What is Taiwanese American cinema? Films directed by Taiwanese Americans? Films about the relationship between nation and diaspora? Films that explore the specific experiences of American-born Taiwanese? Films that distinguish themselves culturally or politically from the more recognizable “Asian American” or “Chinese American” film? There’s not enough of a critical mass of films to answer that question with any meaningful conviction. But perhaps this ambiguity is what has always energized an emerging Taiwanese American identity: a flexibility with any or all of those parameters. Taiwanese American cinema is whatever we need it to be to bring together community, and to rally around familiar dialects and accents, experiences of immigration and return, family and history.
That said, I’m going to take a stab at a preliminary canon of Taiwanese American feature films, which I’m defining as either films explicitly about Taiwanese American characters (regardless of director), or Taiwanese American-directed films where ambiguously Asian-presenting lead characters could presumably have family from Taiwan. There are enough such films that we can bracket off interesting in-between cases like Ang Lee (see my previous post), Tom Lin Shu-yu who went to Hsinchu’s bilingual high school and studied film in the US, or Tzuan Wu whose This Shore: A Family Story stitches Taiwanese history and a U.S. restaurant from the perspective of an artist sojourner. I’m also sticking to feature-length films. If we include shorts, we’d have an embarrassment of riches, from Tiffany Frances to Leslie Tai and countless others.
Shout-outs to Adam Kane’s 2009 Formosa Betrayed, not exactly about Taiwanese America but one of the first features to rally Taiwanese American support, Bertha Bay-Sa Pan whose Face and Almost Perfect are personal favorites but would stretch my criteria, and of course Daniel Kwan who co-directed Everything Everywhere All at Once. Ask me again in a few months and we may have to bump in the upcoming Michael Chang doc American Son, or Love in Taipei, directed by Arvin Chen of Au Revoir Taipei and Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? fame. In other words, a corpus and a history are cohering and “Taiwanese American film” may no longer be merely conjecture.
Read more on TaiwaneseAmerican.org:
TaiwaneseAmerican.org Interview with Bertha Bay-Sa Pan, Director of “Almost Perfect”
An Open Letter from Producer Will Tiao to the Fans of FORMOSA BETRAYED
Why I Love ‘Everything Everywhere All At Once’
Filmmaker Arvin Chen Greets the World with “Au Revoir Taipei”
Better Luck Tomorrow (Justin Lin, 2002)
A landmark in so many ways – from the talk of Sundance to the first Asian American film released by MTV films – Better Luck Tomorrow was also the first solo-directed feature of Taiwanese American Justin Lin, who would soon take Hollywood by storm, resurrecting the Fast and the Furious franchise into an international behemoth. I love the fans who have written Better Luck Tomorrow into the Fast and the Furious universe by way of Sung Kang’s beloved Han character, but I do lament that such slash fandom takes the 2002 crime film away from its real-life roots in Orange County and Sunny Hills High School, a milieu well-trodden by Taiwanese American youth.
Ping Pong Playa (Jessica Yu, 2007)
Better Luck Tomorrow and sports comedy Ping Pong Playa are tied by producer Joan Huang of Cherry Sky Films (itself with well-known Taiwan roots) and Taiwanese American actor Roger Fan. But while Oscar-winner Jessica Yu is in the director’s chair, I’m told by those close to the film that Ping Pong Playa’s spiritual auteur is Houston-raised, Taiwan-reppin’ Jimmy Tsai, the co-producer, co-writer, and lead actor, whose irreverent sportswear spoofs inspired the making of the film, a riff on Asian American masculinity, San Gabriel Valley multiculturalism, and quixotic hoop dreams.
In the Family (Patrick Wang, 2011)
One of the singular American debuts of the 21st century, and one of the pinnacles of Asian American cinema, In the Family is the brainchild of multi-hyphenate Patrick Wang who wrote, produced, directed, and starred in the lead as Joey, who fights for custody of his son after the death of his partner. A big-hearted drama that invites the audience into a home, into a midwestern community, and into the quiet passions of a father fighting for justice the most effective way he knows how: through patience, empathy, and the power of words.
Bang Bang (Byron Q, 2011)
The rare narrative feature that explicitly describes a character as Taiwanese American, Bang Bang follows parachute kid Charlie who lives alone in a giant suburban home, but dreams of being a gangster like his friend Justin. Not only exploring inter-ethnic drama, but inter-class ones, Bang Bang demystifies the Asian American criminal even more than Better Luck Tomorrow does, blurring lines between reality and fiction.
