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Jeff Yang's new book is a 'cheer out loud' for the films that made Asian America

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

When the movie "Everything Everywhere All At Once" came out last year, it made history.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And the Oscar goes to "Everything Everywhere All At Once."

CHANG: That movie was widely beloved for its portrayal of Chinese immigrant parents struggling to connect with their American daughter.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE")

STEPHANIE HSU: (As Joy Wang) I don't want to hurt anymore, and for some reason, when I'm with you, it just hurts the both of us.

CHANG: This film felt new and fresh, but, you know, at the same time, "Everything Everywhere All At Once" is actually part of a long, complicated history of Asian representation on screen. And that complicated history is what writer Jeff Yang unspools in his new book, "The Golden Screen." The book selects more than 130 films over the last century, and it invites contributors like author Preeti Chhibber to reflect on how some of their favorite films shaped their own identities as Asian Americans. Jeff Yang and Preeti Chhibber join us now. Welcome to both of you.

JEFF YANG: Thank you.

PREETI CHHIBBER: Hi.

CHANG: All right, Jeff, I want to start with you because, you know, under the title of this book, you have the phrase "The Movies That Made Asian America." Why did you feel a book like this had to be compiled?

YANG: Well, this is a moment in which we're finally, for the first time, starting to see this plethora of diverse, inclusive and authentic representations of our Asian experiences on screen.

CHANG: Yeah.

YANG: Even when you were kind of playing a little snippet of "Everything Everywhere All At Once" winning the Oscar, I almost cheered out loud.

CHANG: I know. Me, too.

YANG: And the book is sort of like a cheer out loud.

CHANG: I hear you talk about how a book like this gives us an opportunity to cheer. But, Jeff, I noticed that you included films in this book that were beloved to some people, maybe are still beloved, but that peddled pretty flat, offensive representations of Asian people like "Lost In Translation," for example.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LOST IN TRANSLATION")

TETSURO NAKA: (As stills photographer) You're a movie star, yes?

BILL MURRAY: (As Bob Harris) Yes, I should be doing movies. Yeah. But...

NAKA: (As stills photographer) And the Rat Pack - you know Rat Pack?

MURRAY: (As Bob Harris) Rat Pack?

NAKA: (As stills photographer) Rat Pack.

MURRAY: (As Bob Harris) Oh.

NAKA: (As stills photographer) Yes, please.

YANG: When we talk about being made, it's not just pleasant experiences that helped make us. Remember; for almost half a century, you couldn't see Asian images played by Asian people...

CHANG: Yeah.

YANG: ...On screen...

CHANG: Right.

YANG: ...For much of that time.

CHANG: I mean, they were in yellowface.

YANG: Yeah. Our response to those images, the ways that we processed or metabolized the sense of being othered by the screen - those are things that we still have to contend with as Asian Americans.

CHANG: But then there were also movies that you included that defied Asian American stereotypes, which were awesome, like "Harold And Kumar Go To White Castle." Preeti, you write about this very movie. What did you love about how this particular film rebelled against the usual depictions of Asians?

CHHIBBER: You know, it was wild. I was in college when this movie came out, and I was intensely grappling with the fact that I was not good at science. I had - like, my whole life was like, I'm going to be a doctor - not because I wanted to. But, like, all my uncles were doctor, all - like, so many aunties.

CHANG: Oh, yeah.

CHHIBBER: And so it was like I went premed, and then I was like, oh, I'm bad at this.

CHANG: (Laughter).

CHHIBBER: And Kal Penn - he was already a household name because he'd been in this indie movie called "American Desi" that all the Indian kids had, like, passed around. And so there was already that connection. And then he plays this character who, like, doesn't want to be a doctor.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HAROLD AND KUMAR GO TO WHITE CASTLE")

FRED WILLARD: (As Dr. Willoughby) Do you actually believe, after the way you've just behaved, that I would ever even consider recommending you for admission?

KAL PENN: (As Kumar Patel) No. I'm going to be honest with you. The only reason I'm applying is so my dad will keep paying for my apartment. I really don't have a desire to go to med school.

