On Korean American Cinema – Vol. I


i. 10 Years of Films

A decade-long journey of programming, starting 2007 through 2017, gave this filmmaker a special lens to witness the coming-of-age of Korean American cinema. KAFFNY (Korean American Film Festival New York) was not originally from an impetus of my own, but out of a request by others, to do something “for the community.” When a lofty vision of a huge festival in Flushing to commemorate the 100 years of Korean-American immigration was heavily watered down, relocating our film screening to the basement of Dae Dong Palace, a friend and I quickly maneuvered to secure a venue at Anthology Film Archives to save our reputations. The turnout that year and fresh possibilities in subsequent years, has kept me volunteering until today – now passing it on to newer visionaries.

Unfairly, but understandably, I always have to explain that Korean American cinema is not Korean cinema, nor a subset of Asian American cinema. As a student educated in critical race theory, it is obvious to me that the term “Asian American” is a political term, branded after the “African American” civil rights movement. Without that understanding, most people assume these are objective categories which neatly capture the infinite range of culture. However, even “America” as it is semantically defined in today’s culture, hardly captures the breadth of cultural interchange that takes place here, beyond a liberal and conservative estimation by those in the perceived majority who control our mainstream communications, both directly and indirectly. When is the last time we had a president that speaks more than English, which by the way, is the language of our colonial masters: England? When is the last time anyone considered that the term “America,” actually captures all of this entire hemisphere, i.e., the “New World”? And why do we celebrate Columbus Day, when this nation is named after Amerigo Vespucci? It should be obvious, “America” is a concept much bigger than solely the “United States of” America.

Merely by finally perceiving the cultural prisons in which we find ourselves, doesn’t automatically and suddenly extricate you. In fact, it begins a long, inescapable nightmare, the oppressed and the oppressors alike becoming unwitting zombie actors: one oppressing out of fear, one in fear of more oppression, not unlike the Stanford Prison Experiment. The final step is a process of understanding the prison’s weaknesses balanced against your own learned abilities, in order to implement a practical means of near-death escape – for yourself and perhaps others, like a Shawshank Redemption, which most of us shall never taste anyway. While cinema has been used to oppress and brainwash, like any tool, it can easily be used for good, to express the virtues of humanity, to powerfully smash walls.

I find it is more meaningful and accurate to depict ourselves as a means for understanding the interaction between cultures, outside of the colonial lens, which is not often demonstrated at even the most prestigious international festivals. Expending any precious volunteer energy to form some reactionary identity against an arbitrary, fickle enemy is a enervating distraction with the symptoms, when one could rather proactively highlight the cultural physics of the natural world. Such vision of Korean American cinema represents horizontally-networked cultural relationship cinema, not vertically-segregated cultural identity politics…


Phillip Ahn (1905–1978) is the first Korean American born in the US… and the first and most successful Korean American actor in Hollywood history. With hundreds of credits on many American classics, working with stars like Bing Crosby in ANYTHING GOES (1936), Shirley Temple in STOWAWAY (1936), Elvis Presley in PARADISE, HAWAIIAN STYLE (1966), as well as John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart, Burt Lancaster, Frank Sinatra, Key Luke, Richard Loo, Ethel Merman, Julie Andrews, and Mae West. Phillip would be given his star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame in 1984, the first for an Asian American film actor. Ahn also starred in the independent film DAUGHTER OF SHANGHAI (1937) opposite Chinese American trailblazer and childhood friend Anna May Wong.

Ahn is also the first son of Dosan Ahn Chang-ho, a famous Korean patriot who devoted his life to winning Korean independence from Japanese colonial rule. Ahn’s parents were the first couple to immigrate from Korea to America and his mother Helen was the second Korean woman to arrive – these pre-1924 immigrants self-termed as the Korean American “Pioneer” generation. Ahn too, was also civic-minded, one of his major achievements bringing the massive bronze Korean Friendship Bell to San Pedro, establishing Busan as a sister city to Los Angeles.

Ahn's mother first refused to accept his interest in acting, even after famed director Douglas Fairbanks offered him a job during high school from an impromptu screen test. When his father later visited from Korea, he saw the value in the art of acting and gave his blessing, as long as Ahn made it his goal to be the best. 

Ahn also drew some controversy for playing evil Japanese characters for World War II propaganda, but he saw it as his contribution to the Korean cause. His last role would be playing Master Kan in the TV series KUNG FU (1972). After Ahn, there were no new faces in Korean American cinema until long after 1965 when the racial quotas set in the Asian Exclusion Act of 1924 were lifted. 

