8 Asian American and Pacific Islanders Who Revolutionized the Film Industry

From the earliest days of the film industry, Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) have made great contributions to the art and science of filmmaking. While the depth of AAPI filmmakers’ impact on the world of cinema is extensive, many have gone without their stories being told. 

Whether it was innovating new techniques or paving the way for future generations, let’s explore some of the incredible AAPI filmmakers who revolutionized (and continue revolutionizing) the film industry. 

1. James Wong Howe

The Chinese-American cinematographer James Wong Howe was behind the striking black-and-white cinematography of a number of film classics, including Body and Soul (1947), a boxing drama starring John Garfield, and The Sweet Smell of Success (1957), a satire starring Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis. Howe was also responsible for the widescreen color cinematography of the Paul Newman classic, Hud (1963). 

For the duration of his long career, James Wong Howe was an innovator. In the words of a New York Times tribute, Howe “revolutionized the way films communicated visually, developing new techniques that could convey feelings without the need for words or even performers.” 

To make audiences really feel the impact of boxing in Body and Soul, for example, Howe used more mobile cameras and even wore rollerskates to get up close and personal with the performers—changing the visual language of cinema.

2. Alice Wu

Alice Wu’s charming lesbian romantic comedy, Saving Face, has become a cult classic since its 2004 debut. Set in contemporary NYC, the film combines the delicacy of a Jane Austen novel with cultural insights unique to 2000’s Chinese-American and gay culture. Wu’s follow-up film in 2020 was The Half of It for Netflix, after a long sabbatical, which also found critical success.

3. Daniel Kwan

Daniel Kwan is part of the Daniels, the directing duo who recently won a slew of Oscars for their entertaining, genre-crossing film, Everything Everywhere All At Once. Kwan and his directing partner, Daniel Scheinert, met as undergrads at Emerson College and began an enduring partnership that yielded several music videos. 

Everything Everywhere was a box office hit for hot distributor A24. While appealing to audiences all around the world, it was an especially personally rewarding movie for Asian-American audiences, who saw their family lives reflected onscreen in a story that is, after all, a tribute to an Asian-American mother, played by Oscar-winner Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh. It also marked the comeback of the beloved Ke Huy Quan, who charmed audiences in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom only to see his career wane until Everything Everywhere.

4. Ang Lee

One of the movies that firmly established the aforementioned Michelle Yeoh for American audiences as an actress of formidable talent was Ang Lee’s tribute to the wuxia genre, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), which also starred the legendary Chow Yun-Fat. Taiwanese-born Ang Lee has made an eclectic, stylish career making films like Hulk (2003), Lust, Caution (2005), The Ice Storm (1997), Brokeback Mountain (2005), and Life of Pi (2012), winning Oscars and critical acclaim along the way. 

While Lee’s films cross multiple genres—he is currently making a Bruce Lee biopic—his movies, often made with longtime collaborator James Schamus, are notable for their humanity and gentle reserve, often dealing with cross-generational tension. 

Lee’s early films were mostly in Chinese with subtitles, like Eat Drink Man Woman (1994), a charming romantic comedy. His early work also includes The Wedding Banquet (1993), in which a gay man in NYC must pretend to want to organize a heterosexual wedding to appease his conservative Taiwanese parents. 

5. Christine Choy

Christine Choy is a pioneering documentarian best known for her groundbreaking 1987 documentary Who Killed Vincent Chin? Nominated for an Oscar upon its release, the film has grown in stature as attacks on Asian Americans have unfortunately become more commonplace and analyses of racial violence have come to seem more pressing in a time of greater racial polarization. 

Choy is a professor at NYU/Tisch and has been celebrated by Hot Docs for her prescient work, which also includes The Shot Heard ‘Round the World  (1997), which explores the events surrounding the killing of Japanese exchange student Yoshi Hattori in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

6. Wayne Wang

Wayne Wang’s films tend to be smart, funny, elegant, and ruminative. His first film, the 1982 black-and-white Chan is Missing, has only grown in stature since its initial release. It’s an offbeat comedy noir that, per the Criterion Collection, “gradually turns into a far deeper and more elusive investigation into the complexities and contradictions of Chinese American identity” and was the “first feature by an Asian American filmmaker to play widely and get mainstream critical appreciation.” 

The freshness and breadth of Wang’s filmmaking have served as an inspiration to many. One of his most beloved films is Smoke, set in a Brooklyn smoke shop and written by novelist Paul Auster, with a wonderful ensemble cast led by Harvey Keitel and William Hurt. The film is about storytelling and community. Another is The Joy Luck Club, the 1993 family saga based on the novel by Amy Tan, which represented a landmark in Asian-American cinematic representation and featured a cast including Joan Chen, Tsai Chin, and Ming-Na Wen.

7. Lulu Wang

Lulu Wang’s 2019 The Farewell is a heartfelt A24 comedy that resonated with all audiences but was grounded in a specific Chinese custom: not telling an elderly relative of their prognosis. It’s filtered through the sardonic point of view of a Chinese-American young woman, played memorably by Awkwafina, who has to travel home to be with her grandmother before her demise, but not tell her the truth about why she is there. Wang first told this inspired-by-truth story on This American Life with the intimate feeling of real family life in all its messiness and complexity.

8. Chloe Zhao

Chinese-born Chloe Zhao’s lyrical, naturalistic films include The Rider, a sensitive Western, and Nomadland, starring Frances McDormand, a study of Americans adrift after losing their jobs and heading into the American West, blending actors with non-actors. The film won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actress (McDormand), and Best Director (Zhao) in 2021. 

Zhao is interested in character, landscape, and the complexities of American contemporary life. She has also worked in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, directing the 2021 Eternals. Zhao, along with Jane Campion and Kathryn Bigelow, is one of only three women to have won the Best Directing Academy Award. 

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