The Shared Anti-imperialist Lineages of Asian/American Film and Third Cinema

By Kano Umezaki



In the popular cinematic imagination, Asians linger as exotic backgrounds, simultaneously commodified and expropriated in the name of “representation”. In order to challenge colonial myths that ceaselessly shape the conditions of our visibility, Asian/American1 filmmakers have historically utilized cinema as a site of cultural reclamation. Low-budget documentary films such as Duane Kubo and Robert Nakamura’s Hito Hata: Raise the Banner (1980) and Nakamura’s Manzanar (1972) made visible the traumatic, intergenerational effects of the white supremacist incarceration of the Issei and Nisei diaspora during World War II. Later films such as Curtis Choy’s Fall of the I-Hotel (1983)––which showed the urban capitalist displacement of manongs (older Filipino bachelors) evicted from the International Hotel in the 1970s––brought attention to the failures of liberalism in providing the essentials of shelter, food, and healthcare to peoples in America. Thus, Asian/American films emerged out of a resistance to the colonially dictated image, and the material conditions which shaped their displacements, incarcerations, and exploitations. This essay is interested in re-invoking Asian/American cinematic history in order to realize its direct relationship to the anti-colonial, anti-imperialist, demanding praxis of Third Cinema.

Keywords: Asian/American Film, Third Cinema, Documentary Film, Transnational Anti-imperialism


Biographical Information:

Kano Umezaki graduated from Soka University of America in 2021 with a Bachler’s Degree in Liberal Arts. Her research and writing interests include feminist Asian cinema and literature, with a focus on East Asia and its diasporas; as well as the transnational influences of Third Cinema on political documentary works. She is also interested in practicing rhetorical transformations, specifically by looking towards embodied matriarchal myths, transmedia storytelling, and queer experimental fiction and poetry. She is currently a staff writer for CineVue, Asian CineVision’s digital film journal.



As this article seeks to make memory, Asian/American film must be an art for the people because it began as movement for the people. As we revisit Asian/American films from the 1970s to now, we can see its potential in unsettling, with the ultimate goal of dismantling, U.S. imperialist reach across the Asia/Pacific in all its material particularities. Because only with a media for the people––rather than settler claims to liberal representation which fail to alter the material conditions of our respective oppressions––can we all get closer to getting free.


Projections of Difference

U.S. imperialism across Asia and the Pacific has rendered feminized Asian/Pacific peoples as objects of sexual conquest. In popularized Hollywood cinema, feminized Asians embody “exotic differences and erotic possibilities” with taxonomic personalities of deviance, despotism, and submission.2 Notoriously, actresses such as Anna May Wong and Nancy Kwan were typecast as sexually deviant seductresses in films such as Shanghai Express (1932) Daughter of the Dragon (1931), and China Doll (1958), which reveals the very transmutability of the imperialist sex trade into the lives and renderings of feminized Asians.

Ethnographic filmmaking also began as a tool for American imperialism. At the turn of the twentieth century, history of U.S. westward colonization was celebrated through the Louisiana Purchase Exposition fair hosted in St. Louis. The fair was both a living museum and a laboratory for the field of anthropology, where primitivized peoples were put on touristic display, including the Ainu of Japan, Native Americans, and most largely, the Filipinx population. These primitivized peoples were forced to put on performances for fairgoers, re-enacting rituals and cooking feasts, with tourists sometimes documenting them with  their own cameras. Rather than laborers, these colonized peoples were brought into the imperial core as racialized, animalized “others” who served to consolidate Western superiority through scientific discourse. Peter Feng writes about the West’s fetish for domestic tourism in relation to the way ethnographic practices have shaped the way we see and are seen.

Cinema participated in creating popular support for U.S. imperialism, which was justified scientifically by the inferiority of America’s ‘‘little brown brothers,’’ itself documented on film by ethnographers. From its conception, cinema has been thoroughly implicated in discourses of science and U.S. imperialism; these various discourses intersected in the Philippines, and later in St. Louis.3

As a direct response to colonially skewed depictions in media, Asian/Americans filmmakers began to seize the camera in favor of telling their own stories and histories, mainly through documentary filmmaking.


The Transnational Origins of Asian/America

Perhaps the most direct relationship between Third Cinema and independent Asian/American cinema can be brought by their dual inception during the tricontinental political reckoning against colonialism, imperialism, and neoliberalism in the late 1960s and early 1970s. During the this time in the (still ongoing) Cold War, the West enacted violent imperialist-military ventures on peoples of the Third and Fourth Worlds as a means of quelling socialist and communist dissent. The American war in communist Vietnam, anti-colonial resistance of the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) against the colonial French, and the socialist Cuban revolution which overthrew the U.S-backed fascist Batista regime, all incepted out of dispossessed and alienated material conditions brought by Western imperialism. As a political response to the global reach of Western imperialism and neoliberalism, peoples of the Third World demanded a tricontinental revolution which drew from socialist and communist revolutionary thinkers and leaders such as Ho Chi Minh, Che Guevara, Mao Zedong, Frantz Fanon, and Aimé Césaire. Alongside the inception of Third Cinema in Latin America in the late 1960s, Asian/American films also emerged.