The Asian Exclusion Act of 1924 is a major feature of Korean American cinema, placing an artificial 40-year time divide between immigrants coming before 1924 and those coming after the 1965 repeal during the Civil Rights era in the US. The law stopped in its tracks, the process of assimilation for the Korean American community, and is perhaps the worst single act against the its cinema. In fact, if there was no Asian Exclusion Act, one might never have expected the Los Angeles Riots in 1992 to rock the Korean American community so hard, where Korean American immigrants were portrayed in popular media as foreign invaders, economically preying on low-income African Americans in the area of South Central LA, now called South LA.

Pioneer Korean Americans who came to Los Angeles in the early 1900s, were segregated into the same areas with African Americans who were refugees arriving from the Midwest Dust Bowl agricultural tragedy. The early Koreans only remembered a unified Korea, while today’s immigrants know a Korea divided into North and South. The Korean United Presbyterian Church was built by the Pioneer generation on West Jefferson Boulevard in South LA in 1905. On August 15th every year, they continue to celebrate the day Korea won independence from Japan in 1945. In contrast, Post-1965 immigrants remember and observe April 29th, as the date of the Riots in 1992, illustrating the artificial divide between these communities. 

The Asian Exclusion Act of 1924 was only lifted over forty years later in 1965, spanning about two generations, making it so that new immigrants would have to start to assimilate from square one. In fact, the Pioneer Korean Americans could barely speak any Korean anymore to help the new Koreans assimilate anyway. Residing within the same city, they shared ancestry, but experienced a time separation.

Meanwhile, Sessue Hayakawa (1886 – 1973) became the first male sex symbol of Hollywood long before and the precursor to Rudolph Valentino, his fame rivaling that of Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin. Starting in the silent era, with THE CHEAT (1915), directed by Cecil B. DeMille, Hayakawa became a top leading man for romantic dramas in the 1910s and early 1920s. He transitioned into sound films, ‘talkies,’ including DAUGHTER OF THE DRAGON (1931) opposite Anna May Wong. He also diversified his body of work with Westerns and action films, but was mostly typecast as a villain and exotic Asian lover that white women could not have. In response, Hayakawa independently produced 23 films and earned $2 million a year. Most recently, he appeared in THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI (1957) for which he was nominated for both an Academy Award and Golden Globe Award. In acting, Hayakawa sought to bring muga, or the "absence of doing", to his performances.

Anna May Wong (1905–1961) was an American actress, considered to be the first Chinese American Hollywood movie star and with international recognition. While often playing a stereotypical "Dragon Lady" role, as in the silent Douglas Fairbanks picture THE THIEF OF BAGDAD (1924), and the Josef von Sternberg talkie DAUGHTER OF THE DRAGON (1931), playing opposite Hayakawa, Wong caught the attention of audiences and critics alike. American anti-miscegenation laws prevented her from sharing an on-screen kiss with any person of another race, even if the character was Asian, but being portrayed by a white actor. Her roles limited in Hollywood, Wong traveled to Europe and became a sensation there, starring in films like SHANGHAI EXPRESS (1932) where many critics say she upstaged her friend Marlene Dietrich. Eventually returning to America, she became more vocal about Chinese roles and acted in some smaller, but more lasting films like the DAUGHTER OF SHANGHAI (1937). Later, she turned her efforts to the Chinese cause against Japan, including the Second Sino-Japanese War.

Given the incredible success of these Asian Americans in the early days of Hollywood cinema, in both silent and sound pictures, it gives pause to consider if this contributed to the race-based Asian Exclusion Act of 1924.


Fast forward to when the Asians were no longer excluded by law in America... 1965.

Post-1965 Hong Kong and Taiwanese Americans provided early role models for Korean American filmmakers. Long after the artificial talent drought created by the Asian Exclusion Act of 1924, Hong Kong American Bruce Lee would create the basis for a globally popular film genre. Lee’s father was a famous Cantonese opera actor in Hong Kong. From infancy to age 18, Lee had already appeared in twenty films. He attended an international school, where he would excel at cha-cha dancing and boxing, but as his streetfighting caught up with him, Lee would make his way across the Pacific to Seattle, where he studied drama and philosophy; to San Francisco and Oakland, where opened his first schools; then expanding to Los Angeles, teaching to all races Chinese martial arts, which at the time in America was generally considered inferior to Japanese Karate. Teaching non-Chinese people was against Chinese tradition and Lee would have to prevail in a challenge fight for this right. He would later devise his own martial art called Jeet Kun Do, blending the strengths of all major fighting styles, even boxing and fencing, doing away with inherent nationalism of styles, to promote the individual martial artist above all.

