45 Best AAPI Films, Television, and Literature for Representation

A collection of some of our favorite AAPI multimedia content. (Photo Credit: PBS, Disney, IMBD, Amazon, A24)

Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander communities have long struggled for visibility and inclusion. Despite nearly two centuries of bringing rich history, culture, and contributions to American society, our narratives are often erased and misrepresented in mainstream media and literature.

Harmful stereotypes and misconceptions about our communities, such as the “model minority” myth and the “perpetual foreigner,” further contribute towards dehumanizing biases that fuel anti-Asian sentiments and discrimination. While we have recently seen an increase of Asian American representation both in front and behind the camera — as well as in literature — our communities remain underrepresented in the media, in our history books, and in literary works.

Asian Americans Advancing Justice — AAJC advocates for fair and equal representation of our communities in the media and beyond to ensure our perspectives are included and our voices are heard.

In commemoration of Asian Pacific American Heritage month, we reached out to members from our community to compile a collection of some of our favorite Asian American and Pacific Islander films, series, and books. From recent releases, timeless classics, to family friendly content, our community shared the multimedia content that made them feel seen and represented for the first time or helped them learn something new about our complex history. As Heritage month comes to a close, we encourage all to continue learning, uplifting, and amplifying the voices of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders.

Films

Recent Releases

  1. Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022)
Everything Everywhere All At Once Official Trailer

“I walked into Everything Everywhere All At Once not knowing what to expect. My favorite part of the movie was how unapologetically Asian American it was. I loved the code and language switching throughout, and I found myself nodding and laughing along to so many scenes (“I’m pretty sure my mom has said this exact phrase to me before,” “wow, those noodles look delicious”). It was a wonderful (albeit chaotic) movie with so much heart and humor.”

Jenny Liu, Mis/disinformation Policy Analyst, Advancing Justice — AAJC

2. Malignant (2021)

“One of my favorite films from 2021 is one that most audiences probably hate — Malignant. From master horror director James Wan (Saw, Insidious, The Conjuring), and screenwriter Akela Cooper (Luke Cage), Malignant is an original horror that starts off very generically before going full bonkers in the best way possible. It has a wildly ambitious — and hilariously fun — twist at its core, filled with perfect needle drops, great sound design, and handsome production design. This is a film that’s best viewed without knowing anything about it, which is why this review is so vague, but my best advice is to just go in without any expectations and simply enjoy the ride.”

Kent Tong, Manager of Programs, OCA-Asian Pacific American Advocates

3. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)

“The film meets the Asian American community now, at a dark and difficult time. Perhaps it serves as a welcome, albeit paltry, consolation prize to those, particularly of East Asian descent, for whom the jubilation of the Crazy Rich Asians era has since been eclipsed by images of violence against Asian Americans and immigrants amid the COVID-19 crisis. And it’s all the more reason activists expected the film to be not only well-executed and commercially successful, but meticulous and forward-thinking in the way it depicts our community in 2021.”

Tiffany W. Chang, Director, Community Engagement, Advancing Justice — AAJC

Check out our full blog post on Shang-Chi as a part of the “Milestones and Missed Cues” blog series.

Other new releases to check out:

4. Turning Red (2022)

Turning Red Official Trailer

From our digital community:

“THE BEST!!! Touching hearts of Chinese culture at its core in such a beautiful, dignified, and FUN way!”

5. Moonshot (2022)

6. Donkeyhead (2022)

7. Umma (2022)

8. Finding ‘Ohana (2021)

Finding ‘Ohana Official Trailer

9. After Yang (2021)

10. Photocopier (2021)

11. Cousins (2021)

Films that made us feel seen/represented for the first time

12. Moana (2016)

“As a Filipino American, I am not a Pacific Islander but I felt so strongly represented in the Disney film Moana. Moana’s relationship to her grandmother, values of family and community, the responsibility she felt for her family, and the way she found solace in the ocean were all things I had felt or experienced throughout my life. When I first watched the film, I remember feeling emotional because I knew future generations to come would have even more and better representation that reflects what our communities look like, our values, and our experiences.”

