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The Most Influential Asian-American Films of All-Time (Part 1)

Updated on March 1, 2012

Here are the most influential Asian-American films of all-time (in no particular order) that feature an almost entire Asian-American cast. The films are considered instant classics and portray Asians in a positive manner, none of the stereotypical accents and flippant humor mostly associated with Asian characters seen on television and in some films.

Makes one wonder why more serious films about Asian-Americans are not being made more often. One day, someone who will be an Asian version of Tyler Perry will set out and make films that both non-Asians and Asians will love.

Sung Kang, Jason Tobin, and Parry Shen from "Better Luck Tomorrow"
Sung Kang, Jason Tobin, and Parry Shen from "Better Luck Tomorrow" | Source

Better Luck Tomorrow

The film "Better Luck Tomorrow" (2002) with an entire cast made up of Asian-Americans, was directed by a young Justin Lin, who helmed the last 3 "Fast and the Furious" sequels (Tokyo Drift, Fast and Furious, and Fast Five). The film features up and coming stars John Cho (Harold and Kumar series, Star Trek, TVs Flash Forward), Sung Kang (in Lin's Fast and Furious sequels, Ninja Assassin), Roger Fan (Finishing the Game, Annapolis), Karina Ann Cheung (The People I've Slept With), and Parry Shen (Hatchet 2, Finishing the Game).

The story centers on a bunch of high school friends who are feeling the pressure of academics and getting into a good College but when a murder occurs within their group, their lives are changed forever.

Why was the film influential?

The film depicts Asian-American teenagers in a realistic manner and it was produced by MTV films, which was a radical departure for the network back in 2002.

"Better Luck Tomorrow" trailer

Clint Eastwood with Bee Vang in a scene from "Gran Torino"
Clint Eastwood with Bee Vang in a scene from "Gran Torino" | Source

Gran Torino

Legendary actor Clint Eastwood starred in the 2008 film "Gran Torino" in which he plays Korean war veteran and retired Ford Factory worker Walt Kowalski. Kowalski lives alone in a neighborhood once populated by white working class families but sees the town now dominated by Asian immigrants. He is a man who is angry, bitter, and distant with his son and his family. He becomes friends with a Hmong family next door but is drawn into their fight against a local Asian gang.

The cast includes Bee Vang, Ahney Her, Doua Moa, and Sonny Vue, all of whom did not have any acting experience.

Why was the film influential?

Critically-acclaimed Director Clint Eastwood is the main reason why the film is considered influential. To have a Director/actor the caliber of Eastwood take on the issue of Asian immigrants in America and to employ Asian actors with no acting experience makes the film a significant piece of Asian-American cinema.



"Gran Torino" Trailer

Zhang Ziyi with Ken Watanabe in a scene from "Memoirs of a Geisha"
Zhang Ziyi with Ken Watanabe in a scene from "Memoirs of a Geisha" | Source

Memoirs of a Geisha

Memoirs of a Geisha is the 2005 film that had an all-star Asian cast with Ken Watanabe, Gong Li, Zhang Ziyi, Michelle Yeoh, and Youki Kudoh. The story is based on Chiyo Sakamoto/Sayuri Nitta (Ziyi) who is sold as a slave to a family. The new family then sends her off to a new school to become a geisha. She goes through life struggling to find love while making lots of enemies at the same time.

The film was an American production with the backing of Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment, Spyglass Entertainment, and Red Wagon Productions. The film was directed by Rob Marshall, who had helmed the award-winning movie musical Chicago 3 years before.

Why was the film influential?

Any time an American film company wants to film an Asian story with Asian actors as the main characters is considered influential.


Memoirs of a Geisha Trailer

Uma Thurman surrounded by an army of assassins in "Kill Bill vol. 1"
Uma Thurman surrounded by an army of assassins in "Kill Bill vol. 1" | Source

Kill Bill Vol. 1

Director Quentin Tarantino was heavily influenced by movies he enjoyed when growing up, and Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003) was a labor of love that became an instant classic. The story is simple about "The Bride" who seeks revenge to "Kill Bill" but the film is noted for its stylish direction and homage to Kung fu movies, samurai, Italian westerns, girls with guns, and revenge flicks.

