Five Directors Who Are Refiguring American Cinema
Five skilled directors that should be celebrated this May
May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, and in addition to celebrating the rich history and culture of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, it is imperative to acknowledge the need for a more diverse representation of the Asian and Pacific Islander community in all fields, including film.
We're spotlighting Asian filmmakers whose contributions have been essential to creating a new American cinema.
Born in Taiwan, Ang Lee moved to the United States in 1978 to study filmmaking, eventually receiving his MFA from New York University’s Tisch School of Arts. The three-time Oscar®-winning director is recognized today as one of the world’s greatest filmmakers. One of Lee’s greatest talents is his uncanny ability to find the dramatic heart of any story, no matter what its genre, nationality, or language. From recounting the heart-wrenching tale of two cowboys falling in love in 1960s Wyoming in Brokeback Mountain to the jubilant emergence of America’s counterculture in upstate New York in Taking Woodstock to the steamy suspense of a spy ring in Japanese-occupied Shanghai in 1942 in Lust, Caution, Lee divines the emotional truth that connects his characters. "As a film director, I have to be able to capture the flavor of a particular place,” Lee explains. "But the ultimate goal is to explore human nature through the prism of culture, which is universal.”
Born in Vancouver to Indian parents, Nisha Ganatra found inspiration as a young artist in everything around her. “I was this nerdy Indian girl. Madonna, Raj Kapoor, the AIDS movement of the ’80s—all of that made me take up filmmaking as a career,” Ganatra explains. While she explored her Indian heritage in her breakout comedy Chutney Popcorn, Ganatra has learned from directors like Ang Lee that “you can tell a story in any language and in any culture and as long as you are true to the details.” In her comedy, The High Note, she took this message of cultural empathy to heart in capturing the friendship between two very different women in the entertainment industry. “The thing that is important to me is to show women turning towards each other, and being the greatest allies towards each other, helping each other achieve their dreams so that we rise together,” says Ganatra.
Born in Washington, D.C., the son of Taiwanese immigrants, Eddie Huang grew up between two cultures, a schism that he has explored in his many different careers, from author to restaurateur to film director. In Boogie, Huang wrote and directed a story about Alfred “Boogie” Chin (Taylor Takahashi), a teenager caught between his dream of being an NBA star and his first-generation Taiwanese parents’ sense of duty. As an Asian American artist, Huang understands the necessity of staying true to his unique experience. "I wanted to make my definitive Asian American coming-of-age story,” says Huang. “This is not everyone's Asian American coming-of-age story. But it's mine." However, the more specific Huang is about his own experiences, the more he resonates with other people. “As a story about a high-school senior unsure about his future, coping with a volatile family and falling in love for the first time,” writes The Wrap, “Boogie is genuine while weaving Black, Hispanic, Asian and White teenage New Yorkers together with effortless ease.”
Mira Nair moved to the United States to study acting and filmmaking at Harvard before returning to India in 1988 to make her award-winning film Salaam Bombay!. In her work, she regularly moved between India and the United States, creating such acclaimed films as Mississippi Masala, Monsoon Wedding, and Vanity Fair. Scripted by Downton Abbey’s Julian Fellowes and starring Reese Witherspoon as Becky Sharp, Nair’s Vanity Fair recreates the rollicking comic novel through the eyes of an Indian-American filmmaker. “The brilliance of Nair’s vision,” explains The Spool, “is how she takes the images, references, and suggestions of India latent in the original text and brings them to the ultimate fore.”
Born and raised in Southern California, Justin Chon, the son of two Korean parents, doesn't lose sight of his heritage. “I’m Asian American, and yes, I am identified by that, and I think that’s something to be proud of instead of shying away from,” explains Chon. Starting as an actor, he gained international attention starring in the Twilight series before adding writer/director to his resume with his first feature, Man Up, in 2015. His 2017 film Gook won critical acclaim for its provocative story about Korean Americans and African Americans in Los Angeles in the wake of the Rodney King verdict. In his 2021 feature Blue Bayou, Alicia Vikander, Chon, Mark O'Brien, and Emory Cohen star in a story about a Korean adoptee raised in a small town in the Louisiana bayou being threatened with deportation. “I really think of myself as an artist that tries to do (stories with) specificity," explains Chon. "What I care about is bringing empathy to us, so all my films have a very strong Asian element to it."