May is celebrated as Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month. The month serves to celebrate and pay tribute to the many generations of people of Asian and Pacific Islander descent that have deepened American history and paved the way for future success. What better way to celebrate than to highlight some of our favorite Asian and Pacific Islander filmmakers and actors, and to look ahead at some of their upcoming projects?
For the purposes of this list, we have referenced filmmakers and actors that have made marks in Hollywood-produced films. Of course, there are also incredibly talented international filmmakers and actors as well, including, to name just a few, South Korean cinema’s Bong Joon-ho, who took home the Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay for Parasite (2019) – the first non-English film to win the highly coveted award – and Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai, known prominently for Chungking Express (1994). With that caveat, let’s take a look and celebrate some of the biggest AAPI names in Hollywood.
Born in Beijing, China, Chloé Zhao moved to Los Angeles by herself as a teenager where she finished high school before attending college on the East Coast. Zhao studied under revered director Spike Lee at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, where he became an influence on her work along with Asian filmmakers Wong Kar-wai and Ang Lee. At NYU, Zhao made her first short film Daughters in 2010. Many of her films dive into the heart and authenticity of real stories and characters, and she pulls moments from the lives of the actors she works with into the film itself. In 2021, Chloé Zhao made history as the second woman ever, first Asian woman, and first woman of color to receive the Academy Award for Best Director for her film Nomadland. She also won Best Picture for the film. Zhao soared through the 2021 awards season by picking up a total of 34 awards, becoming the most honored person throughout a single season. Her latest project is the blockbuster superhero film for Marvel, Eternals (2021), which she both directed and wrote, and which stars an ensemble cast featuring fellow Asian actors: Gemma Chan of Hong Kong descent as Sersi, Pakistani-American actor Kumail Nanjiani as Kingo, and South Korean-American actor Ma Dong-seok as Gilgamesh. Zhao’s style is seen prominently in the Marvel blockbuster, as she developed the real emotional connection between actors Lauren Ridloff and Barry Keoghan on set and weaved it into the story, wanting to see their characters interact more. You will soon be able to see more of Chloé Zhao’s work in her upcoming spin on Universal’s classic monster, Dracula, which she is signed on to direct, write, and produce a sci-fi western film for.
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson
Whether you know him as a wrestler, as an actor, or even as a defensive linebacker, The Rock has had an impressive career spanning all sorts of avenues. As a Samoan actor, Johnson’s first mainstream success came with his portrayal of Luke Hobbs in the Fast & Furious franchise, including most recently in Hobbs & Shaw (2019) alongside Jason Statham. He has become one of the most well-known and highest-paid actors in Hollywood, with experience both in action-packed films – ranging from San Andreas (2015) to Skyscraper (2018) – and even family-friendly movies – including Disney’s Moana (2016), for which he voiced the Polynesian demigod Maui alongside native Hawaiian Auli’I Cravalho as the title character (and Disney’s first Polynesian princess), the rebooted Jumanji franchise, and Disney’s theme park attraction-inspired Jungle Cruise (2021). Later this year, The Rock will finally venture into the world of superheroes with two DC movies: the animated DC League of Super-Pets, where he voices Superman’s best friend, Krypto the Superdog, and Black Adam, a part of the larger DC Extended Universe, where he will take on the title role as the nemesis of Zachary Levi’s Shazam. Beyond his on-screen work, Johnson is a strong philanthropist, founding the Dwayne Johnson Rock Foundation to work with terminally ill children, and has worked closely with Hawaiian non-profits for relief efforts, among numerous other organizations.
We couldn’t possibly leave out our horror fans on this list. Asian horror films have long been some of the greatest – er, most terrifying – horror films on the market. If you want to not sleep for a week, the list is endless: Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-On franchise, the Ring franchise helmed by numerous Japanese directors, and Yeon Sang-ho’s Train to Busan franchise from South Korea. For American-produced films, though, we turn to Malaysian-Australian filmmaker James Wan. Wan has created not one, but three major horror franchises: the Saw franchise, the Insidious franchise, and The Conjuring Universe, including the Annabelle films, as well as The Nun (2018). If there’s a modern American horror film that you love, you can bet that James Wan had a hand in it. Wan is said to have pulled from his own fears while writing the original script for Saw (2004), which makes us wonder…what haunts the nightmares of a master horror filmmaker? While James Wan’s next directorial project will take a step away from the horror realm with Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom in 2023, there once was a more horrific Aquaman spin-off in the works titled The Trench, and we’re still a little sad about the loss of that project. But fear not, Wan will still be producing a few new horror films coming soon: Salem’s Lot (2022), based on the Stephen King vampire novel of the same name, and for Blumhouse Productions, M3GAN (2023), a science-fiction horror film following an AI doll that does not go as planned, with an original story by Wan.