The Asian/American political-cultural movement incepted out of two critical historical conditions: (1) the Black liberation movement and (2) the anti-imperialist movements heightened by the American war in Vietnam. Coined by UC Berkeley graduates, Emma Gee and Yuji Ichioka, “Asian American” emerged as a pan-ethnic terminology which demanded the self-determination for both Asians situated within the United States and across Asia. Across the nation, radical Asian/American organizations activated, such as the Red Guard Party of San Francisco (which named itself after Mao Zedong’s youth cadre and was largely inspired by the Black Panther Party) and the Asian/Americans for Action (AAA), which began in the East Coast and included legendary activist, Yuri Kochiyama.4

A key component to remember is that the Asian/American movement was inherently rooted in transnationalism. As Daryl Joji Maeda mentions, “A critical internationalism deeply shaped the Asian American movement. The nations of left Asia—the People’s Republic of China, North Vietnam, and North Korea—provided exemplars that the movement admired.”5 Some Asian/American organizers, “including Alex Hing of the Red Guard Party, antiwar activist Pat Sumi, and Gidra writer Evelyn Yoshimura” eventually went to the “People’s Republic of China, North Vietnam, and North Korea… praising the leaders of these nations,” showing Asian/American’s political commitment to building towards a socialist and communist society.6

At the crux of various political momentums––Third World Liberation strikes, Chicanx blowouts, the Young Lords, Black Power movement, emergence of the Los Angeles Black Rebellion films­­––Asian/American film and video activated as a socially committed political practice. Many of the first Asian/American documentary films, such as Robert Nakamura’s Manzanar (1972), captured the private traumas of Japanese/Americans who were forcibly interned during World War II. These films restored collective memory through the image, and often showed abandoned incarceration camps, monuments, and oral testimonies to counter the public silence surrounding Japanese/Americans’ physical and cultural displacements. Chinese/American films, such as Eddie Wong’s Wong Sinsaang (1971), often ruminated on the ills of capitalism in keeping Chinese/Americans in perpetual poverty as imported service workers. Documenting traumas through film was one outlet for Asian/Americans to speak back against the stereotyping fictions of Asian despotism and deviance that often populated Hollywood cinema.

When writing about the politicization of Asian/American film, brought by the anti-colonial tri-continental awakening, filmmaker and activist, Renee Tajima-Peña, states: “The Asian American arts movement as a whole was fueled by this ethic, and driven by this energy, takings its cues from Beijing as much as Berkley. . . My own early introductions to the scene consisted of essays on art and culture via Chairman Mao”7



As Tajima recalls, Asian/American films didn’t limit their struggle within the borders of the United States, as it drew from a series of revolutionary thinkers and movements located around the world, such as Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh. In tandem emergence with the transnational struggle against U.S. imperialism, Asian/American film and video also incepted out of influences of the Third Cinema movement in Latin America; Tajima notes that it “emerged in the same political climate and with similar ideology to African American, Latino and Native American filmmakers, influenced by variations on the movement for a Third Cinema in Latin America. . .”8 Therefore, Asian/American films emerged out of a resistance to the colonially dictated image, and the material conditions which shaped their displacements, incarcerations, and exploitations.


Global Awakenings: The Beginnings of Asian/American Film

As Mimura argues, Asian/American film has a direct lineage to Third Cinema and the anti-imperialist theories and praxis that gave rise to its movement. He draws heavily from the theories of Marxist sociologist, Stuart Hall, particularly Hall’s notion of centering the “emergent local” of “new ethnicities.” Mimura describes:

By privileging the emergent local, Hall deploys ethnicity to rewrite difference against fatalistic closure in which the Third World and its subjects can be figured only as victims, not as social actors involved in the remaking of history.9

Mimura applies Hall’s idea of the “emergent local” to the radical inception of the pan-ethnic Asian/American identity, as well as diasporic identities more generally. He articulates that the Asia/American identity was created out of necessity in order to mobilize against the integrity of the settler colonial nation-state that had confirmed the integrity of the privileged Western cis hetero subject. Thus, Asia/America was never a political project that attempted to claim acceptance into America; it sought to dismantle its legitimacy.

