13 family films that celebrate Asian and Pacific Islander heritage

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From the racist and cranky Chinese restaurant scene to A Christmas story to every obviously heinous trope in the Indiana Jones films, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have been consistently marginalized in Hollywood over time. With the upsurge in anti-Asian hate incidents during the pandemic, families like mine have had increasingly difficult conversations with our little ones about racism and prejudice. In reality, Stop AAPI Hate, a national center formed to track and respond to incidents of hate and discrimination, reported that young people are more likely than adults to be bullied.

As society slowly returns to normal, I worry about my child and others like him returning to school and what he might experience on the playgrounds. I’m afraid other kids will still watch cult classics like The Goonies without appropriate conversations with their adults about the problematic representations.

Racism in entertainment normalizes and validates it, resulting in younger generations inheriting implicit prejudice and racism. To actively teach anti-racism, films that celebrate the heritage and identity of Asians and the Pacific Islands are essential. There is a growing catalog of great options that improve performance. The following films are a nourishing and joyful sanctuary for young minds and tender hearts as they experience and deal with the often scary world in these trying times.

Ponyo (2009)

All is not what it seems when a 5 year old boy rescues a “goldfish” from the ocean near his home in a Japanese fishing town. This whimsical fantasy film written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki of Studio Ghibli, who also produced Abducted as if by magic, Howl’s moving castle, and Princess mononoke, is the perfect introduction to Japanese animated films for young viewers.

You can look Ponyo, noted G, to HBO Max.

Mulan (1998)

The ancient Chinese legend of Hua Mulan, the story of a young woman who disguises herself as a man to take her elderly father’s place in the military, has twice received the Disney treatment, both in the movie of 1998 animation and in the 2020 live-action reboot. While both adaptations have their issues, the social significance of being the first Disney film to feature an Asian star in an Asian story is undeniable. And for many Asian Americans who grew up in the 1990s, Mulan has changed the game. When our child was old enough, we were grateful to have this movie as an easy way to introduce some Chinese history.

You can look Mulan, noted G, on Disney + and Amazon prime.

Abominable (2019)

Yi, a teenage girl mourning the death of her father, meets a fleeing Yeti on her rooftop and sets out on a journey from her home in Shanghai across China to return home to the Himalayas. Details of Yi’s mother and grandmother worrying about her, her grandmother constantly cooking (those steaming pork buns!)

You can look Abominable, classified PG, to Hulu and Amazon prime.

At the top (2009)

Russell, a character based on the childhood appearance of Peter Sohn, a Korean-American animator and director at Pixar, couldn’t be more lovable. Voiced by Jordan Nagai, when the determined nature explorer knocks on Carl Fredericksen’s door to earn his “Help the Elderly” patch, the two embark on a fantastic and unexpected adventure in Paradise Falls, South America. This movie made me cry from the opening sequence, then bursts of laughter throughout. Russell later tells Fredericksen that his parents are divorced and his father is often absent. This plot point is a subtle and subversive counterpoint to the model myth of the minority, which projects perfection onto Asian Americans. The amount of heart and imagination that the filmmakers were able to bring into this film is truly astonishing.

You can look At the top, classified PG, on Disney + and Amazon prime.

Find ‘Ohana (2021)

Colleen E. Hayes / Netflix

A Brooklyn brother and sister reluctantly spend a summer at their grandfather’s home in rural Oahu, where they reconnect with their Hawaiian heritage while searching for a long-lost treasure. Directed by Jude Weng and written by two talented Asian American women of origin and promising in the industry, Christina Strain, this film is a refreshing update on classic films like Goonies and Indiana Jones, which present a problematic representation of American characters of Asian origin.

You can look Find ‘Ohana, classified PG, on Netflix.

Raya and the last dragon (2021)

Raya (voiced by Kelly Marie Tran), the fierce female protagonist, is redefining what it means to be a Disney princess. To revive her father and save the world, Raya searches for the last legendary dragon, Sisu (Awkwafina.) Set in the fantasy world of Kumandra, inspired by the cultures of Southeast Asia, Asian Americans like I was thrilled to finally have a story about another part of Asia to share with our children. Disney was also right this time around in hiring Vietnamese-American writer Qui Nguyen and Malaysian writer Adele Lim to run the screenplay instead of more white writers and it really shows.

You can look Raya and the last dragon, classified PG, on Disney +.