Overwhelmed by the expansion of his schools, Lee eventually decided that movies would be the best way to broadly spread his martial arts philosophy. He would make a name for himself playing Kato in THE GREEN HORNET (1966), which also earned him fame back in Hong Kong. However, after Warner Bros. reworked his “The Warrior” concept and renamed it KUNG FU (1972) casting a different lead, Lee returned to Hong Kong where he would go on to to his record-breaking star debut in THE BIG BOSS (1971), even more box office success with FIST OF FURY (1972), then full creative control with WAY OF THE DRAGON (1972). Hollywood came calling with the co-production ENTER THE DRAGON (1973), which would cement his name, while the post-humous GAME OF DEATH (1978), containing only scenes shot before his untimely death, augmented his legend. 

His fame rising mostly after his passing, Lee single-handedly hatched a global phenomenon, creating a film industry in Hong Kong, while inspiring countless people across the world to learn Chinese martial arts. Without Lee, there would be no Jackie Chan, no Jet Li. Bruce Lee would pass before enjoying his fame, but many would exploit his persona to create a new genre of films called “Bruceploitation.” Productions would give diverse actors spoof Bruce Lee names with different spellings to promote their own movies. In fact, the most popular actors included a Chinese “Bruce Le,” a Taiwanese going by “Bruce Li,” and a Korean “Dragon Lee.” Lee’s legend would continue to receive homage treatment in American cult classics like THE LAST DRAGON (1985), with the African American character “Bruce Leroy.” However, while non-Asian and Asian leads have proliferated in the martial arts genre, another Asian American lead has yet to arise since Lee.

Hong-Kong American director Wayne Wang is a pioneer for having breakout hits in both the independent and mainstream cinemas. His gritty black-and-white 16mm mystery comedy CHAN IS MISSING (1982) is a simple and ingenious expression of the depth and complexities of the Chinese American enclave in San Francisco, while following protagonists trying to locate a vague character who has disappeared with their money. The story of ambiguous identity is smartly employed to relate the experience of being an Asian American, while keeping the story fresh. Truly it is a triumph and the cornerstone of modern Asian American cinema. 

In his Hollywood followup THE JOY LUCK CLUB (1989), portraying the struggles and stories of Chinese American women in San Francisco, based on the novel by Amy Tan, Wang repeats critical and box-office success in the mainstream, then an unprecedented achievement for an Asian American director. However, within the community Wang received some criticism for the stereotypical depictions of Asian American males, very differently drawn than in his low-budget breakout. 

Ang Lee is a Taiwanese filmmaker who studied in the US, but with his debut films, he demonstrated a passion for exploring the stories of the Chinese American experience. In PUSHING HANDS (1992), a grandfather who teaches Tai Chi, leaves Beijing for New York to live with his grandson and white daughter-in-law, and must learn to navigate his Confucian traditions within American individuality. In THE WEDDING BANQUET (1993), a gay son marries a mainland Chinese in NY to placate his parents abroad and cover up his same-sex relationship, but when they visit him to witness the marriage, drama ensues. Both films deeply mine the intensity of cultural conflicts coming out of the Chinese American experience.

Then came Justin Lin with his Sundance breakout and crime-drama BETTER LUCK TOMORROW (2002), a.k.a. “BLT,” the first film to portray a darker side to Asian American characters, outside the stereotypical colonial lens. Loosely based on a true story of Korean American students in Fullerton, CA, the film follows a group of over-achieving high schoolers, who use their good grades as a cover to engage in drugs, alcohol, sex, thievery. Ultimately, they succumb to their envy of an older college guy who has it all too easy, and murder him. At the movie’s Sundance premiere Q&A, following the screening, when a white audience member condemned the negative portrayals of Asian Americans, Roger Ebert himself defended the film, saying "What I find very offensive and condescending about your statement is nobody would say to a bunch of white filmmakers, 'How could you do this to your people? "This film has the right to be about this people, and Asian-Americans have the right to be whatever the hell they want to be. They do not have to 'represent' their people." 

BLT became the first film bought by MTV and opened the illustrious career of Justin Lin and new opportunities for his colleagues, as well as other Asian American filmmakers to follow. Lin would go on to insert Asian American narrative into Hollywood hits like THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS: TOKYO DRIFT (2006).


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