Mimura also describes how Third Cinema and Asian/American films were both brought by their dual inception during the tricontinental political reckoning against colonialism, imperialism, and neoliberalism in the late 1960s and early 1970s. As he writes: “Directly related to or inspired by the ‘tricontinental’ anticolonial nationalist movements in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, Third Cinema was a generative force in the conceptualization and formation of Asian/American independent film in the 1970s, and the community-based media centers that have sustained its development and growth since then.”10 In other words, Third Cinema and its commitment to socialist political struggle laid the historical and theoretical grounds in which the Asian/American cinematic discourse emerges. Therefore, “Asian American film can no longer be ‘just’ a film made by an Asian American, no longer ‘just’ a story with Asian Americans in it, ‘just’ Asian American subject matter. Somehow it has to be more.”11 For Asian/Americans, film discourse often centers around liberal claims to representation, around the diversity of a cast or lack thereof. But by revitalizing the anti-imperialist origins of Asian/American film, we can begin to address a different question: How can films, filmmaking, and film-watching serve as political education tools?

Considering we live in a time of extreme Sinophobia and Orientalism, where U.S. empire has long fixated on branding communist China, North Korea, and Vietnam as political threats, U.S. media have utilized anti-communist propaganda to manufacture consent for further military basing the Asia-Pacific. Members of the Asian diaspora must seek to ask ourselves what our commitment is to our homelands and our people, not to this country. We must utilize films to educate the masses, to counter the consented belief that the Asia-Pacific are riddled with disposal sites for nuclear testing, tourism, military basing, sex trafficking, and war.

As we will now look back, the very beginning of Asian/American film and video began in small grassroots media arts centers that particularly focused on documentary filmmaking such as Visual Communications (VC) in Los Angeles and Asian CineVision (ACV) in New York City. These two organizations can hopefully ground us in realizing that Asian/American films originated from anti-imperialist struggle.


Visual Communications Towards a Socially Committed Praxis

Socially committed to anti-war and anti-capitalism, Visual Communications formed in early 1960s by a group of undergraduate University of Los Angeles (UCLA) students: Robert Nakamura (known as the godfather of Asian/American cinema), Duane Kubo, Alan Ohashi, and Eddie Wong. A majority of the founding members were students of UCLA’s alternative film school, Ethno-Communications, which served as the sole alternative media school in the entire nation. As Alan Hondo recalls, “What we had in common was that we wanted to work together and we wanted to do the kind of productions that served the community. But apart from that it was a real broad range, we had people that were Marxist-Leninist, we had people that were community activists. . . the fact that we were so different made it very exciting.”12

Figure 1. Yuji Ichioka, who taught University of California Los Angeles’ (UCLA) first Asian American studies class, spoke at an Asian Americans for Peace march and rally in Los Angeles on Jan. 17, 1970. [Courtesy of UCLA Newsroom.]
Figure 1. Yuji Ichioka, who taught University of California Los Angeles’ (UCLA) first Asian American studies class, spoke at an Asian Americans for Peace march and rally in Los Angeles on Jan. 17, 1970. [Courtesy of UCLA Newsroom.]

As Tajima documents, Ethno-Communications emerged because of mobilizations led by a multiracial group called the Media Urban Crisis Committee (‘Mother Muccers’ for short).13 It wasn’t until students enacted wide-spread protests such as sit-ins, that UCLA eventually allowed the creation of the Ethno-Communications media program.

During the beginning years of Ethno-Communications, students were allowed to self-determine their own curriculum, hire their own instructors, and even oversee admissions, making the program a sort-of experimental site for enacting democracy in the classroom. As an organization which rooted its struggles in transnationalism, VC was also highly influenced by the struggle against the American war in communist Vietnam. As a political response, Visual Communications adopted the acronym “VC” as a homage to the Viet Cong.14

Many students at Ethno-Communications, most of whom became leaders in racial-ethnic media, were influenced by Third Cinema pioneers. For example, some of the first Asian/American films such as Diane Kubo’s Cruisin’ J-Town (1972) and Curtis Choy’s Fall of the I-Hotel (1982) utilized an aesthetic that resembled the imperfect and non-commercial gaze in which Julio García Espinosa coined “imperfect cinema”. Rather than curating visually refined films, Asian/American filmmakers were more-so concerned about exposing the brutalities of U.S. empire for its carceral and imperialist practices. Often-times, these films captured the intimate, yet deeply fractured, gestures brought by U.S.-led wars in Asia, forced immigration and displacements of Asian/American laborers, and gentrification. Footages gazed through a handheld camera, coupled with pensive voice-over form the auteur, were common practices in 60s and 70s Asian/American documentary films, most of which were made without a budget.

Although Asian/American film eventually took a more commercialized turn during the 90s, some films such as Loni Ding’s Nisei Soldier: Standard Bearer for an Exiled People (1984) and Christine Choy’s Homes Apart: Korea (1991) continued the legacy of Asian/American films as inherently polemical works rooted in anti-imperialist struggle. For example, Choy’s Homes Apart documents how the U.S.-led anti-communist war in Korea led the country to be severed in half, with families separated across the border for decades. The film allows the audience to bear critical witness, where our engagement moves beyond our spectatorship, and we see that images held in the archive reveal themselves as not distant catches of the past, but rather glimpses into an honest present. Asian/American films that resist claims to diversity and representation as antidotes to U.S. empire help us see, or perhaps begin to see, how the relationship between the past and the present, between generations of ancestral lineages, isn’t far or forgotten, but painfully close.