Joy De Guzman, Manager of Community Engagement, Advancing Justice — AAJC

13. The Debut (2000)

The Debut Trailer

“I love ’90s and early 2000s movies as much as the next person, but it’s no shocker that the majority of mainstream teen movies and romcoms were limited to white cast members. Enter ‘The Debut’ (2000) starring Dante Basco and an all-Filipino and Filipino American cast. A debut in Filipino culture is when a young woman celebrates her 18th birthday, and this is the event the movie is centered around — a party for Basco’s sister’s debut. The movie touches on themes such as not feeling connected to your cultural identity, the expectations of immigrant parents that are relatable to many Filipino Americans as well as children of immigrants as a whole. There’s even a short scene that gives you an unexpected short summary of Asian American history — which I didn’t notice until I rewatched it years later! It’s also a fun movie to watch for the nostalgia factor. I wish the movie had been made more accessible to a wider audience at the time, but I believe that over time, more and more diverse stories about Filipino Americans get told as our voices get stronger and louder.”

Mary Tablante, Associate Director, Strategic Communications and Marketing, NAPABA

14. Son of a Lion (2007)

“‘Son of a Lion’ was born out of the medical anthropological research of Australian writer, Benjamin Gilmour, from when he wrote a riveting chapter in ‘Paramedico’ about the Peshawar (Pakistan) hospital triage/ambulatory systems amid the start of the Afghan War — the ill fated ‘War on Terror.’ This is when terrorist attacks happened on an almost constant basis in the city and provinces. The story of this film is almost a documentary. My understanding is that there are no actors involved; these are real survivors of the Soviet & Afghan War. And it’s these true life characters who drive the story through an organic process only achievable by fly-on-the-wall filmmaking. It’s subtle, quiet, and deeply heartfelt.”

Palwasha Sharwani, Director of Operations, Emgage

Community Favorites

15. Mulan (1998)

“Watching Mulan has become a tradition in my family. When my parents first immigrated to the United States with 8 young children, they received a VHS tape of the film. The movie presented a very interesting story with bits of culture and humor throughout the film. Growing up, Mulan was played after school, on movie nights, and in the background while we completed chores.”

Laila Hasan, Mental Health Grant Coordinator, Asian Community & cultural Center

16. Minari (2020)

“Minari, a semi-autobiographical tale of the film director Lee Isaac Chung, is situated in the 1980s when a Korean American family moved from California to rural Arkansas. The parents, Jacob and Monica, struggle to make ends meet both through farming and Monica having to take a job sexing chickens. Monica’s mother comes from South Korea to help, which also creates cultural issues within the family, esp. when one son suffers from a heart condition. The film shows in a touching manner the family’s resilience in adjusting to new cultural rules, lifestyles and living environment. It reminds seasoned audiences of earlier Asian American films, such as Picture Bride, or early mainstream films, such as Places in the Heart. The theme remains that to survive and thrive as Americans, people must let their spirit prevail first and foremost.”

Yuemin He, Professor of English, Northern Virginia Community College

17. Hustlers (2019)

“Writer-director Lorene Scafaria’s feminist crime film was a welcome surprise from 2019, based on a true story. The film depicts strippers at the turn of the 2008 financial crisis, drugging and scamming thousands of dollars from their Wall Street clients. Like any great crime film, we root for the criminals, which is hard not to do considering the level of talent involved. Jennifer Lopez gives us an Oscar-worthy performance as Ramona, the veteran stripper who initiates the idea to scam the rich guys. Constance Wu continues to showcase her talent as a dramatic actor after starring in the previous summer’s hit film ‘Crazy Rich Asians’. Keke Palmer and Lili Reinhart round out the rest of the cast, providing most of the comic-relief. ‘Hustlers’ could have easily been a fun, but hollow caper in the vein of ‘Ocean’s 8’, but it features emotional depth and empathy for these women who are simply just trying to survive.”

Kent Tong, Manager of Programs, OCA-Asian Pacific American Advocates

18. Bitter Melon (2018)

Bitter Melon Official Trailer

“Bitter Melon focuses on a dysfunctional Filipino-American family who reunites for Christmas in the family home in San Francisco. The family is already fractured from a history of an estranged abusive father and an abusive second-oldest son, Troy, even as each of them also struggles to deal with their own individual devils. Although the film is comic and seeds the story and background with a rich variety of aspects of Filipino American culture, it dismantles stereotypes of the Filipino Americans as an affluent Asian American subgroup and the Asian American ‘model minority’ success; lying underneath the veneer of sumptuous and holiday spirit are unemployment, violence, and addiction, just as the surprising ending of the film conceals a secret that changes the understanding of everything the audiences think they just saw.”