Prior to landing the leading role in Baywatch Hawaii as Jason Ioane, Jason Momoa worked in a surf shop before being discovered by designers. For the role of Khal Drogo in HBO’s acclaimed Game of Thrones series, the Native Hawaiian performed a Haka for his audition, a threatening Māori dance used traditionally to either challenge an opponent in battle or welcome a distinguished guest. Of course, following his success on Game of Thrones, perhaps Momoa’s most notable role is that of Arthur Curry, better known as Aquaman in the DC Extended Universe. So far, he has portrayed the character in four films, and will have his fifth portrayal in Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom (2023). Momoa has strong ties to his Hawaiian roots, with his sleeve tattoo serving as a tribute to his ‘aumakua, or family god, and he can also play the ukulele. Standing with many Native Hawaiians, Momoa protested the Thirty Meter Telescope’s construction on Mauna Kea, a sacred mountain in Native Hawaiian culture. After his most recent performance in Dune (2021), it was announced that Jason Momoa will be joining the Fast & Furious franchise for at least two films, beginning with a role as the villain in Fast X (2023).
In comparison to some of the others on this list, Jo Koy might be more of a newcomer to the silver screen, but he’s no stranger to the comedy scene. The Filipino-American begin his stand-up in 1994 in Las Vegas and quickly moved on to having regular appearances at the MGM Grand Hotel before joining an abundance of TV comedy specials. From 2009 to the present, he has a total of five comedy specials across Comedy Central and Netflix, with a sixth set to debut on Netflix later this year. Many of his routines involve his Filipino family, particularly his mother, who encouraged him in the beginning to hold performances for family and friends. This August, Jo will hit the big screen and star in Universal’s newest comedy, Easter Sunday. The comedy pulls from Koy’s own upbringing, centering around a loud, dysfunctional Filipino-American family that all come together for an Easter celebration – as Koy puts it, the Filipino Super Bowl – and though it highlights the Filipino experience, Koy is looking forward to it being a hilarious, relatable ride for all audiences.
Jon M. Chu
Jon M. Chu’s endeavors in filmmaking started at a young age when he began making home movies of his family in the fifth grade. Chu went on to graduate from the University of Southern California’s Film & Television Production program, where he created his student short film When the Kids Are Away, which caught the attention of talent agencies and several studios, including Sony Pictures. Chu is of Taiwanese and Chinese descent, and his filmography as a director is extensive, including the Step Up franchise and a film adaptation of Lin Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights (2021). Most notably though, Chu has received incredible praise for his romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians (2018), starring a majority Chinese and Chinese descent cast – the first major Hollywood film to do so since The Joy Luck Club (1993). Really, the cast is stacked: with Constance Wu and Henry Golding as the lead romantic roles, backed by Gemma Chan, Lisa Lu, Awkwafina, Ken Jeong, and Michelle Yeoh. Deadline reported that the audience turnout for the film was made up of 38% Asian moviegoers – one of the highest turnouts of all time – comparable to the 41% of Caucasian moviegoers that also attended screenings. The visually stunning and lavish film raked in $238.5 million at the box office – one of the highest-grossing romantic comedies of all time – and received numerous nominations and awards, including the Golden Globe Awards and Critics’ Choice Awards. A sequel is currently in the works, with Chu set to return as director. One of Jon M Chu’s next projects will be the highly-anticipated film adaptation of Broadway’s Wicked, set to star Cynthia Erivo as Elphaba and Ariana Grande as Glinda.
Raised in a Shia Muslim family, Kumail Nanjiani grew up in Karachi, Pakistan before beginning his career as a stand-up comedian in Chicago, Illinois. Beyond his stand-up routines, Nanjiani particularly rose to fame with his role on HBO’s Silicon Valley as the programmer Dinesh Chugtai, who he played for 53 episodes. One of Nanjiani’s most beloved works is The Big Sick (2017), an independent romantic comedy that he co-wrote with his wife, Emily V. Gordon, about their own relationship and the cultural differences they faced together. The film earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay and became one of the most praised films of the year. A self-proclaimed geek and lover of pop culture, Nanjiani also has frequently appeared on Dungeons & Dragons podcasts, and even hosted a podcast about The X-Files. Kumail also became the first Pakistani superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with his portrayal of the wisecracking Kingo in Eternals (2021), for which he learned several Bollywood dances. Next up, Nanjiani will be starring in the Disney+ original series Obi-Wan Kenobi alongside Ewan McGregor, and The Independent, a political thriller coming later this year.
Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh is prominently known for her career in martial arts films, rising to fame in the 1990s Hong Kong film industry, and achieving international acclaim in Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) from the James Bond franchise and Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). Honestly, her filmography is so extensive and incredible that you better just put her on your list of actresses whose films you need to watch in their entirety. More recently, Yeoh has received praise for her performance as Eleanor Young in John Cho’s hit romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians. For the fans of superhero movies, you’ll find her in Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021) playing the role of Shang-Chi and Xu Xialing’s aunt and protector of Ta Lo, Ying Nan, a stellar performance in which she goes back to her martial artist roots–and at almost 60 years old, she’s still doing all her own stunts. Currently, she can be spotted in theaters as Evelyn Wang in the absurdist comedy Everything Everywhere All at Once, a film that truly earns its title and is set to be not only one of the best movies of the year, but also one of her greatest performances so far. This summer, she can be heard in the Despicable Me spinoff, Minions: The Rise of Gru, and later this year as Dr. Karina Mogue in the long-awaited sequel from James Cameron, Avatar: The Way of Water.
It really wouldn’t be possible to talk about Asian actors in Hollywood without mentioning Ming-Na Wen. After her breakthrough role in The Joy Luck Club (1993), Wen has since played a part in an abundance of popular franchises. First, she became Disney’s first Asian princess voicing the title role of the animated film Mulan (1998). Fluent in English, Cantonese, and Mandarin, Wen grew up with the story of Hua Mulan as told in the Chinese poem “The Ballad of Mulan,” so she instantly connected to the role. She reprised the role of the warrior in the direct-to-video sequel, Mulan II (2004), as well as in Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018), and later had a cameo appearance in the 2020 live-action version of the tale. Beyond being one of the greatest Disney princesses, Ming-Na Wen also portrayed Dr. Jing-Mei “Deb” Chen on a whopping 118 episodes of the medical drama series ER. Her franchise work doesn’t stop there. Marvel and superhero fans will recognize her as Agent Melinda May from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which she starred in for seven seasons. But she still keeps going. Most recently, she has entered the Star Wars universe as the mercenary Fennec Shand in the Disney+ series The Mandalorian, Star Wars: The Bad Batch, and The Book of Boba Fett. In 2019, Ming-Na Wen was recognized as a Disney Legend for her outstanding contributions to The Walt Disney Company, and she will also be receiving her well-deserved star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame later this year. With the many franchises that she has already tackled, we are eagerly waiting to see what she will do next.
Yes, technically Simu Liu is Chinese-Canadian, but we’re including him on this list. After being laid off as an accountant in 2012, Simu started his acting career as an extra and stuntman. His first main television role came in 2015 when he was cast as Jung Kim in the CBC sitcom Kim’s Convenience. If you’re a fan of the humorous and down-to-earth Schitt’s Creek, then Liu’s first TV show will be right up your alley. Liu’s big-screen career skyrocketed after he was cast as Marvel’s first prominent Asian superhero, playing the title character in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021). The film boasts a rockstar Asian-led cast and crew, with Destin Daniel Cretton directing, and Awkwafina, Meng’er Zhang, Fala Chen, Michelle Yeoh, and Tony Leung starring alongside Liu. Fascinatingly, Simu Liu put his desire to play the character out into the universe with a Twitter post in 2018–talk about manifesting your dreams! Liu is a strong advocate of the Stop Asian Hate movement, having published numerous columns and books about the Asian experience, including his own memoir, We Were Dreamers: An Immigrant Superhero Origin Story. Next up, you’ll be able to catch Simu Liu in Greta Gerwig’s romantic comedy Barbie, starring Margot Robbie and set to release in 2023.
Of Māori and Jewish descent, Taika’s second short film, Two Cars, One Night – released just six years after he graduated from the Victoria University of Wellington – earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Live Action Short Film at the 2005 Oscars. Afterward, he would be no stranger to the big screen, as he eventually took home the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for Jojo Rabbit (2019), which he directed, wrote, produced, and starred in. Between the two nominations, you might have also seen Taika in the New Zealand vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows (2014), which he co-directed and co-wrote alongside fellow New Zealander Jermaine Clement. After his most recent success playing the infamous pirate, Blackbeard, in the hit HBO Max romantic comedy series Our Flag Means Death, Taika’s next projects include an animated role in Pixar’s Lightyear, as well as a reprisal of his role of everyone’s favorite alien rock, Korg, in Marvel’s Thor: Love and Thunder, which he has also returned to direct following the success of Thor: Ragnarok (2017).
Of course, this list is by no means exhaustive of all the talented Asian and Pacific Islander filmmakers and actors in Hollywood, much less globally. And that’s not even mentioning all the great filmmakers that have paved the way before. The brilliant careers of these filmmakers and more simply goes to show that diversity on both the big and little screens is very much needed. It’s not just about diversity for the sake of diversity. Meaningful inclusion is what matters. Not just background roles and non-speaking parts, but the real heroes and leads telling their own stories and living their own dreams. By having more thoughtfully representative media, full of diverse cast and crew members, we cultivate a place where anyone can envision themselves in the roles of superheroes, romantic leads, powerful action fighters, and even just everyday friends. But even when it’s not AAPI Heritage Month, we can continue to support Asian and Pacific Islander filmmakers year-round, as there are always new movies coming to the screen.