Linsanity (Evan Jackson Leong, 2013)
An on-the-ground chronicle of Asian America’s greatest month of sports, when an undrafted Taiwanese American named Jeremy took Madison Square Garden by storm, and sent the nation into a bout of “Linsanity.” Of course, it’s about more than basketball, but about racial incongruity in American sports and the biases teams, fans, the media, and even the self have about who belongs where in our society. But it’s also a loving portrait of a Taiwanese American family from Palo Alto, bound by faith and the unconditional support they have for each other, basketball or otherwise.
Baby Steps (Barney Cheng, 2015)
After doing bit parts in theater and film, Taiwanese American Barney Cheng decided to make his own opportunity: the role of a lifetime that happened to tap into his own identities and family. Cheng plays Danny, who intends to have a baby with his partner Tate, until his mom in Taipei steps in with thoughts of her own. Comparisons to Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet are inevitable (legendary actress Gua Ah-lei headline both, and Lee producer Hsu Li-Kong helped get Baby Steps made), but if our goal is to track a trajectory of Taiwanese American film history, such an homage is more than welcome.
Who is Arthur Chu? (Yu Gu, Scott Drucker, 2017)
Like Linsanity and the forthcoming American Son, Who is Arthur Chu? profiles a Taiwanese American celebrity, in this case, the (in)famous Jeopardy contestant Arthur Chu, best known for unconventional tactics in a game show with decades of tradition. To fans, he’s playing three-dimensional chess in an age of moneyball. To detractors, he’s the wrong kind of rebel, and his disheveled and racialized appearance only feeds the flames. The documentary goes beyond Jeopardy, to Chu’s online presence and his Taiwanese family.
Love Boat: Taiwan (Valerie Soe, 2019)
Taiwanese American cinema could exist to dictate a shared history, to turn in-jokes, rumor, and mutual friends into something like a historical patchwork. A Taiwanese American from Alhambra and one from Flushing, or one from Austin or Chapel Hill, may not share much outside the home, but they may have heard a common story or perhaps was a protagonist in one. The story’s setting has an official-sounding name: the Overseas Compatriot Youth Taiwan Study Tour. But it has another name, usually whispered with a smile or wink: Love Boat. Especially for the generation coming of age in the 90s and 2000s, the Taiwan-set Love Boat was where parents sent their kids to learn Mandarin and Chinese history – and perhaps find love with a fellow overseas Chinese. Gossip and legends abound. Documentarian Valerie Soe collects many and weaves them into the political history, spinning a spiritual reunion of Taiwanese Americans across states and generations.
The Half of It (Alice Wu, 2020)
It took 16 years for director Alice Wu to follow-up her debut, the classic Saving Face, which made stars of Lynn Chen and Michelle Krusiec. It well worth the wait. The Half of It is just as rom and just as com, and turns an age-old Cyrano de Bergerac tale into a Tribeca-winning charmer for all: YA readers, queer cinema romantics, and in May 2020 when it dropped on Netflix, a country needing just this story of secret longing and family togetherness to get through those early pandemic months.
Tigertail (Alan Yang, 2020)
In 2020, Parks and Recreation and Master of None writer Alan Yang turned inward to explore the Taiwanese immigrant experience. Self-consciously citing the masters – Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-hsien in particular – he imagines the Taiwan of his parents’ generation, and the move from Yunlin County to the U.S. Stars from both industries populate this dream project: Yang Kuei-mei and Tzi Ma, James Saito and Hayden Szeto. Joan Chen steals the show, as she does. As far as explicitly Taiwanese American films go, few have commanded the attention of Tigertail.
American Girl (Feng-I Fiona Roan, 2021)
An autobiographical story of a young Taiwanese American brought back to Taiwan after her mother is diagnosed with cancer, American Girl is the most organic synthesis of Taiwanese American and Taiwanese cinematic traditions and sensibilities since The Wedding Banquet. It does so by remaining authentic to director Feng-I Fiona Roan’s experience: the recollections of SARS-era Taiwan, the details of code-switching, the trauma of being back in school in Taiwan, the way culture and migration stir minor fissures in a family at its most fragile moment. The film certainly resonated in Taiwan, where it won best new director and best original screenplay at the Golden Horse Awards.
Brian Hu is an Associate Professor of TV, Film, and New Media at San Diego State University. He is also the artistic director of the San Diego Asian Film Festival, for which he curates an annual Taiwan Film Showcase. Other curatorial works include programs for the Criterion Channel and the UCLA Film & TV Archive. He is the author of the book Worldly Desires: Cosmopolitanism and Cinema in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and co-hosts the Asian American film history podcast Saturday School with Ada Tseng.
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