As Tajima further elaborates on the connection between Third Cinema and Asian/American film:

In formal terms, Asian American films of the 1960s and 1970s were often raw by necessity and even, consciously so. Political filmmakers scorned the notion of “perfect cinema” that Julio García Espinosa, director of the Cuban Film Institute, described in his 1969 essay, “For an Imperfect Cinema.” Nowadays perfect cinema, technically and artistically masterful–– is almost always reactionary cinema,” wrote García Espinosa. The anti-slick ideology influenced the arts movement as a whole […] therefore, it is a mistake to attribute the rough-edged quality of early Asian American cinema as technically haphazard, or immature alone. Filmmakers grasped these new Asian American cultural forms in their raw state, and they moved swiftly towards building it whole.15

In line with carrying the political influences of Third Cinema, Asian/American film also sought to use low-budget documentaries as sites of political mobilization. In its beginning years, VC was a full-service, grassroots organization in which their documentaries were made and screened in community-centers and schools. Okada recounts that “VC was ultimately engaged in an ideological, anti-capitalist, populist worker’s cinema, like other social change film movements in history. VC’s ‘anti-art’ stance was practiced through its ideological intervention in conventional notions of commercial and art cinema, especially that of authorship.”16 Many of the film-makers also practiced a non-hierarchal, collective method of film-making, which is a praxis directly inspired by Third Cinema. Co-founder of VC, Rob Nakamura, shares that VC was a “community based” production company. “We worked as a collective. That’s why you won’t see in a lot of the early films, you won’t see credit lines except for people who weren’t in VC. You won’t see directed by or anything, so that was part of our collective thing.”17 As VC demonstrates, Asian/American film incepted as both cultural resistance and creativity, and it was a socially committed practice that sought to dismantle capitalist labor relations.

Figure 2. Visual Communications members (left to rightAlan Kindo, Diane Kubo, and Eddie Wong, preparing to shoot a scene from the VC film I Told You So (1973). [Courtesy of Visual Communications.]
Figure 2. Visual Communications members (left to rightAlan Kindo, Diane Kubo, and Eddie Wong, preparing to shoot a scene from the VC film I Told You So (1973). [Courtesy of Visual Communications.]

Education played a critical role during the formative years of Asian/American film and video. Whether it be screening political films in a local community organization or in an ethnic studies university classroom, educating the Asian/American community was a shared goal. Though it’s unclear whether VC was directly following the principles of Solanas and Getino’s praxis for Third Cinema, they still participated in community-based film distribution strategies that countered the commercialization of media. VC created educational films for elementary school students, made storybooks, and distributed literature and media to Asian/American youth, all in the name of undoing orientalist myths and fictions.


The First Asian/American Films: Manzanar (1972) and Wong Sinsaang (1971)

Two of VC’s first produced films were documentaries: Eddie Wong’s Wong Sinsaang (1971) and Robert Nakamura’s Manzanar (1972). “The demand for the two films was immediate,” Ron Hirano recalls, “and their distribution was an important service performed by VC at the time … a good deal of the demand for the films emanated from Asian/American studies programs and public schools, it was natural that VC focus on the educational applications of their material.”18

Nakamura’s Manzanar is part expository documentary, part travel essay, and is known to be the first internment documentary. On December 7th, 1941, Japan bombed America’s base in Pearl Harbor, a U.S. military base located off the shores of Hawai’i. The attack propelled President Franklin Roosevelt to legislate Executive Order 9066, which authorized U.S. military personnel to forcefully remove Japanese/Americans from their places of settlement and place them in American concentration camps within desolate regions of the nation. With domesticated national security fears, further exacerbated by orientalist propaganda, eventually 120,000 Japanese/Americans became incarcerated on the basis of their racialization.

Wrung with nostalgic pain, Nakamura recalls his emotions growing up in a concentration camp. When he was just six years old, he was forcefully moved to the concertation camp in Manzanar, California––one of ten American concertation camps for Japanese/Americans––alongside his mother and father. In the documentary, he narrates over shaky footages of the desolate camp juxtaposed with photographs of interned Japanese/Americans. Pensive in form, Nakamura’s film isn’t so-much concerned with formal aesthetics of documentary film-making, but rather the act of preserving and commemorating the tragedies of his family and community’s forced relocation. The presence of loss haunts the 16-minute short film, as Nakamura narrates: “I really can’t remember anything––just vague impressions, feelings, smells, and sounds.”19

Previously, the U.S. government had restricted photographic use amongst interned Japanese/Americans, subjecting their experiences into an archival forgetting. Nakamura attempts to undo the public silence surrounding Japanese internment, often referring to the large, white stone monument in Manzanar. Images of broken plates and cups also symbolize the residuals of a community now shattered, displaced, and left behind, ultimately bearing the question: What would it take for these traumas to be amended?

