Movies & TV Shows

15 Movies To Watch In Honor Of Asian And Pacific Islander American Heritage Month

For all of May, Asian Americans and Pacific Islander Americans celebrate their heritage. It is a special time for understanding culture and traditions as well as sharing those things with others. Movies have especially helped frame and interpret the entire experience.

Films are an important measure of how Asian and Pacific Islander Americans honor their heritage and form their legacy. They also paint a picture of what they have endured over the years in America.

Updated on May 25th, 2022 by Danielle Bruncati: May of each year brings a chance to celebrate and uplift the Asian American and Pacific Islander American communities. One of the best ways to celebrate the heritage month is to watch movies that feature AAPI cast and crew and that explore AAPI experiences. Thankfully, there are more movie options than ever before that do just that. From independent movies that dive deep into the AAPI experience to superhero blockbusters and family-friendly animated movies, there’s no excuse not to watch at least one AAPI-centered movie this month. 


Picture Bride (1995)

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Set in 1918, a young woman from Yokohama becomes a “picture bride” for a Japanese man working abroad in Hawaii. A picture bride is a woman who is married off to Asian men overseas, and their only correspondence beforehand is the exchange of photos.

RELATED: 10 Asian Horror Movies To Watch If You Liked The Grudge

When Riyo reaches Hawaii, she learns the man she’s marrying isn’t the one pictured in his photo. Now, she must work on the sugarcane plantation if she wants to earn enough money to win her freedom and return to Japan. Picture Bride is directed by Hawaiian-born Kayo Hatta.

American Pastime (2007)

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American Pastime tells a story set in the Topaz War Relocation Center in Utah. This internment camp held Japanese Americans captive during World War II. The movie depicts life in this specific camp; it is based on true events. The movie was even shot not too far from the actual camp.

This uplifting tale of dark times in America shows how imprisoned Japanese Americans dealt with their ordeal. This includes playing baseball and breaking cultural barriers. The movie is directed by Desmond Nakano.

Minari (2020)

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Minari The Yi family walking through the field of their farm

Written and directed by Lee Issac Chung, Minari is a semi-autobiographical movie about a South Korean family who immigrated to the rural United States in the 1980s. The movie doesn’t shy away from exposing the highs and lows of what it was like for Korean families trying to assimilate into American culture.

Minari was not only impactful to the Asian audiences who could relate to the story but to immigrants and audiences of all backgrounds. It went on to be nominated for 6 Academy Awards including Best Picture and won Best Supporting Actress.

Chan is Missing (1982)

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This black-and-white indie comedy revolves around a taxicab driver and his nephew searching for the man they left their life savings with—the titular Chan. As the two explore Chinatown in search of the missing Chan, they learn more about the man they apparently never knew.

RELATED: 10 Hilarious Indie Horror-Comedies You Probably Missed

Chan is Missing is regarded as a vastly undervalued and underseen slice of urban Chinese-American life in the 1980s. The movie is directed by Wayne Wang.

Better Luck Tomorrow (2002)

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Better Luck Tomorrow challenges preconceived notions and stereotypes about Asian Americans; the “model minority” myth is defied by palatable studies of fallible characters.

A straight-edge high school student named Ben becomes bored with his perfect life. When he meets the rebellious Daric, Ben gets involved in petty crime. The movie is directed by Justin Lin of Fast & Furious fame.

The Farewell (2019)

Watch On Hulu

The cast of The Farewell

Written and directed by Lulu Wang and distributed by A24, The Farewell is a heartfelt comedy-drama movie released in 2019. The movie follows a Chinese-American family who decides not to tell their dying grandmother that she is ill and instead gets the family together to spend the last of her good days by her side.

The Farewell offers an authentic look into the importance of family in Chinese-American culture since it is based on Wang’s own life experiences. Adding to the authenticity is the fact that the award-nominated movie is bilingual with dialogue spoken in both English and Mandarin Chinese.

The Tiger Hunter (2016)

Watch On Amazon Prime Video

Danny Pudi, best known for playing Abed in Community, stars as an Indian immigrant who moves to Chicago in the 1970s to pursue a better life. His father was highly regarded for killing a vicious tiger that menaced the village. To live up to his father’s legacy, Sami hopes to become a successful engineer in the U.S.

