North American Asians have been underrepresented in pop culture, like so many other artists and creatives from non-white backgrounds, and the excuse that has often been used is that, you know, they just can’t find the talent. Which is bullsh-t. The talent is there, has always been there. In front of and behind the camera. And behind the camera, in particular, there’s a class of Asian American directors that are telling a wide range of stories in a wide range of ways, with a wide range of budgets.
Justin Lin is best known for big budget, Fast Furious movies. Cary Fukunaga has done everything from Jane Eyre to True Detective and is the director for the next Bond. Jon M Chu has directed Justin Bieber documentaries and musicals (In The Heights) and dance movies (Step Up) and rom-coms (Crazy Rich Asians). Lulu Wang had great success a couple of years ago with The Farewell and is currently working on a series for Amazon based on Janice Y.K. Lee’s book The Expatriates. Chloe Zhao is not North American, but she spends a lot of time working in North America, and just won the Oscar for Nomadland and is currently readying Marvel’s Eternals for release later this year. And Lee Isaac Chung was nominated alongside her this year for directing Minari. There are so many more on this – and here’s another: Justin Chon, in Cannes this year with his new film, Blue Bayou, which he wrote, directed, and stars in.
Justin’s previous films, Gook and Ms Purple, were Sundance hits. He has been steadily, over the last decade, establishing his directorial vision and perspective. Blue Bayou is his most purposeful and urgent work to date, as he directs himself playing a tattoo artist who was adopted from Korea by Americans who is facing deportation as an adult. Per Vanity Fair:
“Chon spent years working on the script, based on true stories he heard from acquaintances as well as subsequent research that revealed a broader crisis for Asian American adoptees of a certain age. The Child Citizenship Act, which grants citizenship to all children adopted from overseas, doesn’t protect anyone who turned 18 prior to the law’s 2001 enactment.”
As Justin tells VF:
“With each film, what’s become more astutely clear to me is that I’m in service to this country and in that way I have to tell my experience as honestly as possible,” Chon says. “I want to bring empathy to my community [and] to make us all realize, through the specificity of the story, that we’re all a lot more alike than different.”
We shouldn’t have to say this in 2021, but the fact that an Asian American filmmaker is showcasing a film at Cannes is a pretty big deal because it doesn’t happen often and at this festival, both Kogonada and Justin are presenting their work. Kogonada’s film After Yang premiered last week and for both directors, their skill is more and more in demand and attracting talent. Oscar winner Alicia Vikander is Justin’s co-star in Blue Bayou. And he and Kogonada coincidentally both happen to be directing several episodes of Apple’s epic series adaptation of Pachinko which is currently in production across multiple continents. So, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the class of North American Asian directors is growing, and rising.
Blue Bayou opens in theatres September 17.