Monument at Manzanar, from Manzanar (Robert Nakamura, 1972).
Figure 3. Monument at Manzanar, from Manzanar (Robert Nakamura, 1972).

With a similar political commitment, Eddie Wong documents the life of his father, a Chinese laundryman, in his short film, Wong Sinsaang (1971). The film opens with an exposition of a Chinese laundry business, followed by Wong’s father sitting down and reading the newspaper, smoking a cigarette. Wong then cuts to footages of laundry machines, portraying the lifeless monotony of working as an exploited wage-laborer. Shot in black-and-white, Wong’s film attempts to evoke the dulling consequence of capitalism. While we see shots of Wong’s father working the laundry business, we hear Wong’s narration embedded within the soundtrack, offering critiques of capitalism and his father’s impoverished position as a laundryman doing the domestic work for white families. The dull textual footage of the film juxtaposed with Wong’s critiques seeks to reject the romantization of a multicultural class society in America. Taking an experimental turn, Wong loops the audio of an exchange between his father and a customer over subsequent sequences, evoking the dry repetition of his father’s life. When describing his motivations for making Wong Sinsaang (1971), Eddie Wong shares:

At the time, I had just finished reading “The Autobiography of Malcolm X”, and I began to understand a little bit more about what’s discussed as ‘colonial relations,’ where people who are colonized relate to their parents in a very stilted manner. They see them through the eyes of their oppressors. And in this case [it was] my father who I saw as someone who was subservient most of his life, having to deal with White customers who would often be verbally abusive. And so I literally saw [my] film as someone re-examining his relationship with his own father, and trying to explain that this person — beyond the stereotype — had a whole other life that most people would never see.20

Figure 4. Eddie Wong’s father, Frank Wong, in his family’s laundry business, from Wong Sin¬saang (Eddie Wong, 1972). [Courtesy of Visual Communications.]
Figure 4. Eddie Wong’s father, Frank Wong, in his family’s laundry business, from Wong Sin¬saang (Eddie Wong, 1972). [Courtesy of Visual Communications.]

Following the production of Manzanar and Wong Sinsaang, VC made subsequent documentary and narrative films alike, including Wataraidori: Birds of Passage (1975), Pieces of a Dream (1974), Cruisin’ J-Town (1975), and Hito Hata: Raise the Banner (1980). These films were often labors of love, as funding for film production proved scarce. These were also collectivist works, as Okada notes: “Visual Communications pro­duction output in the mid-seventies developed more fully the idea of collectiv­ity through the realization of a model of communal filmmaking that purpose­fully replaced the function of the individual author with that of institutional authorship.”21

Although VC began as an anti-colonial and anti-imperialist collective, it took a more commercialized shift in the 1980s. The increasing commercialization of Asian/American films was largely brought by material limitations, as many filmmakers had to widen their audience and networks to maintain their career. As more Asian/American filmmakers sought to widen their audience, aesthetics of ‘imperfect’ cinema became less prominent, meaning technical perfection became a greater priority than the democratization of media production.22 Despite these material limitations, VC is still an active organization today, maintaining its community-centered approach to media.


Asian CineVision and Questions of Asian/American Aesthetics

At the same time Visual Communications started up in Los Angeles, Asian CineVision (ACV) incepted in New York City in 1975 with the same social devotion to aiding the Asian/American community through political education and cultural production. While Ethno-Communications was crucial in providing generative material and anti-imperialist ideological reckoning to the founders of Visual Communications, the Basement Workshop in NYC “provided the initial framework for ACV… as they “[shared] the pursuit of an anticapitalist, antiracist, and Third Worldist perspective of the Asian American movement.”23

Asian CineVision began through the collaboration of grassroots media activists Peter Chow, Danny Yung, Thomas Tam, and Christine Choy. Similar to Visual Communications and Ethno-Communications, Asian CineVision sought to incorporate Asian/American stories, filmmakers, and art in a media landscape otherwise stripped of Asian/American stories. In particular, ACV was culturally notorious for their services in New York Chinatown, where they programmed Chinatown Community Television (CCTV), the first Chinese-language news programming on cable. ACV was also pivotal in shaping the independent Asian/American cinematic scene through their literary arts journal, Bridge, which suspended publication in 1986 and was replaced by the more contemporary CineVue. Bridge aimed to connected Asian communities together on a transnational scale, with a particular focus on China and its diaspora. With its first publication in 1971, Bridge was only one of three Asian/American publications at this time, the other two being Gidra and Amerasia. ACV also hosted the Asian/American International Film Festival (AAIFF), which was the very first film festival dedicated to Asian/American film and video. Their first festival was hosted in February of 1978 in Lower East Side Manhattan, and the line-up consisted of many documentaries, short films, and avant-garde films.24 Although none of these films would be categorized as Third Cinema films, the act of consolidating an alternative community-centered site for media distribution was crucial in educating and politicizing the local Asian/American community. ACV had opened the doors for a whole new alternative method of distributing Asian/American cinema.


