12 movies with Asian, Asian American and Pacific Islander women in the lead

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Keisha Castle-Hughes stars in “Whale Rider.” [Columbia TriStar photo]

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month in the United States, and this year, it comes at a time when those communities are seeing historic strides in popular culture even as violence and racism persists.

Experts report that violence against Asians and Asian Americans in the United States has grown over the past year of the COVID-19 pandemic, despite increased national attention and political action against anti-Asian hate, according to USA Today.

This comes even as the entertainment industry seems to be offering greater exposure to Asian and Asian American filmmakers, actors and stories. At this year’s Academy Awards, Youn Yuh-jung, the scene-stealing co-star of “Minari,” made history as the first Korean performer to earn an Oscar, as did Chinese filmmaker Chloe Zhao, who became the first woman of color to win best director for her drama “Nomadland.”

A teenager named Yi (voice of Chloe Bennet) helps a displaced yeti in DreamWorks Animation and Pearl Studio’s “Abominable,” written and directed by Jill Culton. [Universal Pictures photo]

Disney’s newest animated film, “Raya and the Last Dragon” features the Mouse House’s first Southeast Asian “princess.” The upcoming “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” puts an Asian hero, played by Simu Liu, in the spotlight for the first time in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with Awkwafina, Michelle Yeoh and Tony Leung in the supporting cast. And Olivia Munn, who is of Chinese-Vietnamese heritage, stars in the forthcoming South by Southwest hit “Violet” after years of playing supporting roles.

Despite these promising signs of improved representation, the movie business clearly has plenty of work to do on behalf of Asians, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. With the exception of blockbusters starring Dwayne Johnson, a new study found that Hollywood’s most popular movies have rarely featured Asians or Pacific Islanders in leading roles, Reuters reports.

Researchers at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found “an epidemic of invisibility” for Asians and Pacific Islanders (API) in films released from 2007 to 2019.

In the 1,300 top-grossing films in that time frame, 3.4% of leads or co-leads were played by API actors, compared to about 7.1% of the U.S. population that identifies as Asian or Pacific Islander.

Of the 44 films with API leads, 14 starred Johnson, whose mother is from the Pacific island of American Samoa.

Constance Wu in “Crazy Rich Asians.”

Only six movies featured a female API character in a lead role.

Along with under-representation and stereotypical and hyper-sexualized portrayals may have contributed to recent incidents of violence and harassment against Asians in the United States, the study found.

“Mass media is one factor that can contribute to aggression towards this community,” said USC professor Stacy L. Smith, founder and director of the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, per Reuters. “When portrayals erase, dehumanize, or otherwise demean the API community, the consequences can be dire. Without intention and intervention, the trends we observed will continue.”

Shuzhen Zhao, left, and Awkwafina star in “The Farewell.” [A24 photo]

Here are 12 movies that put female Asian, Asian American and Pacific Islander characters in the lead:

  1. “The Farewell”: Awkwafina earned a Golden Globe for playing a Chinese-American woman struggling with her family’s approach to death in writer-director Lulu Wang’s acclaimed drama.
  2. “Crazy Rich Asians”: The first Hollywood movie set in modern times to feature a mostly Asian cast since “The Joy Luck Club,” Jon M. Chu’s 2018 romantic comedy was a critical and commercial hit.
  3. “Whale Rider”: At 13, Keisha Castle-Hughes became the youngest performer at that time to be nominated for a best actress Oscar for her turn as a Māori girl whose ambitions of becoming chief clash with her grandfather’s traditional views.
  4. Most Hayao Miyazaki movies: Japanese animation icon Hayao Miyazaki, co-founder of Studio Ghibli, is one of my all-time favorite filmmakers. His must-see titles include “Spirited Away,” “Ponyo,” “My Neighbor Totoro,” “Howl’s Moving Castle” and “Princess Mononoke.”
  5. “The Joy Luck Club”: Wayne Wang’s 1993 adaptation of Amy Tan’s novel centers on four Chinese-American families in San Francisco.
  6. “Abominable”: A beautifully rendered co-production between DreamWorks Animation and China’s Pearl Studio, the 2019 family adventure follows a Chinese girl as she returns a young displaced yeti to his mountain home.
  7. “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”: Taiwanese director Ang Lee’s 2000 martial arts epic was an international smash that won four Oscars, brought new interest in Asian cinema to the West and featured Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi alongside Chow Yun-fat and Chang Chen.
  8.  “Mulan”: The beloved 1998 animated film was considered groundbreaking in its day. Last year’s live-action remake can’t quite measure up, but it boasts solid performances, engaging action sequences and stunning visuals.
  9. “Moana”: There’s no telling how far the title character, the determined daughter of the chief of a Polynesian village, will go to save her people in Disney’s tuneful oceanic adventure.
  10. “Always Be My Maybe”: Co-writers and co-stars Ali Wong and Randall Park winningly play childhood friends who reunite in this uproarious rom-com.
  11. “Lilo & Stitch”: The animated Disney favorite follows a rowdy extraterrestrial who crash-lands on a small Hawaiian island and learns about “ohana” (or “family”) from a pair of struggling sisters.
  12. “Over the Moon”: Beautifully drawing on Chinese myth, the kaleidoscopic movie musical from Disney animation legend Glen Keane (“Beauty and the Beast”) follows brainy teen Fei Fei (Cathy Ang), who makes an mystical journey to the Moon in a homemade rocket.

-BAM

 

 

 

 

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