CHHIBBER: The number of Indian American kids I saw in media I could count on one hand. And then to see one who wasn't a stereotype was, like, mind-boggling.

CHANG: You know what's interesting - is that in this book, which is about movies that made Asian America, not all the movies are from America. Like, Jeff, you include foreign films that were produced all over Asia. Tell us. Why were they important to include in the story you wanted to tell about Asian America?

YANG: For me, watching kung fu movies in double feature theaters in Chinatown was the first time I saw Asian heroes who were saving the day, who were getting the girl. I loved action movies in America. I aspired to be the white actors who were on screen. But when I actually, for the first time, got to see people who shared some aspects of my life and my world...

CHANG: Yeah.

YANG: ...That was the first time I felt like something new was possible.

CHANG: Yeah. Preethi, is there, like, a beloved Bollywood film that you saw having an important influence on the way Hollywood started telling stories about Indian people?

CHHIBBER: Bollywood's the biggest film industry in the world is what we always say, right? But I feel like Bollywood cinema was seen as sort of gimmicky or not necessarily a valid art form for a long, long time. And it's something I grew up with. Like, it wasn't, like, Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt. It was like, I'm going to marry Aamir Khan because "Dil" was my favorite movie when I was 5, which is this ridiculous romance with wonderful music.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DIL")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, singing in Hindi).

CHHIBBER: Bollywood was the only avenue towards sort of Indian representation for us. And the association to Hollywood - I think of, like, "Bride And Prejudice" or "Polite Society," which just came out this year.

CHANG: Oh, I love that movie. Yes.

CHHIBBER: The dance that Ria does at her sister's wedding is "Maar Dala" from "Devdas." It is the same dance that Madhuri Dixit does in that movie from, like, 2002.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAAR DALA")

KAVITA KRISHNAMURTHY: (Singing in Hindi).

CHHIBBER: My entire family, like, sat up and was like, wait a minute. Is she really going to do the dance? - because we knew what it was. It was referencing...

CHANG: Wow.

CHHIBBER: ...Our cultural community in this, like...

CHANG: Yeah.

CHHIBBER: ...Wonderful way. So I think the influence of Bollywood is much more recent in Hollywood than when I was little for a multitude of reasons. But it was such a huge part of our community that all I wanted to do was just, like, share it with everybody I knew.

CHANG: Yeah. I feel like so much of what we've been talking about is just waiting for a really long time. Like, it took so long after "Joy Luck Club" to see another Hollywood movie star an All-asian cast speaking mostly in English. It took 25 years with "Crazy Rich Asians." And the breakthrough was, oh, my God. Here's a film where almost everyone has an Asian face and speaks English. Whoa. But then there was a new breakthrough with "Everything Everywhere All At Once." That movie made room for the weird Asians. That's what one of the writers and directors, Daniel Kwan, said in your book. So let me ask you this. What would you like to see be the next breakthrough for Asian American cinema?

YANG: To not have to have a sharp intake of breath every single time a new Asian or Asian American film comes to the screen.

CHANG: Yeah.

YANG: Right? We don't want to worry about whether it's going to be successful or represent us well. And I think we're kind of getting there. We finally arrived at the era where Asian Americans can be mediocre.

(LAUGHTER)

YANG: We can put stories out there that don't have to match up with the model minority or even the standards of success that are often imposed on minorities in general.

CHANG: I'm still processing that it is our cinematic aspiration for us Asian Americans to be portrayed as mediocre.

CHHIBBER: It's true, though, right? We don't want that burden of representation anymore.

CHANG: Yeah.

CHHIBBER: It's just like, because there's so few, you have to speak for everybody. Being able to recognize that creators from our community can make film or create art that doesn't have to be associated...

CHANG: Yeah.

CHHIBBER: ...With identity is something that I think could be very exciting.

CHANG: The character just happens to be Asian.

CHHIBBER: Exactly. It allows that character to exist in addition to that part of themselves.

CHANG: Preeti Chhibber and Jeff Yang. Their new book is called "The Golden Screen: The Movies That Made Asian America." Thank you to both of you so much.

CHHIBBER: Thank you.

YANG: Thank you so much, Ailsa.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOKIMONSTA'S "UP AND OUT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.