Yuemin He, Professor of English, Northern Virginia Community College

Documentaries

19. The Donut King (2021)

“The Donut King portrays Ted Ngoy’s amazing life from a Cambodian Army major who fled the Khmer Rouge and came to America in poverty to his amazing rise to be a donut millionaire who helped fellow Cambodian refugees to rise to dominate the donut shop industry throughout California. The film also recreates the experiences of other Cambodian immigrants and the many networking experiences among varied immigrant groups with the tempting taste of donuts to boot. Its uplifting story of from-rags-to-riches vividly gives the American Dream an Asian American facelift. Meanwhile though, as Ngoy’s life takes fascinating and unexpected turns, the film also reassures and reinforces the necessity of the little book that Benjamin Franklin used to fix his many little ‘errata.’”

Yuemin He, Professor of English, Northern Virginia Community College

20. The Rescue (2021)

“The Rescue is an incredibly thrilling documentary about the 2018 Tham Luang cave rescue, in which 12 boys and their football coach were trapped for 18 days in the cave in Thailand. The film, from Academy Award-winning husband-and-wife team Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (Free Solo), is an incredibly gripping thriller featuring a story we know the ending to, yet it still keeps you on the edge of your seat. The film includes incredible never-before-seen footage, events most of the public may not have known about (I sure didn’t), and interviews with the many people involved in the rescue. The Rescue is a testament to human ingenuity, bravery, resiliency, and hope.”

Kent Tong, Manager of Programs, OCA-Asian Pacific American Advocates

Documentaries to learn about AAPI history

21. Asian Americans | PBS Series (2020)

“PBS’s ‘Asian Americans’ is a thoughtful, compelling documentary series on the history of Asians in America. It draws deep into a well of archival photos and videos, intimate stories of family and migration, and so much more. You can tell that the series was crafted with immense care and attention to detail, and I highly recommend it for anyone who wants to explore the history of Asians making their way and their voices heard in what is now called the United States. The series was initially launched for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month 2020 and remains necessary viewing today and into the future.”

Candace Kita, Cultural Strategy Director, APANO

22. First Vote (2020)

First Vote Official Trailer

“First Vote is a documentary about Asian American immigration, identity and voting rights featuring a critical race theory professor in the South, a Midwestern conservative podcaster casting his first vote for Trump, a progressive journalist confronting the rise of Asian American Trump supporters, and a tea party congressional candidate in North Carolina. The film speaks to the real diversity of political perspectives in our communities while making the case that regardless of our perspective our vote and participation is important.”

Kevin Hirano, Director of Operations and Development, APIAVote

23. COFA Medicaid Restoration: For the Good of All Mankind (2021)

“A history of COFA, why Medicaid coverage for COFA migrants was last, and how it was regained. Not many people understand our history and not many know the challenges we face. History relearned and future reimagined, we are coming to terms with our present. Navigating America’s systems while holding on to our heritage is becoming more difficult. My family, friends, and relatives keep conversing about cultural preservation and redeeming our people from the generational grieving of losing land. Please watch, learn and conversate with us.”

Michelle, Policy Advocate, ACOM

Television

TV Series that made us feel seen/represented for the first time

  1. Never Have I Ever (2020)

“Never Have I Ever, a series made by AAPI writers, producers and actors, centers around the grief, trauma, and conflicts faced by Devi, the daughter of Indian immigrants. While her struggles are specific to her story — she suddenly lost her father and became paralyzed for a time afterward — her experiences are representative of the AAPI experience: an overly strict mother, family traditions and rules that separate her from her peers, her identity struggle as a religious minority, the sense that her body cannot, without alteration, belong.

“The decision by the Never Have I Ever Team that struck me, the AAPI daughter of a single mother, the most was the actor’s decision to not remove her arm hair. Too often, standards of beauty center around whiteness and the non-visibility of women’s body hair in a way that makes girls and women whose bodies do not conform feel stigmatized. When we grow up in a country where seeing people who look like us is not the norm, we feel our bodies are mistakes that belong where our parents came from, not where we are. This series’ decision to freely acknowledge that women are mammals too, and some of us have visible arm hair, was revolutionary to me and the first time I felt represented.”

Niloufar Hafizi, Civic Engagement Director, Emgage

2. Bridgerton Season 2 (2022)

“It’s nice to see a show acknowledging and validating women’s sexual desires, especially a South Asian British woman, at such an ancient time. It reminds me that women have always been whole human beings with needs and sexuality, and it is just that those desires were and still are oppressed by the white, male-dominated society, not nonexistent. Although the representation doesn’t take place in an American society, it is universal across the board. Asian/American women out there, let’s be proud that we are sexual beings, and asexuality should be accepted too!”

