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Finally a Movie That Captures What It's Like to Be Asian American

Over the last few decades, American television and film have opened up, so much so that my colleague Esther Breger recently argued that TV is more diverse than it’s ever been. But the one group that’s still notably absent is Asian Americans. The Asian-American family hasn’t been the subject of a sitcom since Margaret Cho’s “All-American Girl” was canceled after disastrous reviews 20 years ago.

Critics are now looking ahead to ABC’s family sitcom “Fresh Off the Boat,” debuting this spring. Based on celebrity chef Eddie Huang’s memoirs, the show should go a long toward representing the 18 million Asian Americans who are virtually invisible in mainstream media. But it remains to be seen if the show can be as groundbreaking as many hope; it’s already received criticism for its title (which most would recognize as an offensive term for Asian immigrants).

The struggle for Asian-American representation on network television, though, doesn’t mean it’s impossible to effectively capture the immigrant experience. Though set across the pond, British indie film, Lilting, which premiered this fall, covers the immigrant reality in a way that should both resonate with Asian Americans and pull back the curtain for white audiences.

While other minority groups also suffer from stereotyping and underrepresentation on TV, blacks and Latinos appear more frequently, at least in recent seasons (see shows like “Jane the Virgin,” “Orange is the New Black,” “Blackish”). “All-American Girl”remains to date the only attempt to depict Asian-American family life on TV, and it failed spectacularly. It was canceled after one season, and almost the entire cast had been fired by the time the finale aired. The show’s producers actually asked star Margaret Cho to act “more Asian”—and brought in an Asian expert to coach her.

If represented at all, Asian American characters find their identity either fetishized or ignored completely. There is no middle ground. Shows like “Selfie”or “The Mindy Project” are essentially race blind; the characters just happen to be Asian Americans who live and interact in very white worlds. But, as E. Alex Jung recently put it in the LA Review of Books, the problem with these shows is: “Taking the ‘Asian’ out of Asian American doesn’t make its characters more American, but less so.” 

Then there’s the opposite approach, where shows exoticize race or simply use racism as a substitute for humor. CBS’s “2 Broke Girls” is particularly guilty of this with its racist depiction of a Korean-American character. “Every time Han gets to say something on '2 Broke Girls,' the undercurrent is that it’s funny because it’s broken English,” wrote Tim Goodman at The Hollywood Reporter.

Movies are typically even worse than TV—Asian Americans basically don’t appear. Movies with Asian protagonists are invariably period dramas about a China or a Japan totally removed from the real, present-day experience. If Asians only existed according to Hollywood, they would all be warriors who can fly through trees, martial arts masterschild emperors of collapsing dynasties, or geishas.

Lilting, however, manages to be a movie about the modern immigrant experience, about how first- and second-generation Asian immigrants encounter life in the West. This, in fact, represents the majority of Asian Americans, who are overwhelmingly first- and second-generation immigrants; the two groups make up 91 percent of the Asian-American population—with the exception of the Japanese, who largely emigrated earlier.

Strand Releasing

The film is the debut full-length feature from writer-director Hong Khaou, whose Cambodian-Chinese family left Asia for the U.K. when he was a boy (and who I interviewed in October). The movie follows Richard (Ben Whishaw), a young British man, and Junn (Cheng Pei-Pei), an older Chinese immigrant, as they mourn and clash over the death of Kai, Richard’s partner and Junn’s son. To complicate matters, Junn and Richard do not speak the same language, and the movie floats elegantly between Chinese and English, with a scattering of subtitles, as the two rely on an amiable translator to communicate. 

The film presents identity as we actually experience it, as something we carry with us every moment that informs our thoughts and our reactions. But at the same time, being Asian is one factor of many that make up a full person. Junn, who struggles to adapt to English society and rejects Richard’s attempts to help her overcome her grief, is an extremely complex woman whose hostility and sorrow are informed by her immigrant background, but not defined by it. She’s an immigrant, but also a bereaved mother, a widow, and a woman, one whose obstinacy and fiery personality have nothing to do with her racial identity.

Still, the movie doesn’t shy away from depicting Asian culture in a realistic way, and, to go one step further, shows how it subtly affects each character in the movie. Like many second-generation immigrants, Kai speaks Chinese with a slight English accent, and his mother lovingly corrects his pronunciation from time to time. Richard, who was exposed to East Asian culture through Kai, cooks bacon with chopsticks and says it’s the only real way to do so. (Funnily enough, I have friends who learned the same trick from me.) These brief moments capture the funny little ways culture spreads and evolves, familiar to so many immigrants who have seen their traditions and values blend and change with those of their adopted country.

The very fact that the director chose to film Lilting in both Chinese and English shows the importance he places in capturing the authentic immigrant experience. He could easily have decided to have Junn speak English, or to rely only on subtitles to relay her thoughts, which would have undoubtedly been easier to write than the complicated translation scenes. But instead, by placing the act of translation at the heart of the movie, Khaou makes his audience experience everyday communication the way most immigrant families do. Like many Asian Americans, I speak to my parents in a mixture of English and Chinese, and grew up filling out forms and translating things like DMV documents and rental agreements. For us, translation is just a part of life, as our parents rely on us to communicate with their new world, and in turn, impart our heritage to us through their native tongue.

Lilting shows people as they really are, whose identities inform who they are but are ever shifting and evolving. Unlike most of its peers, the movie understands that racial identity is not all or nothing. These characters, like real people, are complex and changing, and they can belong to a group—be it Asian, black, white, Hispanic, gay, straight, etc.—but also be more than that. 

When movies and television acknowledge and bring that to life, they will not only have diversified their audience, but they will impact the way we look at each other in the world. No group is a stereotype, and it’s time our media reflected that.