Empowered. That’s how I felt watching the unprecedented number of East, Southeast and West Asian American films at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. With Everything Everywhere All at Once scoring the most Oscar nominations of any film this year, the celebration of Asian American independent films at Sundance is a long time coming. For independent filmmakers, Sundance is one of the biggest film festivals for securing distribution, marketing and publicity. Films like Better Luck Tomorrow (2002), The Farewell (2019), and Minari (2020) all premiered at Sundance. This year also saw the first official AAPI house at Sundance, the Sunrise Collective, organized by Daniel Dae Kim, Gold House and The Asian American Foundation (TAAF).
This year also saw an incredibly diverse slate of Asian American films at Sundance with Nam June Paik: Moon is the Oldest TV, The Persian Version, Jamojaya, The Accidental Getaway Driver, Shortcomings, and When You Left Me On That Boulevard. While the protagonists come from different class, generational and ethnic backgrounds, they share a common thread of depicting what it’s like to be an outsider.
Read on for highlights from six new films.
Nam June Paik: Moon is the Oldest TV
Avante garde artist Nam June Paik owned being an outsider. Featured in the CAAM-funded documentary Nam June Paik: Moon is the Oldest TV (directed by Amanda Kim), Paik was a visionary and eccentric artist often dismissed by critics. Born in Korea in 1932, Paik studied music in Germany in his 20s and immigrated to the United States in his 30s to become the founder of video art. Paik recognized early on that Asians were misrepresented in Hollywood, writing in 1970: “most Asian faces we encounter on the American TV screen are either miserable refugees, wretched prisoners or hated dictators.” He spent his career countering anti-Asian stereotypes through his words (narrated by actor Steven Yeun in the documentary), his iconoclastic musical and artistic performances, and through his video art featuring a diversity of images including traditional Korean folk dancers. Besides centering Asians, Paik also decentered western culture by destroying revered western instruments like the piano (which he physically bashed on stage) and the violin (which he filmed himself pulling on a string behind him like a dog on a leash) in his video art. Though Paik only enjoyed critical and material success later in life, his contributions to the art world are widely regarded as seminal to the field. We need more stories of Asian American artists–and Nam June Paik’s is essential viewing.
The Persian Version
The Persian Version also tells the story of an outsider artist: Leila, a fictional alter ego for writer-director Maryam Keshavarzis played by Layla Mohammadi. Early on in the film, Leila proudly proclaims: “I never fit in anywhere–too Iranian in America and too American in Iran.” Similar to Nam June Paik, Leila embraces her liminality as a queer Iranian American woman director striving to find success, love and acceptance. Her biggest challenge is relating to her traditional immigrant mother who has her own story to tell. Winner of the Sundance U.S. Dramatic Audience Award and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award,The Persian Version is a joyously poignant story that spans continents and delivers just the right blend of intergenerational trauma, revelation, and heart. Not to be missed: the colorful dance sequences throughout, especially “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.”
Directed by Justin Chon, Jamojaya features another struggling Asian artist. James, an up-and-coming Indonesian rapper played by real life Indonesian rap star Brian Imanuel, battles institutional and personal demons to break into the U.S. music scene. While recording an album in Hawaii at the request of his new American record label, James’ father (played by Yayu A.W. Unru) surprises him with a visit, causing his current and past lives to clash. Throughout the film his white American manager, music video director and record label executive dismiss his style, his hair, and his artistry, often in simplistic broad strokes. But the heart of the film is James’ love/hate relationship with his father, by far the most interesting character in the film. For fans of Chon’s previous films Gook, Ms Purple, and Blue Bayou (first two also premiered at Sundance), Jamojaya hits similar tones of anguish and heartbreak.
