As an Asian American growing up in the conservative South, I’ve struggled to embrace my identity and heritage, turning to books, movies, and games for expression and validation. While my white classmates had a plethora of Caucasian cinema to connect to, I strained to see myself reflected on screen and grimaced at the blatant misrepresentation and overtly caricatured content available.
From the offensive, cringy character of Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles to the glaringly abhorrent reinforcement of the white savior complex and orientalism in Indiana Jones to numerous instances of yellowface and whitewashing (a la Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell), Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have consistently been stereotyped and dehumanized in Hollywood.
With the recent surge in violence and anti-Asian hate crimes spurred by the pandemic (an increase of more than 164% within the first quarter of 2021) and the sheer distortion and lack of composition in media, the entertainment industry can no longer passively permit movies with racist, xenophobic undertones and must actively combat bigotry as well as vary its stories, professionals, and viewpoints. It’s time to move beyond the Asian immigration trope or model minority generalization and focus on raw, poignant narratives that celebrate Asian culture not simply as a medium that must be recognized and accepted, but as reality, as truth – as a truly holistic experience of these diverse individuals and perspectives.
In honor of these unique communities and the upcoming Lunar New Year, here are twelve films created by and/or starring AAPI talent that spotlight Asian heritage and empower Asian American youth, causing my inner child to beam with pride.
Despite the controversy surrounding the 2020 live-action reboot and the original’s problems regarding the Westernization of Chinese culture, Mulan’s groundbreaking social significance as Disney’s first picture to illustrate a strong, female Asian lead voiced by an Asian actress and based on an Asian legend cannot be understated, as it continues to resonate and inspire AAPI children. I still get chills from Reflection and honestly, who doesn’t love blasting I’ll Make a Man Out of You in the car?
Released in 2016, Moana made massive waves at the box office and in society; six years later, it’s still making an enormous cultural splash. With its catchy, colorful songs, gorgeous animation, and fierce, relatable female protagonist, there’s no telling how far you’ll go in your number of rewatches.
- raya and the last dragon
Visually stunning, emotionally compelling, and packed with A-list talent featuring Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Sandra Oh, Benedict Wong, and Daniel Day Kim, Disney’s latest film before Encanto – another revolutionary masterpiece – stars Kelly Marie Tran as the titular heroine in a beautifully rendered story of friendship, family, trust, and growth. Slightly darker and grimmer than previous installments, Raya furthers Disney’s shift from the traditional princess storyline and heterosexual romance (there is undeniable sexual tension between Raya and her nemesis, Namaari) to powerful, complex characters and dynamic worlds that genuinely feel real and lived in.
- over the moon
One of my favorite non-Disney films, this endearing Academy Award-animated musical follows Fei Fei, a high-spirited girl who tries to prove the existence of the moon goddess during the Mid-Autumn Festival. Rooted in traditional Chinese folklore and saturated with rich, vibrant Asian culture, Over the Moon is a moving, visceral depiction of grief, loss, and finding closure while honoring the memories spent with loved ones.
- studio ghibli films
Stylistic, potent, and mesmerizing, Studio Ghibli is one of the most acclaimed animation studios in the world, producing some of the most celebrated Japanese pieces such as Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, Ponyo, and Grave of the Fireflies. Seamlessly integrating staggering visuals with captivating, whimsical yet complex, and mature narratives, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata’s work is truly remarkable and breathtaking.
- big hero six
2015’s Oscar-winner for Best Animated Feature, this Marvel-comics-inspired story of the same name remains one of my top Disney films for its lovable cast, action-packed plot, and heart-wrenching narrative that warrants its daring risks. Enhanced by sharp, intuitive design and enthralling bops (Immortals is truly electrifying), Baymax and Co. join the Incredibles as some of the most memorable superheroes in animated cinema history.
- lilo & stitch
An instant classic and truly enjoyable account, this Academy Award nominee centered on the bond between two sisters and their new extraterrestrial companion highlights the Hawaiin ideology of ohana – the belief that family is deeper than blood-relation – or, as emphasized by the characters: “Ohana means family. Family means nobody gets left behind or forgotten.” As a Chinese adoptee, watching this film with my adopted sister and realizing that my non-traditional family was valid and worthy of compassion meant everything.
- kubo and the two strings
Set in ancient Japan, this mystical, Oscar-nominated stop-motion animation stands out for its dazzling craftsmanship and alluring depth augmented by eloquent performances and a transporting score. Intimately drawn and cleverly woven, Kubo artfully blends Japanese fiction with stirring philosophical explorations of love, destiny, and fantasy, immersing the viewer in its origami-inspired realm.
An aesthetically pleasing and imaginatively constructed co-production between DreamWorks Animation and China Pearl Studio, this family adventure follows a Chinese girl as she embarks on a journey across China to return a displaced yeti to his home in the Himalayas. Abominable’s themes of mourning and learning to move on as well as its thoughtful portrayal of Asian customs ground its coming-of-age premise in a charming, impactful manner.
- kung fu panda trilogy + spinoffs
Another Academy Award nominee and definite hit, the Kung Fu Panda series follows everyone’s favorite Dragon Warrior Po and the Furious Five as they protect ancient China from various threats reminiscent of Chinese mythos. Delightful, amusing, and strikingly profound at times, this franchise is full of laughs, touching moments, and lovable characters guaranteed to make you smile.
- wish dragon
Thoroughly engaging and acutely nostalgic, this Aladdin-esque film is well aware of its Mouse House comparison, as it combines elements of the traditional rags-to-riches storyline with contemporary aspects, transporting viewers from the Arabian Desert to modern-day Shanghai. What it lacks in originality, it makes up for in emotional capacity and personality, adeptly transforming the cliché formula into an enchanting, fresh adaptation of a familiar tale.
- Turning red
Directed by Domee Shi of the adorable, Oscar-winning short Bao and starring Rosalie Chiang, Sandra Oh, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, and Hyein Park, Pixar’s newest follows Mei Lee, a quirky, confident thirteen-year-old girl who turns into a giant red panda whenever she gets overly excited or anxious. Streaming exclusively on Disney+ on March 11th, this highly anticipated film is sure to deliver.