“Ethan Mao”—And 7 More Must-See Queer Asian-American Films

We’re still waiting for a big-budget Hollywood movie by and about LGBTQ Asian Americans—a Crazy Gay Rich Asians rom-com set in the Bay Area would be a good start, thank you—but indie filmmakers have actually provided some notable representation on screen over the past few decades.

Case in the point: the recent 15th-anniversary screening and VOD release of Ethan Mao, out writer-director Quentin Lee’s gripping, heart-tugging, award-winning 2004 drama-thriller about a gay Asian-American teenager (Jun Hee Lee) who is kicked to the curb by his homophobic father, turns to prostitution, and in the process of burgling his house for his late mother’s necklace, takes his father, stepmother, and siblings hostage.
 

Digitally restored with the support of UCLA Film & TV Archive and Outfest’s Legacy Project, the movie was the only representation of a gay Asian-American teenager in cinema when it first came out. “It was certainly a historical document,” says Lee. “I feel the movie empowers gay teenagers by embracing gay teen rage, especially for teens of color, and that’s why it’s still relevant.”

And it’s in good—though still small—company. Here, we’ve rounded up seven more LGBTQ Asian-American movies worth seeking out.
 

Licensed to Kill (1997)

San Francisco filmmaker Arthur Dong was the victim of a gay bashing in the 1970s. Years later, compelled to understand what motivates such intense, violent hate for homosexuals, he confronted convicted murderers of gay men in this still way-too-relevant documentary.

See also: Hollywood Chinese (2007), which traces the rich, little-known history of Chinese representation in Hollywood cinema.
 

Fruit Fly (2009)

After writing and co-starring in 2006’s Colma: The Musical, Filipino-American filmmaker, composer, and actor H.P. Mendoza gave the director’s seat a shot. Set in San Francisco’s Castro district, this zippy musical concerns a newly arrived performance artist, Bethesda (L.A. Renigen), who finds friendship and family among a gaggle of gays and lesbians.

See also: Mendoza’s audacious drama Bitter Melon (2018), in which a Filipino-American family realizes one of its members has become a toxically masculine serial abuser and conspires to murder him.
 

In the Family (2011)

Born in a suburb of Houston, Texas, Patrick Wang wowed critics, including Roger Ebert , with his ambitious, self-released drama about a Chinese-American gay man, Joey (played by Wang), thrust into a nightmarish custody battle with Caucasian in-laws when his partner, Cody (Trevor St. John), the biological father of their 6-year-old son, Chip (Sebastian Banes), is killed in a car accident.

See also: A Bread Factory, Parts 1 & 2 (2018), Wang’s four-hour, two-part comedy-drama-musical epic about a 40-year-old upstate New York arts center endangered by the arrival of a hip new arts development.
 

White Frog (2012)

Quentin Lee betrayed a gentler, more sentimental side and worked with a slate of higher-profile actors—including BD Wong, Tyler Posey, and Joan Chen—in this drama about a 15-year-old with Asperger’s syndrome (Booboo Stewart) who learns that his recently deceased older brother (considered the “perfect son” by the family) was gay. “It was most coincidental that two weeks before I started to film White Frog, my youngest sister in her 30s was diagnosed with Asperger’s,” Lee recalls, “so even though it was a director-for-hire project, it became highly personal for me.”

See also: Gay Hollywood Dad (2018), Lee’s web series about becoming a father via surrogate.
 

Pit Stop (2013)

Last year’s acclaimed AIDS drama 1985 put Dallas-based, Malaysian-American filmmaker Yen Tan on the Hollywood map, yet his previous features, like this Sundance Film Festival selection about two gay Texans stuck in respective relationship purgatories, foreshadowed his talent for low-key, deeply emotional character studies.

See also: Ciao (2008), Tan’s film in which a Texan connects with the mysterious, long-distance romantic interest of his recently deceased best friend.
 

Baby Steps (2015)

Los Angeles–raised Taiwanese-American actor turned filmmaker Barney Cheng drew from aspects of his own life while making this dramedy about a grandchild-starved Taiwanese mother (Grace Guei) who learns her gay L.A.–based son, Danny (Cheng), is planning to raise a child via surrogate with his Caucasian boyfriend, Tate (Michael Adam Hamilton), which he’s kept a secret from her.

See also: The short documentary A Love Letter (2019), about two loving Asian-American families raising transgender children.
 

Spa Night (2016)

L.A.-born, Korean-American filmmaker Andrew Ahn won a special Jury Award at the Sundance Film Festival for his feature debut, a mesmerizing coming-of-age tale about a deeply closeted L.A. teenager, David (Joe Seo), whose repressed sexuality and Korean-American identity converge when he gets a job at a cruisy Koreatown spa.

See also: Ahn funneled a subtle queerness into his touching follow-up, Driveways (2019), about an 8-year-old Asian-American (Lucas Jaye) who befriends his neighbor, a widowed Korean War veteran neighbor (Brian Dennehy).

Lawrence is a New York-based travel and entertainment writer whose work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, Time Out New York and The New York Post.

@LawrenceFerber


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