Yuhuan Song, Anti-Hate Communications Coordinator, Advancing Justice — AAJC

In-language Series

3. Light the Night (2021)

Light the Night Official Trailer

“‘Light the Night’ is a Taiwanese drama that interweaves love, friendship, deception, and a murder that captivates your attention right from the get-go. Set in 1980s Taipei, the series centers around hostesses at a Japanese nightclub as they navigate through life and relationships. The melodrama weaves in stories of trust, betrayal, and the right amount of suspense while transporting viewers between the past and the future. The authenticity and attention to detail in the drama were beautifully done, paired with a perfect blend of nostalgia, each episode left me yearning for more.”

Vivin Qiang, Manager of Strategic Communications, Advancing Justice — AAJC

4. Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha (2021)

“If you are looking for a heartfelt, refreshing, and wholesome rom-com, ‘Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha’ may just be the perfect fit. Unlike many K-dramas that are set in the global metropolis Seoul, this story unfolds in a sleepy beach town when Yoon Hye-jin, a dentist from the city, opens a local clinic. The series revolves around the lives of working-class Koreans, including an unconventional love story between two leads who are true to their feelings and not afraid to face their imperfections. If you’re like me, you will also connect with the warmth and kindness of the local residents in Gongjin, whose stories will have you laughing and crying, often at the same time.”

Vivin Qiang, Manager of Strategic Communications, Advancing Justice — AAJC

Other recommended series

5. Pachinko (2022)

Pachinko Official Trailer

From our digital community:

“Emotional and heartfelt look into the hopes and burdens passed down through generations, revealing storytelling of the Korean diaspora.”

“A hauntingly beautiful reminder that our past is never truly past.”

6. Thirty-Nine (2022)

From our digital community:

“The kind of love that lasts a lifetime.”

7. Squid Game (2021)

8. The Chair (2021)

9. Warrior (2019)

10. The Night Of (2016)

The Night Of Official Trailer

Books

The first time I felt seen/represented in a book

  1. Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu

“Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown, a boldly original novel written in the form of a screenplay — with sound effects and stage directions to boot — is both satirical and heartbreaking as an allegory for the Asian American immigrant experience. It is also the first fiction book I have ever read that talks about the ethnic/native Taiwanese experience during the White Terror era in post-WWII Taiwan. As an artist, the struggle of the main character in aspiring to self-actualize for a TV role for “Kung Fu Guy” while also combating stereotypes about Asian Americans was so relatable. But I also felt seen as a child of Taiwanese immigrants reading about this historical era and the types of hardship my parents witnessed growing up on the island during that time. I was laughing from cover to cover, but I was also profoundly moved.”

Tiffany W. Chang, Director, Community Engagement, Advancing Justice — AAJC

2. Fire Scar: The Untold Story of the 1887 Burning of San Jose’s Chinatown by Lily K. Lee

“The book Fire Scar is documenting what have happened in San Jose City of California, where its Chinatown was burned in 1887. The narrative shared the contributions of Chinese Americans in building this country. The story of their endurance and persistence in the face of adversity was well told through the book. It is one of those historical fictions which I believe can help reach many readers across generations.”

Lin Crowley, Co-Chair, APIC South Puget Sound

3. Project Mulberry by Linda Sue Park

“‘Project Mulberry’ was one of the first contemporary children’s novels I read where I felt truly seen, heard and represented in the writing.⁣ Julia Song was me: an Asian American girl who constantly felt pressured by society to either renounce her culture or be seen as a perpetual foreigner (despite being born here) with no in-between. This book named the external and internalized racism I had felt so alone in battling, and celebrated the journey of embracing one’s self in all its complexities.⁣ If ‘Project Mulberry’ existed, I thought, what else was out there and what is yet to come?”

Danielle Wong, Digital Content and Strategy Associate, Advancing Justice — AAJC

Other recommended reads

4. Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner

5. Yolk by Mary H.K. Choi

6. Unfinished by Priyanka Chopra Jonas

7. Arsenic and Adobo by Mia P Manansala

8. Gold Diggers by Sanjena Sathian

9. Things We Lost to the Water by Eric Nguyen

10. Joan is Okay by Weike Wang

11. Tastes Like War: A Memoir by Grace Cho

12. Shark Dialogues by Kiana Davenport

Asian Americans Advancing Justice — AAJC is an advocate for fair and equal representation of Asian Americans in the media. Follow this blog for future reviews.

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