The Accidental Getaway Driver
Estrangement from society, from family, and from oneself makes for the ultimate outsider protagonist in The Accidental Getaway Driver. The film, directed by Sing J. Lee (winner of the Sundance Directing Award for U.S. Dramatic), centers on an elderly Vietnamese American immigrant driver (Long, played by Hiep Tran Nghia) who unknowingly picks up three escaped convicts and becomes their hostage. When his life is threatened, Long has a dream sequence in which his estranged wife appears to him and says (in Vietnamese): “Do not dance in place with your shadow, dance it somewhere new.”
He responds, “It’s too late.”
She asks, “Is it?” Forced out of his previous lonely life, Long forges an unlikely paternal relationship with one of the convicts played movingly by Dustin Nguyen. As a result, two outsiders find kinship in one another.
What happens when outsiders get together and fall apart? This is the story of Shortcomings’ deeply flawed Asian American characters. From a screenplay by Adrian Tomine, based upon his comic of the same name, Shortcomings is Randall Park’s directorial debut. Randall Park told me that he sees Shortcomings as “progress” in Asian American representation because the story “felt like this glimpse into a life” that he’s “never seen reflected in movies and TV” when it comes to Asian Americans who are “kind of shitty.” The main character Ben (played by Justin Min), is an endearing asshole to everyone around him, especially his girlfriend Miko (played by Ally Maki) and his best friend Sherry Cola. After watching a glitzy Asian American film that is an obvious reference to Crazy Rich Asians, Ben says to Miko, “There wasn’t a real character in the entire movie.”
Miko asks, “What’s a ‘real character’?”
Ben answers: “Like a human being with flaws.”
Miko then responds, “Okay so like you?”
Ben exclaims, “Yes, like me!”
This meta scene set the tone for the film, whose cast of flawed Asian Americans made me laugh, cringe and self-reflect. Especially fun were the cameos from Crazy Rich Asians alumni like Ronny Chieng and Sonoya Mizuno and Everything Everywhere All At Once’s Stephanie Hsu. By assembling a rich cast of Asian Americans, Shortcomings seemed to say: recognize our full humanity, not just the beauty but the flaws too. Set in San Francisco and New York, where Asian Americans have sizable populations, the film’s Asian American characters move with an insider ease even as they struggle with outsider questions of identity, interracial relational politics and belonging. Overall, Shortcomings is a successful directorial debut for Randall Park, whose on-screen persona has long been the lovable imperfect Asian American.
When You Left Me On That Boulevard
Speaking of centering Asian American communities, the winner of the Sundance Short Film Grand Jury Prize–When You Left Me On That Boulevard–perfectly documents a day in the life of a Filipino American teenage girl at a large family gathering. Written and directed by Kayla Abuda Galang, this short film is (in her words) a “collective tribute to a time and place and the warm and suffocating embrace of family when you are a teenager.” I appreciate how Galang does not subtitle nor translate the Tagalog spoken by the aunties in the film. As a result, audiences who do not understand Tagalog are the outsiders looking in. The centering of an Asian American community is made complete.
More Asian American Films
Other films worth mentioning include Fremont (dir. Babak Jalali), a poignant black and white film about a young Afghan immigrant woman who leaves her number in one of the fortunes she writes for her job at an Asian American family-owned fortune cookie factory in San Francisco, and Polite Society (dir. Nida Manzoor), an exuberant debut film about a South Asian Muslim British schoolgirl who is obsessed with martial arts and concots a mission to rescue her sister from marrying a suspiciously perfect man.
Whenever people asked me about what the success of Crazy Rich Asians means for the Asian Americans community, I’d respond that we need a diversity of stories that cover the multitude of Asian American communities. This Sundance film festival, I witnessed a diversity of Asian American films crossing continents, class, ethnicity, religion, language, gender, sexualities, and more. I resonated with the characters’ need for love and belonging vis-a-vis intergenerational trauma, xenophobia and bigotry. I am encouraged by the abundance of Asian American stories and talent, knowing there are so many more out there yet to be shared. While we may be outsiders to some, our stories are anything but.
Nancy Wang Yuen is a sociologist and author of Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism.