While not an American film, I think “Way of the Dragon” comes pretty close to Asian American cinema. Bruce Lee was as Asian American as they come, being born in San Francisco. Bruce Lee not only starred in the film but also directed and co-produced the film. What keeps this film from being Asian American is the fact that the production company that backed the film was a Hong Kong based company (that was co-founded by Lee) and the plot centers on a character, Tang Lung, who is decidedly not American.
The plot of the movie is pretty simple, Bruce Lee moves from Hong Kong to Italy to save a family restaurant. Bruce Lee fights off Italian thugs who want to close down a Chinese restaurant and even takes on (and defeats) Chuck Norris’ character, the greatest American martial artist.
I believe “Way of the Dragon” is a great film for Asian American representation because Bruce Lee plays a tough, muscular, martial arts expert, a character that clashes with typical portrayals of Asian American Men in American cinema. Lee brought the strong masculine Asian man to the big screen in America. My father and his brothers were highly inspired by Bruce Lee and this movie in particular, even though his characters are not Asian American. My father didn’t care that the character was not Asian American, it was just nice to see another Asian American (or Asian in general) on the big screen.
Asian American representation could have been better if either Tang Lung was American or if the movie itself took place in America. This way the movie would have been about Asian Americans rather than Asian Italians (though I guess Asian Italian representation is important for Asian Italians). Without changing either of those Chuck Norris could have been replaced by an Asian Actor to better Asian American representation. This way, the greatest martial artist from America would be an Asian American. This would allow for an Asian American character and one that goes against stereotypes as well. Although there is something about the Asian American Bruce Lee defeating the white Chuck Norris that is positive for representation. One shortcoming for Asian American representation was the subtle anti-Japanese sentiment in the implication that Japanese martial arts are inferior to Chinese martial arts.
As I’ve learned from studying Asian American history, events abroad affect Asian Americans in America. This is no different. This movie, produced outside of the country (though made by and starring an Asian American), not only fought against Asian American stereotypes, but also gave Asian American someone to look up to that shared their skin color.