Uma Thurman stars as the imposing bride who comes-of-age as a more than capable martial artist whose one motivation is to seek revenge. However, before she can even get to "Bill," she must face an army of assassins, hundreds of samurai swordsmen, a young girl with a deadly "ball and chain," and the deadly O-Ren Ishii (played by Lucy Liu).

The film moves slowly until it reaches a crescendo of non-stop action.

Why is the film influential?

Quentin Tarantino shows he is a fan of Martial Arts and Samurai movies and he does it on a grand scale in Kill Bill . The film has become a cult classic with its highly-stylized violence, retro music, and its old-school approach to filmmaking.


Kill Bill Vol. 1 Trailer

Director Clint Eastwood with actor Ken Watanabe on the set of "Letters from Iwo Jima"
Director Clint Eastwood with actor Ken Watanabe on the set of "Letters from Iwo Jima" | Source

Letters from Iwo Jima

The 2006 war film Letters from Iwo Jima was directed by Clint Eastwood and was a companion piece to Flags of Our Fathers . Both films were shot back-to-back. Flags of Our Fathers was based on the American viewpoint while Letters from Iwo Jima was based on the Japanese point of view.

Letters from Iwo Jima was filmed entirely in Japanese but the film was produced by American companies--Warner Brothers, Dreamworks, Malpaso Productions, and Amblin Entertainment.

The epic film is based on the struggles of the Japanese army during the fight over the island Iwo Jima. The army fights an impossible battle against a determined American army. Faced with the possibility of being captured, Japanese commanders make a decision to either flee or commit suicide.

The stars Ken Watanabe, Kazunari Ninomiya, Tsuyosi Ihara, and Ryo Kase.

Why is the film influential?

Clint Eastwood is a serious filmmaker and if he wants to direct a film that shows the Japanese Army point of view AND with subttiles, the studios say yes. He's got clout and it took courage to make this movie which is basically about America's second greatest enemy back in World War 2!



Letters from Iwo Jima Trailer

The movie poster of "The Namesake"
The movie poster of "The Namesake" | Source

The Namesake

Kal Penn (House, Harold and Kumar series) stars in the 2006 critically-acclaimed film The Namesake, about a couple from West Bengali, India who move to the U.S. and their American-born children Gogol (Penn) and Sonali (played by Sahira Nair). It is a coming-of-age film about Gogol in America and his parents trying to understand the life in their new homeland. Although Gogol is the focal point of the film, his relationship with his father Ashoke Ganguli (played by Irfan Khan) is what the movie is about.

The film had favorable reviews and was on many critics' top ten lists.

Why is the film influential?

This is a great, inspiring film of an Indian couple who moves to the U.S. and tries to assimilate into American culture. This is a dramatic film about a father-and-son relationship that shows a different side of actor Kal Penn that you wouldn't expect based on his history with "Harold and Kumar."



The Namesake Trailer

Nancy Kwan and James Shigeta in a scene from "Flower Drum Song"
Nancy Kwan and James Shigeta in a scene from "Flower Drum Song" | Source

Flower Drum Song

The 1961 film adaption of Flower Drum Song from the novel of the same name written by Chinese author C.Y. Lee was an anomaly of its time because the cast was entirely made up of Asian-Americans. The movie-musical had an all-star Asian cast that featured Nancy Kwan, James Shigeta, Miyoshi Umeki, Benson Fong, James Hong, Jack Soo, and Reiko Sato.

The story is about an illegal immigrant Mei Li (Umeki) who arrives in the U.S. from China and is set to marry a wealthy nightclub owner (Soo) but he only has eyes for his star singer Linda Low (Kwan).

Many of the actors would have long prosperous careers in Hollywood with many of them making numerous television appearances.

Why is the film influential?

In 1961, making a film with an an entire cast of Asian actors for an audience made up of non-Asians was nuts . . . but they did it anyway! Now that's influential!


The Flower Drum Song Trailer

The cast of "The Joy Luck Club"
The cast of "The Joy Luck Club" | Source

The Joy Luck Club

This classic 1993 film The Joy Luck Club had a simple premise about the relationship of Chinese-American daughters and their Chinese mothers, coupled with flashbacks and cultural conflict. The cast was made up of Asian-American actors which included Tamlyn Tomita, Ming Na, Lauren Tom, Rosalind Chao, Kieu Chinh, Tsai Chin, France Nguyen, and Lisa Lu.

