based out of New York City. A graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, she is currently a public relations specialist and freelance writer.