Capturing Displacement in Curtis Choy’s Fall of the I-Hotel (1983)

One of Asian CineVision’s most compelling productions was Curtis Choy’s politically charged documentary, Fall of the I-Hotel (1983), which records the climatic confrontation between the militarized police and Filipinx elders who were forcefully evicted from their residency in the International Hotel in San Francisco. As real estate investors capacitated gentrification projects across Manilatown, Filipinx people and allies sought to protect one of the last-standing Filipinx hotels in Manilatown. Filmed over several years in the 1970s, the documentary relies on oral interviews of I-Hotel tenants, community allies, and investors to shape the narrative development of the film.

Figure 5. Militarized police in front of the International Hotel, from Curtis Choy’s Fall of the I-Hotel (1983).
Figure 5. Militarized police in front of the International Hotel, from Curtis Choy’s Fall of the I-Hotel (1983).

Fall of the I-Hotel begins with a extended shots of a demolished building, with tagged signs reading “Rent is robbery” and “Evict your landlord.” Choy then cuts to an interview with a manong tenant: “This is my home since a long time. Since I arrived here from the Philippines in 1926… most of my years in America I spent in this hotel, so it is my home.“ Centering the voices of manongs, Choy’s documentary depicts an active, predatory network of real estate investors and law enforcement workers in San Francisco. What was once a ten-block Manilatown full of nightclubs, boxing halls, and restaurants eventually dwindled to one block, with the I-Hotel being one of eight hotels remaining. After investors and politicians put out eviction orders for manong tenants, a battle of over nine years ensued, where Filipinx community organizers and members participated in eviction proceedings and protests. Eventually, on August 4, 1977, manongs were forcefully thrown out of their homes by about 400 militarized cops. Cops used ladders hosted on firetrucks to climb up apartment floors and break in using sledge hammers, where they then broke facilities, stole possessions, and forcefully dragged many manong elders out onto the street.

Choy sprucely documents the rising conflict and urgency of the scene, centering the shouts of over 2,000 community activists as they created a wall in defense of the hotel. Heightened with political tension, the closing sequence of the film is riddled with similarities to Third Cinema aesthetic, as Mimura writes: “It is not clear to what degree, if any, Fall of the I-Hotel was directly influenced by prior works of Third Cinema. However, several of its formal and thematic features resonate strikingly with the strategies and style of many Third Cinema documentaries: in particular, the sense of political immediacy and urgency in every frame (in contrast to the typically more relaxed, introspective rhetoric characteristic of much of Visual Communications’ work.”25

Choy masterfully conducts the dramatic confrontation between the police and protestors, prefacing the eviction night with a speculative, poetic scene. In a ghostly manner, a camera travels through uninhabited corridors of the I-Hotel, with dim lights swallowing the hallway into a near-dark. As the camera moves forward, hand-held and quivering, we hear Able Robles’ narration:

International Hotel. Where old and young Filipinos live, hang, and roam around all day. Like carabaos in the mud. Manong imprint of brown bodies on the wall. They pull me inside. Come alive…submerge myself deep down into the dark basement, underneath Kearney Street, Manilatown… graveyard of blazing silence. Manong, I listen to your long, long tales. The Kearney Street, Manilatown wind cuts through your thin blanket… Filipinos scatter all over. Brown faces piled high. Moving like shadows on trees. Concrete doorways, pool halls, barber shops… down Kearney street, down deep, in your Manilatown heart.26

The sequence ends with an opening of a glass window, letting in the sounds of protestor’s chanting, “We won’t move.” As cops arrive in horses and vehicles, tensions escalate with the rise of sirens and chants. The camera begins to move with more chaos, frequently zooming in and out in frantic motion. Elevated yells foreground a tone of muddled disarray, all while we hear news reporters narrating the carceral gentrification project at-hand. “I can see that America is cruel,” Wahat Tampao (a manong tenant) states at the end of the documentary. “I think the law should take a step [allowing] the poor people to have low-income housing in every state. That’s what I want. That’s what the poor people want.”27

As the documentary closes, we see footage of construction men destroying the hotel. Surrounding the gentrification project are Filipinx murals and pedestrians, showing how the Filipinx community continues to thrive on despite their displacements –– but at what cost?