The film was widely praised by critics and well-received by audiences.

Why is the film influential?

The film makes an attempt to understand the conflict that most Asian immigrants elders have with their Asian-American children and Western culture. The theme is nothing new but taking it to the big screen with a mostly Asian-American cast should be commended.


A scene from "The Joy Luck Club"

The movie poster of "Chan is Missing"
The movie poster of "Chan is Missing" | Source

Chan is Missing

Wayne Wang's 1982 film Chan is Missing is about two taxi drivers searching the streets of San Francisco's Chinatown for a man who ran off with their money. This was classified as an independent film back in the day and was praised for portraying Asians in a "non-stereotypical" manner.

The film stars Woody Moy and Marc Hayashi, and a cast that had no prior acting experience.

In 1995, the U.S. National Film Registry selected Chan is Missing for preservation calling it "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant."

Why is the film influential?

A young Director Wayne Wang (Maid in Manhatan, Because of Winn-Dixie) took a chance making an independent film back in the early 80s starring unknown actors Woody Moy and Marc Hayashi with a cast of actors with no acting experience whatsoever. That took guts and the U.S. National Film Registry recognized Wang's work as historically relevant.



Excerpt from "Chan is Missing"

Crystal Chiu and Michael Chen in a scene from "Children of Invention"
Crystal Chiu and Michael Chen in a scene from "Children of Invention" | Source

Children of Invention

Tze Chun's Children of Invention (2009) was an independent film that was screened at 50 film festivals and won 17 festival awards. The film is about two children in Boston who are left to fend for themselves when their single mother goes missing.

The film stars Cindy Cheung, Michael Chen, and Crystal Chiu.

Many publication's like the LA Weekly, New York Post, USA Today, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and the Boston Globe named Children of Invention as one of the top ten films of 2010.

Why is the film influential?

Aside from the numerous awards, this is a heartbreaking film that portrays a struggling Asian-American family--a single mother and her two children. It is a dramatic film that does not prey on stereotypes and reveals real characters in a desperate situation.

"Children of Invention" Trailer

Scenes from "You Only Live Twice" with Sean Connery
Scenes from "You Only Live Twice" with Sean Connery | Source

You Only Live Twice

The 1967 James Bond spy thriller You Only Live Twice that starred Sean Connery and filmed primarily in Japan. Back then, Bond films were viewed as an epic on a grand scale and this film featured an Asian location and an Asian cast. The story is about Bond and his Japanese co-horts race against time to thwart a plot by Ernst Blofeld from creating World War 3 between the superpowers!

The Asian cast included Akiko Wakabayashi, Mie Hama, Tetsuro Tamba, Teru Shimada, and Tsai Chin.

Why is the film influential?

What would you do if the producers of a James Bond film approach your Asian country and say they want to film there and have Asian actors star in the film? Hell yah, you take that opportunity! It's James Bond, Man! How cool was that back in the 60s? Ultra-cool.


"You Only Live Twice" Trailer

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    • Nymira profile image

      Nymira 5 years ago

      Gran Torino is one of my favorite movies.

    • shin_rocka04 profile image

      shin_rocka04 5 years ago from Maryland

      This is a pretty solid list. Memoirs of a Geisha, Kill Bill, Joy Luck Club, and Gran Torino are def some of my favs.

    • Jade Evans profile image

      Jade Evans 4 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      Interesting topic and great hub. Like your selection listed.

    • NateB11 profile image

      Nathan Bernardo 3 years ago from California, United States of America

      This is a good list of films; I've seen many of them, haven't seen some of them and heard of some of them and haven't seen them yet but have wanted to. Chan is Missing is one of my favorite films, it was good to see it on the list.

    • othellos profile image

      Mario Psomas 2 years ago from Europe

      Very interesting list of movies in an excellent presentation. I only saw the "famous" ones but I will check out the rest of them. Thumb-Up & Interesting:=)

    • jackclee lm profile image

      Jack Lee 12 months ago from Yorktown NY

      My favorite is Flower Drum Song mainly for the many wonderful songs. Thanks for a great hub. I'll have to check out some of the movies on your list.

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