Remembering the importance of films that tell immigrant stories

Asians are given very little screen time, and when they are given roles, many fall into stereotypes—we’ve all seen the tech nerd or introverted awkward character played by an Asian. Almost six percent of America’s population is Asian, yet as a minority, many still experience “perpetual foreigner syndrome,” which is when minority group citizens are perceived as foreigners. Representation on the big screen helps minorities feel included, and it also helps educate the rest of the population on the struggles that these groups face at home. They’re homes are now in America, and as Americans, their stories should be no less important.

There have been a few impactful films to do with Asian American stories made in the film industry in the United States. In 1993, the first of its kind arrived on the screen when Amy Tan’s novel, The Joy Luck Club, was adapted into a screenplay. This film served as an encouragement to the films that would follow years later. In 2005, Saving Face was released, and more recently The Half Of It came to Netflix. Both were stories about Asian Americans written and directed by Alice Wu. In 2018, Crazy Rich Asians reached $239 million at the box offices. According to Kevin Kwan, author of Crazy Rich Asians, The Joy Luck Club novel was a life-changing inspiration.

When writer and screenwriter Amy Tan first wrote her novel, she said she never expected anyone to be interested in her stories and experiences. Contrary to her initial belief, her book received very high praise. Unfortunately, along with the praise also came criticism of her negative portrayal of aspects of Chinese culture and how underdeveloped her male characters were. I cannot argue with these two points, but I think the film’s focus is much more on the relationship between the mothers and their daughters—it’s a book and screenplay by a woman about women’s stories after all. The film is split into four main sections, each of which follows a mother who narrates their own story before and after their move from China to America. We also get a glimpse into their daughters’ lives, and learn how each mother and daughter has a side of their story that the other does not understand yet. Tan’s writing also zeroes in on the women’s individual struggles with balancing assimilation with respecting cultural heritage.

Among many other things, the film drills down the issue of identity confusion, which is something that many immigrants face. There is the side of the mothers, who have had to find their way in an entirely new environment, but there’s also the perspective of the children, who grow up with conflicting ideals at home and at school. This is particularly clear when looking at language and assimilation. When immigrant families come to the United States, parents often face a continuous contradiction with regards to their children’s education. They wish for their children to have native English accents and to assimilate to the English-speaking American culture. However, in doing so, they risk losing their sense of heritage including Chinese language. The parents also want the children to stay deeply in touch with their roots, so this conflicting style of upbringing perpetuates throughout the child’s growth. In Chinese culture, it is embarrassing for a child to not know the language well and it reflects poorly on the parent—how could they have allowed their child to grow up without speaking the language? The same goes for understanding tradition and cultural habits.

There is a very telling scene when “Waverly” (Tamlyn Tomita) first brings her Caucasian fiancé home to have dinner with her parents. Bringing a partner to a family gathering is often a nerve-wracking experience, but introducing a foreigner takes it to the next level. So much can go wrong, and in Waverly’s case a lot did. Despite having prepared her fiancé as best as she could, there were many nuances that she simply could not foresee. One of them being knowing how to appropriately respond when the chef deprecates their own cooking. When Waverly’s mother, “Lindo Jong” (Tsai Chin), brings out the fish she cooked, Waverly’s fiancé pours soy sauce over it. This was done with good intentions, but unknowingly, he had committed a disrespectful action and embarrassed Waverly and Lindo in front of their relatives.

Crazy Rich Asians and The Joy Luck Club are very different stories—one gives a sneak peek into the lives of the super rich, the other is much more about the hardships that lead to immigration. Nevertheless, they are films that help Asian Americans show and share their experiences. Their identity is so much more than just a tech nerd or that introverted awkward side character, but their culture may encourage them to be more reserved. This is why films like The Joy Luck Club are necessary—they help provide a voice that helps educate the rest of the world.

© Katusha Jin (05/27/2020) FF2 Media

Top Photo: Tsai Chin and Mai Vu in The Joy Luck Club (1993)

Middle Photo: Kieu Chinh in The Joy Luck Club (1993)

Bottom Photo: Tamlyn Tomita, Rosalind Chao, Ming-Na Wen, Tsai Chin, Kieu Chinh, Lisa Lu, France Nuyen, and Lauren Tom in The Joy Luck Club (1993)

Photo Credits: Phil Bray; Hollywood Pictures

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Katusha Jin
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As part of the FF2 Media team, Katusha Jin interviews filmmakers, write features and reviews, and coaches other associates. She grew up in the UK and studied briefly in Russia and China before moving to New York for college. Graduating magna cum laude from New York University, Katusha majored in Film and Television at Tisch School of the Arts with minors in Business and Philosophy. She has worked as a producer, director, writer, and composer for various award-winning projects including short films, branded content, independent features, and music videos.
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