Wayne Wang’s Chan is Missing (1982) and the Commercial Aesthetic Turn 

More commercial in its approach, Wayne Wang’s Chan is Missing (1982) documents the displaced feelings of being Chinese in America through neo-noir form. From the onset, the missing Chan Hung drives the underlying mystery of the plot. Chinese taxi driver, Jo, and his nephew, Steve, search for Chan in San Francisco’s Chinatown, circuiting through community centers, kitchens, and condominiums along the way. Their journey counters the popularized Hollywood depictions of Chinatown such as in Rush Hour (2001), and instead, animates daily portraits of Chinese/American dwellers.

As the film proceeds in what initially seems like formless ends, we soon realize that the absence of Chan doesn’t matter so much as what the people perceive of him. In an introspective fashion similar to Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), everyone seems to have a different idea as to who Chan Hung exactly is. We soon realize Chan is a metaphor for the unfixed Chinese/American identity, and the stereotyping fictions that give rise to its visibility.

As Peter Feng writes: “The film Chan Is Missing (1981) announced that Asian Americans could be artists, could be commercial filmmakers, and could support Asian American filmmaking, as well as successfully market Asian American films to wider audiences.”28 Made at the turn of the eighties, Chan is Missing marked a linear shift from Asian/American documentary film-making for social change to the commercial independent feature filmmaking of second cinema.

Around the same time, VC produced their own feature-length film titled, Hito Hata: Raise the Banner (1980), which was a multigenerational saga about Japanese/Americans whose communities were forcefully displaced, gentrified, and abused by labor laws. Hito Hata was a visual text for social change, whereas Chan is Missing was an arthouse film which explored the Chinese/American identity in a way that was detached from the material conditions. Film critic and Asian/American International Film Festival (AAIFF) programmer, Daryl Chin, called Hito Hata a “group project: it’s worthy and noble and uplifting and boring as hell. It doesn’t have a whiff of “personality” or of genuine artistic vision… Here, all along these Asian American media activ­ists thought that something like Hito Hata was going to be the Asian American “breakthrough,” and it wasn’t, it was that damned quirky oddball personal exper­imental Chan Is Missing. Put that in your peace pipe and smoke it!”29

As Chan is Missing gained wide-spread traction at film festivals, Asian/American filmmaking veered into the commercial scope. Considering VC’s creation of Hito Hata, “came close to destroying VC,” Asian/American filmmakers saw the unsustainability of creating feature films for social change. At the turn of the 1980s, Asian/American filmmakers began to broaden their audiences to gain funding, meaning that Asian/American films became more institutionalized. Tajima specifically invokes Getino and Solanas’ manifesto in describing Asian/American filmmaking during the 1980s:

The alternative signified a step forward inasmuch as it demanded that the filmmaker be free to express himself in non-standard language and inasmuch as it was an attempt at cultural decolonization. But such attempts have already reached, or about to reach, the outer limits of what the system permits. The Second Cinema filmmaker has remained “trapped inside the fortress,” as Godard put it, or is on his way to becoming trapped.30

Indeed, with the increase commercialization of Asian/American cinema, the anti-colonial film movement had become “trapped.” What initially began as a socially committed filmmaking practice eventually gave way to mainstream venues and non-profit funders co-opting the work of Asian/American creatives. With the corporate structures of finance and distribution, the very nature of Asian/American films had shifted. But despite these odds, Asian/American films continued to persist in the coming decades, offering critical and pensive critiques of the forces which shape y(our) histories.



Through methods of guerilla filmmaking, Third Cinema waged will into the people. It corrected popular and collective memory so people can remember, through the image, the atrocities of U.S. imperialism and neoliberalism across Latin America. Third Cinema was also a demanding praxis which re-claimed an imperfect cinematic aesthetic, and also contested the labor relations of the film-making process altogether, paving the way for an anti- capitalist, non-hierarchal method of filmmaking and distribution.31 Asian/American films weren’t just inspired by the anti-slick aesthetics of Third Cinema, but also the dedicated principles of non-hierarchal film-making.32 Though Asian/American film and video are not Third Cinema films, they are both socially committed political movements with a shared cry of action against colonialism, imperialism, militarism, and in larger part, empire––and this shared political commitment is what we must remember as a selective lineage we choose to build a present from.




Feng, Peter (2002), Identities in Motion: Asian American Film and Video, Duke University Press. Durham, North Carolina.

Kang, Laura Hyun Yi (2002), Compositional Subjects: Enfiguring Asian/American Women, Duke University Press. Durham, North Carolina.

Maeda, Daryl Joji (2016), “The Asian American Movement,” The Oxford Handbook of Asian American History, edited by David Yoo and Eiichiro Azuma. Oxford University Press. Oxford, United Kingdom.

Mimura, Glen M (2009), Ghostlife of Third Cinema: Asian American Film and Video, University of Minnesota Press. Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Okada, Jun (2015), Making Asian American Film and Video: Histories, Institutions, and Movements, Rutgers University Press. New Brunswick, NJ.

