In his acceptance speech for the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film honoring his groundbreaking film, Parasite, Bong Joon Ho began by saying, “once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”
His advice isn’t unwarranted. Hollywood has a problem of constricting American cinema culture to a congruent reservoir of English films.
The Hollywood motto: if it doesn’t make money, it doesn’t make sense.
This motto has persisted in studios choosing to smother and censor foreign films from the big screen. It’s almost like executives believe that theater owners simply do not know how to market them to an American audience.
But Bong’s words endure as modern Western cinema changes to embrace international- and domestic-fomented Asian films — not just an accolade subcategory, but as a source of mainstream entertainment.
In 2018, Roma received rapid popularity through its release on Netflix which widened accessibility beyond that of theatre reservations. This new wave of online streaming has pushed other platforms to mimic Netflix’s approach of embracing international films with unprecedented outreach and advertising pushes.
Yet there is no reason to rely on algorithms and consumer formulas to find your next obsession. In honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Month, here are some phenomenal movies to expand your watch list.
1. Minari (2020)
Minari, directed by Lee Issac Chung, is a Korean-language film that swept the 2021 award season. The film plays loosely off of Chung’s own immigrant experience, following Jacob’s (Steven Yeun) struggle to support his family and make his claim.
This is a film so universal in its language and intent that it speaks to every immigrant experience, namely the fight for the American dream.
2. Parasite (2019)
Parasite is definitely the It movie of 2020. After it swept through American award ceremonies and received the Best Picture Oscar, it experienced one of the biggest revenue boosts for the best picture winner in the past decade.
If you haven’t watched it already, it’s never too late to jump on the bandwagon then. The saying goes, it’s better late than never, doesn’t it?
3. In the Mood for Love (2000)
In the Mood for Love is a 2000 Hong Kong film that follows two spouses whose partners are having an affair. The movie has been hailed as one of the most gorgeous films.
Its deep cinematic hues reflect the complexities between the estranged pair making you fall in love with the idea of love as their potential love blossoms slowly and heavily.
4. The Farewell (2019)
The first Asian-American movie on this list, Lulu Wang’s The Farewell focuses on the cultural divergence between an immigrant and their family at home.
Billi (Awkwafina) clashes with her family’s decision to hide the news of her grandmother’s terminal illness in accordance with Chinese cultural beliefs of collectivism.
The emotional conflict is real in this one.
5. Shirkers (2018)
Shirkers is a weird movie. But its quirkiness is what makes it special.
The documentary follows Sandi Tan’s journey, recovering the footprints of her enigmatic film mentor who pilfered her student footage. Exploring Tan’s youth and corresponding nostalgia, cringe, and inspiration make it a layered and beautiful film that filmgoers everywhere can take something from.
6. Chungking Express (1994)
Chungking Express is a timeless classic ‘90s Hong Kong film, one of few that leaves an impression afterward. Conventional people – policemen, a convenience store worker, a flight attendant – are all shrouded by the implications of love.
The possession of it, the loss of it, and the remnants of it.
7. Train to Busan (2016)
Zombies, train entrapment, a handsome protagonist — what’s there not to like?
The Korean horror film was the highest-grossing film of 2016 in both South Korea and Hong Kong. Centered on the stories of the passengers of a train overtaken by zombies, humanity is explored at its most desperate for survival.
8. Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts (2017)
Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts is a must-watch for every woman.
The Indonesian film ties a Western milieu with tinges of feminist vengeance. Marlina (Marsha Timothy) kills her rapists belonging to a group of thieves and ventures for empowerment and revenge, not without dealing with repercussions from the remaining of the group.
9. Spirited Away (2001)
This is definitely one of my favorite movies, hands down, with all pretentiousness thrown out the window.
Spirited Away captures the essence of fantasy: escape into another world. The unpredictable plot physically transported into this fictional universe, one of shapeshifting witches and bathhouse attending monsters, and leaves it lingering in the back of your head so that you visit it time and time again.
10. Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
While Studio Ghibli, the same production company that created Spirited Away, is known for its fantastical abilities, contrastingly earnest and heavyweight films are not omitted from their repertoire. It seems easy to see troops and citizens as a collective insofar as to forget there are victims on the other side.
Grave of the Fireflies follows siblings after they lose their home and family to incendiary bombs during World War II. All I can say is get your tissues ready.
11. Perfect Blue (1997)
The story of the obsessed artist is popular on the big screen. The origin of such films like Black Swan derives from the Japanese anime movie, Perfect Blue.
The animation style is psychedelic, purposely underscoring Mima Kirigoe’s descent into commercial obsession.
12. Maheshinte Prathikaaram (2016)
Maheshinte Prathikaaram (“Mahesh’s Revenge”) is a humorous retelling of bitter revenge; lighthearted fun against the mastery of the art form.
There’s subliminal artistry that reflects the mastery of the cast and crew, the ability to characterize a town around the central character rather than remain as a backdrop to the plot.
13. Bad Genius (2017)
There’s nuanced artistry required for making mundane activities suitable for a motion movie. Bad Genius, believe it or not, does this by answering multiple-choice questions.
Meanwhile, the film explores the deeply academic culture in Thailand and Asian countries at large in the dramatization of a student cheating schedule. Definitely show your children this movie.
14. Memories of Murder (2003)
Bong Joon-Ho’s early masterpiece, Memories of Murder, is about two detectives solving the first documented serial killer case. The thriller aspect is amplified in the rural setting but Bong’s talent behind the camera draws closer and closer to the edge of the seat with every new clue and discovery.
It’ll definitely have you screaming at the screen!
15. Little Door Gods (2015)
Adults can watch kids’ movies, too. I repeat: adults can watch kids’ movies, too. And this is one that should be watched.
Little Door Gods details a deficit of belief in deities by humans leaving them jobless. The film pays homage to an evolved and now-robust Chinese animation sphere, complete with correct cultural references that American-grown films like Kung-Fu Panda missed. But beware before watching: do not watch it dubbed in English.
16. Dhoom 2 (2006)
There’s something so enchanting about Bollywood.
Perhaps it’s the dramatization of literally everything and everything or perhaps it’s the elaborate and frequent dance sequences. Dhoom 2 fails to fail short on any of these attributes and goes above and beyond. It’s an altogether incredibly fun experience.
17. Lagaan (2001)
Lagaan is a definitive example of Bollywood’s best. With a soundtrack written by A. R. Rahman — the composer behind Slumdog Millionaire — and an epic sports plot, everything comes together beautifully for an engrossing film experience.
Even more beautiful is Lagaan’s accurate representation of India’s history, done without losing the film’s flavor.
This list is a reflection of a whole world of film waiting against the one-inch barrier fence.
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