3 Best Asian American Experience Movies to Watch

Staff & contributors

The concepts of roads not taken and domino effects have received plenty of cinematic attention in their showier forms by way of multiverse comic book movies and dimension-hopping films like Everything Everywhere All At Once. But, though there’s no hint of sci-fi in Past Lives, Celine Song’s gentle film can count itself as one of the best treatments of that universe-spawning question: “what if?”

When her family moves from Seoul to Canada, teenage Na Young bids a loaded farewell to classmate Hae Sung and changes her name to Nora. Years later, they reconnect online and discover the spark still burns between them. This is no idealistic romance, though: Past Lives is told with sober candor. Song acknowledges real obstacles standing in the way of a relationship between the two — those pragmatic (distance) and, more painfully, personal (evolving personalities, American husbands).

Those two threads — unrealized romance and the transmutation of identity that so often takes place after migrating — are expertly entwined in Past Lives to produce a sublime, aching meditation on memory and time, practical love and idealistic romance, and all the complex contradictions that exist in between. That Song communicates so much and so delicately in only her first film makes Past Lives all the more stunning.

Genre: Drama, Romance

Actor: An Min-yeong, Chang Ki-ha, Chase Sui Wonders, Choi Won-young, Emily Cass McDonnell, Federico Rodriguez, Greta Lee, Hwang Seung-eon, Isaac Powell, Jack Alberts, Jane Yubin Kim, John Magaro, Jojo T. Gibbs, Kristen Sieh, Moon Seung-a, Moon Seung-ah, Seo Yeon-woo, Teo Yoo, Yim Seung-min, Yoon Ji-hye

Director: Celine Song

Rating: PG-13

Sandra Oh earned her breakout in this warm, candid Canadian indie, which — not uncoincidentally — shares its name with that of a decorative Chinese symbol associated with marriage. The movie’s title is also a reference to 22-year-old Jade Li’s (Oh) struggle to pursue her own ambitions and meet the clashing romantic and professional expectations her disapproving first-generation immigrant parents have for her. As she puts it, “Double happiness is when you make yourself happy and everyone else happy, too.”

An aspiring actress who dreams of playing Blanche DuBois, Jade is instead asked by unimaginative casting directors to adopt a pronounced Chinese accent for tiny bit parts. In essence, she’s typecast everywhere: on set, and at home, where she struggles to play the good daughter who’ll give up acting for a more conventional job and will only marry a man her parents approve of. It’s a jarring existence, but Double Happiness never feels claustrophobic because it gives Jade the freedom to finally be herself via witty, confessional monologues and fantasy sequences. There’s undoubtedly bittersweetness to this portrait of a young woman fighting to be herself on every front, but that it's nevertheless such an irresistibly charming, never-flippant watch is a testament to first-time director Mina Shum and Oh’s already mature talents.

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance

Actor: Alannah Ong, Callum Keith Rennie, Donald Fong, Frances You, Gene Kiniski, Sandra Oh, Stephen Chang

Director: Mina Shum

True to its name, Joy Ride is a raucous delight that has everything you want out of a road trip comedy and more. There’s love, sex, adventure, and even music, but most of all there’s friendship, the interesting complexities of which are explored against the backdrop of race. There’s something meaningful keeping everything together at the core, and first-time director Adele Lim—helped by a strong script and cast—does an excellent job of holding it down. The film is also just plain funny. There are physical gags and of-the-moment jokes, plus a couple of insider quips made for and by the Asian community. But apart from the hilarity and tenderness, the film also delivers in the visual department: it looks gorgeous, not only because the characters are tourists who embark on a jet-setting adventure, but because of the inspired animation and vibrant editing. 

Genre: Comedy

Actor: Alexander Hodge, Annie Mumolo, Ashley Park, Baron Davis, Chris Pang, Daniel Dae Kim, David Denman, Debbie Fan, Desmond Chiam, Isla Rose Hall, Kenneth Liu, Lori Tan Chinn, Meredith Hagner, Michelle Choi-Lee, Ronny Chieng, Sabrina Wu, Sherry Cola, Stephanie Hsu, Timothy Simons

Director: Adele Lim

Rating: R