Solanas, Fernando and Getino, Octavio (1969), «Towards a Third Cinema: Notes and Experiences for the Development of a Cinema of Liberation in the Third World,” Cinéaste, Vol. 4, No. 3, Latin American Militant Cinema (Winter 1970-71), pp. 1-10.

Tajima-Peña, Renee (1991), “Moving the Image: Asian American Independent Filmmaking 1970-1990”,  in Moving the Image: Independent Asian Pacific American Media Arts, edited by Russel Leong, UCLA Asian American Studies Center Press, pp. 14-28.

Teshome, Gabriel (1982), Third Cinema in the Third World: The Aesthetics of Liberation. University of Michigan Press. Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Wayne, Mike (2001), Political Film: The Dialectics of Third Cinema, Pluto Press. London, United Kingdom.




Choy, Curtis (1983), Fall of the I-Hotel, Asian CineVision (New York), 58 min.

Dong, Arthur (1990) Claiming a Voice, Deep Focus Productions (California), 59 min.

Nakamura, Robert and Kubo, Duane (1980) Hito Hata: Raise the Banner, Visual Communications (California), 90 min.

Nakamura, Robert (1972) Manzanar, Visual Communications (California), 16 min.

Wang, Wayne (1982) Chan is Missing, Asian CineVision (New York), 80 min.

Wong, Eddie (1971) Wong Sinsaang, Visual Communications (California), 12 min.




1 My choice to insert a slash between “Asian” and “American”

comes from Laura Hyun Yi Kang’s approach towards discerning “Asians” from the American state. She configures “Asian/American women” as a “diacritically awkward shorthand for the cultural, economic, and geopolitical pressures of the continental (Asian), the national (American), and the racial-ethnic (Asian American) as they come to bear on an implicitly more solid gendered ontology (women).”[1] From Yi Kang’s analysis, we see Asia/America as an attempt to unbound “Asians” from the vexing disciplines of documentation, categorization, and surveillance imposed on us by the American state. Dovetailing off of Yi Kang’s refusal to border “Asians” into “America,” I use the slashed Asian/American identity to encourage an alternative possibility of identification and knowledge-production for Asian/Americans. One in which our creative practice has a destabilizing effect, whereby Asian/American films has the ongoing potential to contest the legitimacy of American nation-state all together.

2 Hyun Yi Kang, Compositional Subjects: Enfiguring Asian/American Women, 72.

3 Peter Feng, Identities in Motion: Asian American Film and Video, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002), 24.

4 Daryl Joji Maeda, “The Asian American Movement,” in The Oxford Handbook of Asian American History, edited by David K. Yoo and Eiichiro Azuma, (Oxford, UK:  Oxford University Press, 2016).

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.

8 Renee Tajima-Peña, “Moving the Image: Asian American Independent Filmmaking 1970-1990” in Moving the Image: Independent Asian Pacific American Media Arts, edited by Russel Leong, (Los Angeles, CA: UCLA Asian American Studies Center, 1991), 14.

9 Glen M. Mimura, Ghostlife of Third Cinema: Asian American Film and Video, (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), 20.

10 Ibid., xviii.

11 Ibid., xxi.

12 Claiming a Voice, directed by Arthur Dong (Los Angeles, CA: DeepFocus Productions, 1990), Vimeo.

13 Mimura, Ghostlife of Third Cinema: Asian American Film and Video, 37.

14 Tajima, “Moving the Image: Asian American Independent Filmmaking 1970-1990,” 14.

15 Ibid., 21.

16 Okada, Making Asian American Film and Video: History, Institutions, Movement, 16.

17 Ibid., 22.

18 Ron Hirano, “Media Guerillas,” in Counterpoint: Perspective on Asian America, edited by Emma Gee, (Los Angeles, CA: UCLA Asian American Studies Center, 1976), 297.

19 Manzanar, directed by Robert Nakamura (Los Angeles, CA: Visual Communications, 1972), Vimeo.

20 Claiming a Voice, directed by Arthur Dong, 1990.

21 Okada, Making Asian American Film and Video: History, Institutions, Movement, 22.

22 Tajima, “Moving the Image: Asian American Independent Filmmaking 1970-1990,” 23.

23 Okada, Making Asian American Film and Video: History, Institutions, Movement, 26.

24 Ibid., 27.

25 Mimura, Ghostlife of Third Cinema: Asian American Film and Video, 42

26 Fall of the I-Hotel, directed by Curtis Choy, (New York City, NY: Asian CineVision, 1983), Vimeo.

27 Ibid.

28 Feng, Identities in Motion: Asian American Film and Video, 151.

29 Okada, Making Asian American Film and Video: History, Institutions, Movement, 31.

30 Tajima, “Moving the Image: Asian American Independent Filmmaking 1970-1990,” 22.

31 Teshome Gabriel, Third Cinema in the Third World: The Aesthetics of Liberation, (Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press,1982), 23.

32 Mimura, Ghostlife of Third Cinema: Asian American Film and Video, 38.