For too many, our Asian elders are inscrutable faces and frail street crawlers. For us, they are keepers of desires and memories. Their humanity is obvious to us because we’ve heard their stories, we grew up amongst their photographs and suitcases, and we see them in our cousins and children. The past year has made tragically clear that much of America refuses to acknowledge this humanity, projecting fears about the pandemic and racist violent fantasies onto our most vulnerable. In the face of this violence, New York congresswoman Grace Meng tweeted that “we’ve gone from invisible to being seen as subhuman.” American history reminds us that invisibility and subhumanity go hand-in-hand. In fact, invisibility is the precondition for justifying Asian Americans as diseased rats and defenseless punching bags. It is what allows racists to hide, to deny, and to sleep at night.
If this is the case, affirming Asian American elders’ humanity requires making them visible. Not just visible onscreen, but bursting with life, dialogue, and passion. It means acknowledging their faults, their hang-ups, and even their biases. It means seeing their lives as connected with our own, whether as their children, grandchildren, neighbors, or fellow Americans.
As children and grandchildren, Asian American filmmakers have long made elders some of their most alluring onscreen characters. Just in the feature-film realm, we can reminisce about so many of our pioneers, caretakers, and huggable curmudgeons. Seek these films out. In a normal year, we’d bring them all back to the big screen for us to watch as a community. But in pandemic years, we encourage you to stream them online. You can’t go wrong with:
Chan is Missing (Wayne Wang, 1982)
The Fall of the I-Hotel (Curtis Choy, 1983)
Pushing Hands (Ang Lee, 1991)
Oh, Saigon (Doan Hoang, 2007)
A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (Wayne Wang, 2007)
American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs (Grace Lee, 2013)
95 and 6 to Go (Kimi Takesue, 2016)
The Farewell (Lulu Wang, 2019)
Lucky Grandma (Sasie Sealy, 2019)
While those films are readily available, there are so many others that have receded from memory — if not abandoned, then at least not visited upon as much as we’d like to think. In the realm of film history, visibility is also a question of the archive. What stories are kept in circulation? Who owns these stories? Our four-film program “Songs Our Elders Taught Me” is a collection of those hard-to-find films, long-unavailable but not forgotten. Only one (Cosmopolitan) has ever been commercially released on a DVD, now out-of-print. Another (The Wash) we’re making available, under the filmmaker’s advisement, from a LaserDisc, the best home format it’s ever been released on. The short film (Wong Sinsaang) is available thanks to Visual Communications, which provided a digital scan from the 16mm projection print held in the Academy archives. To excavate this history — to remember and not simply consume this history — is a challenge involving antiquated technologies and codecs. But so is the case with listening to our elder’s songs, which require translations across history and language, amplification technologies and recording devices.
When we hear, we trace reverberations of family lineages and interruptions, and in the case of our selected films, we unearth love and sex — not necessarily our usual associations with Asian elders, but the very desires that affirm their basest humanity. We also uncover overlapping histories; legacies of World War II haunt characters in two of the films, showing the ways that elders’ stories aren’t apolitical films of universal insight, but rather the products of American militarism and its lingering impact on the Asian American community.
Amongst those impacts are the hypersexualization of Asian women, as seen in Hosup Lee’s searing documentary And Thereafter, and the Cold War aggressions that have resulted in “China virus” microaggressions and worse. These impacts are with us, seeped in American culture, and they have violent consequences. But American culture belongs to us too. Our bodies, our memories, and our deeply, sometimes ambivalently, felt attachments to our elders, are ready to be visible and undeniable. Here are some of our elders’ stories, hidden in plain sight in the annals of Asian American cinema.
Three legends (Mako, Nobu McCarthy, Sab Shimono) headline this rare 1988 drama about love after separation.
After his family leaves him, a recent retiree takes an interest in leftover Cosmo magazines and an intriguing neighbor.
Hosup Lee’s award-winning documentary about a Korean woman who marries an American GI and ends up an outsider in New Jersey.
And Thereafter is preceded by the short film: Wong Sinsaang (Eddie Wong, 1971, 12 mins)
Peering through the dry cleaning, Eddie Wong views his laundromat father with frustration and awe.
Co-Presented by Korean American Bar Association San Diego (KABA-SD), ResMed, Korean American Coalition (KAC-SD)