Sadly, Sami can only get a lowly job that he believes will disappoint his family and the woman he loves back home. In time, he realizes success isn’t necessarily measured by one’s occupation. The Tiger Hunter is directed by Lena Khan.

Gook (2017)

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Actor turned director Justin Chon also stars in this emotional story set around the “1992 Los Angeles riots.” Chon and his Korean-American character’s brother run their late father’s struggling shoe store in a predominantly African-American area in Paramount.

RELATED: 10 Great Indie Horror Films From 2019 You Missed

As the riots begin, the brothers and their 11-year-old friend fight to protect the shop from harm.

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

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Wedding in Crazy Rich Asians

When Jon M. Chu set out to direct the adaptation of the Kevin Kwan novel Crazy Rich Asians, he had no idea what a phenomenon the romantic comedy would become. The movie follows Rachel Chu and her boyfriend Nick Young who return to Nick’s home country of Singapore for his best friend’s marriage. While in Singapore, Rachel’s Chinese-American heritage is scrutinized by Nick’s old-Chinese thinking.

While the movie was criticized by some AAPI communities because of the movie’s need to cast biracial actors, it still proved to be a massive hit and a win for AAPI representation. It was the highest-grossing romantic comedy of the 2010s and the first major Hollywood studio movie to feature a majority cast of Chinese descent since the 90s.

Catfish in Black Bean Sauce (2000)

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A transracial family — here, Vietnamese children were placed into the care of African-American guardians — is at the core of this little-known drama. Named after the Vietnamese delicacy, the movie has two Vietnamese-American adults feeling torn by their two identities.

When their biological mother shows up, their adoptive parents feel excluded. Catfish in Black Bean Sauce is directed by Chi Muoi Lo.

China Girl (1987)

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Racial relations are explored in this 1980s story of star-crossed lovers and organized crime. Teenage Tony is from Little Italy in Manhattan, and Tye is from Chinatown. Their respective families have ties to gang activity. Despite how they feel about each other, Tony and Tye cannot be together so easily. Their families are in direct conflict with each other, and prejudices keep these young lovers apart.

RELATED: 10 Crime Movies You Wouldn’t Believe Are Based On True Stories

China Girl was not a box-office hit, but critics were impressed. They found this then-contemporary Romeo & Juliet well-directed and unwilling to make concessions to others. The movie is directed by Abel Ferrara.

Moana (2016)

Watch On Disney+

Moana and Maui from Moana

While Disney wasn’t the best studio in terms of diversity, they’ve started to make strides towards being more inclusive. In 2016 they released the animated movie Moana with the aim of representing individuals of Pacific Islander descent.

While the Pacific Islander community had some qualms with the Disneyfication and homogenization of their cultures. they also praised the movie for its depiction of their “wayfinding” traditions. It’s the perfect movie to watch with the whole family to celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander heritage month.

Saving Face (2004)

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Traditional values and modern thinking butt heads in this romantic comedy. Chinese-American Wilhelmina is a successful surgeon living in New York. She is a lesbian and remains in the closet as she believes her family, namely her mother, would not approve.

Just as Wilhelmina falls for a woman named Vivian, her single mother moves in with her after being shunned for having a child out of wedlock. Saving Face is directed by Alice Wu.

The Joy Luck Club (1993)

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Based on the 1989 novel of the same name by Amy Tan; Tan co-wrote the 1993 film adaptation’s screenplay with Ronald Bass. The movie was applauded by most critics, and it was a modest hit at the box office.

The story follows the lives of four Chinese women living in San Francisco. They each have a daughter; all of whom are now adults. The mothers regularly meet every week to play mahjong and tell stories about their lives. The Joy Luck Club is directed by Wayne Wang.

Shang Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings (2021)

Watch On Disney+

Shang Chi preparing to battle.

For decades superhero movies have been dominated by white actors but that finally began to change with the launch of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In 2021, audiences flocked to theaters to welcome Marvel’s first Asian superhero in the movie Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. 

The movie was directed by Destin Daniel Cretto and starred Simu Liu in the titular role. While some might cast it aside as another Marvel movie, it did a wonderful job at exploring and representing Asian culture while advancing the MCU plot.

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