On the moon (2020)

Netflix

An Oscar-nominated animated musical about a precocious young girl in China who builds a rocket to the moon to prove the existence of the mythical moon goddess during the Mid-Autumn Festival, this charming family film highlights stars an Asian American voice including Ken Jeong, Phillipa Soo, John Cho, Sandra Oh and newcomer Cathy Ang. On the moon is a moving portrayal of grief, mourning and moving forward while honoring those we have lost. I am also grateful to my child to see a vibrant and loving portrayal of family life in a beautiful canal city in China.

You can look On the moon, classified PG, on Netflix.

Lilo & Stitch (2002)

When Lilo, a spirited 6-year-old girl from Hawaii, befriends Stitch, an exiled alien who creates trouble, the rest is Disney animated history. Beyond the famous phrase, “Ohana means family. Family means no one is left behind or forgotten, ”the themes of this film are particularly powerful. The film shows that you don’t have to fit in to be loved and that mistakes are forgivable. Lilo and her older sister, who struggle but do their best with the new responsibility of parenthood after their parents have passed away, represent a non-traditional family dynamic not common in children’s programming, but prevalent in real life. Formalized or not, many children grow up in foster families or foster families and they deserve to see stories like theirs portrayed in a positive way.

You can look Lilo & Stitch, classified PG, to Disney + and Amazon prime.

Twins (2015)

Imagine finding out in your 20s that you have an identical twin halfway around the world. This award-winning documentary film is about identical twin sisters who were born in South Korea and separated at birth without knowing each other. One sister, Samantha Futerman, is adopted in the United States, while the other, Anaïs Bordier, was adopted in France. Both heartbreaking and hopeful, this reunion story spanning several continents is lovingly and intimately captured by the two sisters. Stories about Asian adoptees, especially written and created by adoptees, are badly needed. Adopted people from Asia represent a large segment of the diaspora – their stories are worth telling and seeing. Twins is a great place to start.

You can look Twins, rated PG-13, on Amazon prime.

play it like Beckham (2002)

When the conservative parents of a British Sikh teenager forbid her from playing soccer, a sport she is obsessed with and in which she excels, drama and hilarity ensue. Written and directed by Gurinder Chadha, this romantic comedy with an authentic South Asian portrayal took the world by storm when it premiered, launching the careers of Keira Knightly and Parminder Nagra. For many, play it like Beckham was the first film to focus on dealing with cultural differences between Asian immigrant parents and their children whose dreams and goals are often in conflict. This classic film continues to be celebrated today.

You can look Play it like Beckham, rated PG-13, on Disney + and Amazon prime.

To all the boys that I loved before Trilogy (2018 – 2021)

Macha Weisberg / Netflix

High school student Lara Jean Covey writes love letters she never sends. All her life, she wrote them to her unrequited loves and locked them in a hatbox in her closet. Until one day her mischievous little sister, Kitty, sends them all in the mail, wreaking havoc.

Like many parents, I love movies that get kids to read. This Netflix teen romantic comedy trilogy based on Jenny Han’s novels is as sweet as it comes. Without forgetting, I appreciate the representation of a mixed-race family, where the main character and his sisters are half Korean American. Meaningful nods to Korean culture are sprinkled throughout the films, culminating in a family trip to the country in the final installment.

You can watch the To all the boys that I loved before films, rated TV-14, to Netflix.

Whale rider (2002)

A 12-year-old Maori girl proves to her grandfather that she is meant to be chief of his tribe, despite her gender, by achieving the legendary feat of saving a group of stranded whales in this inspiring and acclaimed film. Based on a novel of the same name, this film offers a poignant glimpse into contemporary Maori and New Zealand society as well as a powerful message defying patriarchy.

You can look Whale rider, rated PG-13, Amazon prime.

Blinded by the light (2019)

The life of an Anglo-Pakistani Muslim teenager in the 1980s is turned forever when he discovers the music of Bruce Springsteen in this dramatic comedy based on a memoir by Sarfraz Manzoor. Also directed and co-written by Gurinder Chadha, the filmmaker portrayed Blinded by the light as a “spiritual companion” of his previous works, play it like Beckham. Unlike its predecessor, this film takes its heartbreaking depiction of the racism faced by South Asian immigrants to the UK even further. With universal themes of music, friendship and love transcending race and religion, Blinded by the light invites the public into the touching life of immigrant families.

You can look Blinded by the light, rated PG-13, to Hulu and Amazon prime.

On a final note, families with kids who can handle more mature historical content should check out the 2020s. Asian Americans on PBS, an educational documentary series that covers the racial politics and cultural contributions of Asian Americans over 150 years of immigration history.


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