Asian man in striped shirt with book outside, three Asian women in movie theater

15+ Books and Movies Celebrating AAPI Heritage to Check Out Now

AAPI cultures have incredible stories to share, from award-winning movies to breakout novels. Where do you begin? Here with these recommendations!

You know by now our favorite way to celebrate diverse communities is by sharing our top recommendations with you—whether it’s books, movies, music, or podcasts! May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, which means this list of recommendations could be exhaustive; there are so many incredible cultures represented among Asian American and Pacific Islander people, and their contributions to art and society are far reaching. Here are a few amazing books and movies created by AAPI people, plus a few bonus recs featuring authors and filmmakers from other countries.

Everything Everywhere All at Once

If you haven’t seen the award-winning film Everything Everywhere All at Once movie posterEverything Everywhere All at Once, fix that immediately! This absurdist comedy-drama follows a Chinese immigrant woman—played by Academy Award–winning Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh—who is swept into a multidimensional battle to save the universe that shows her the types of lives she could’ve led had she made different choices. The critically acclaimed movie was cowritten, produced, and directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, professionally known as the “Daniels.” The pair of directors also frequently work with producer Jonathan Wang; Kwan and Wang are both Taiwanese Americans.

Image courtesy of A24 Films

Dragonfruit by Makiia Lucier

What’s the price you’d pay for a wish? Dragonfruit book coverDragonfruit is a young adult romantic fantasy rooted in Pacific Islander mythology about rivaling Island rulers seeking the eggs of seadragons, called dragonfruit, which have the ability to undo a person’s greatest sorrow. The novel is written by Makiia Lucier, an author from Guam who holds degrees in Journalism and Library Science from the University of Oregon and the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. She’s also penned the Isle of Blood and Stone duology and the novel A Death-Struck Year.

Image courtesy of Clarion Books

Crying in H Mart: A Memoir by Michelle Zauner

Originally published as an essay under the same name in 2018, Crying in H Mart book coverCrying in H Mart is a powerful exploration of navigating the difficulties of a mother-daughter relationship and grief after loss. Author Michelle Zauner, a South Korean American singer and guitarist of the music project Japanese Breakfast, discusses what life was like growing up as one of a few Asian American kids at school in Eugene, Oregon, and the complicated process of grieving her mother’s death through her connection to food. If you’re looking for a moving story about a woman seeking her identity in both self and culture, this award-winning memoir is for you.

Image courtesy of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

Pixar’s Turning Red

Let’s take a trip up North to go on an adventure with 13-year-old Mei Lee, who discovers that she turns into a giant red panda when her teenage hormones start to kick in and her emotions get revved up. Turning Red movie posterTurning Red is a fun coming-of-age story cowritten by Chinese Canadian director Domee Shi and Korean American screenwriter Julia Cho, with additional story development from producer Sarah Streicher. The film features the voice acting talents of up-and-coming American actress Rosalie Chiang, whose parents are from Taiwan and Singapore, and superstar Korean Canadian actress Sandra Oh. You’ll be turning red if you’re caught slipping on this instant classic. (Bonus recommendation if you’re a poetry lover: Rosalie has published two collections of poems!)

Image courtesy of Disney & Pixar

“Story of Your Life” and Exhalation by Ted Chiang

Ted Chiang is a Chinese American science-fiction writer who has a prolific body of work, including the 1998 short story “Story of Your Life”—which was later included in his collection Stories of Your Life and Others book coverStories of Your Life and Others and developed into the 2016 film Arrival starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner. In his 2019 short-story collection Exhalation, Chiang weaves poignant stories that explore some of humanity’s oldest questions while reaching far to the end of the universe. These are just two of many examples of his incredible writing—he really showcases the power of a good short story. Bonus fun fact: Chiang graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from Brown University.

Image courtesy of Vintage Books & Penguin Random House

Disney’s Moana and Lilo & Stitch

We can’t discuss Pacific Islander culture and not bring up what may be two of the best Disney movies ever (hot take). Everyone and their mother knows about Moana movie posterMoana, so do we really need to tell you to watch it again? You get to enjoy the angelic voice of Auli‘i Cravalho, who is of Chinese, Native Hawaiian, Puerto Rican, Portuguese, and Irish descent; a larger-than-life depiction of demigod Maui from Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who is half Samoan; and the incredible talents of Opetaia Foa‘i, a Samoan-born composer, musician, and singer who collaborated with Lin-Manuel Miranda on the film’s music.

Moana deserves her flowers, sure—but let’s not forget the movie that brought Hawaiian culture to Disney first: Lilo & Stitch movie posterLilo & Stitch! Back in the early 2000s, the film taught audiences that “Ohana means family, and family means no one gets left behind or forgotten.” For many, this was an impactful first exposure to the beautiful culture of Hawai’i tied with the fun antics of a classic kids’ movie. The film features the voice acting talents of Hawai’i-born Filipino Chinese actress Tia Carrere and Hawaiian Chinese actor Jason Scott Lee.

Images courtesy of Disney

The Ones We’re Meant to Find by Joan He

Nominated for Best Young Adult Fantasy & Science Fiction novel in 2021, The Ones We're Meant to Find book coverThe Ones We’re Meant to Find is a dystopian novel about lost identities and family, and crossing oceans to find them both. Author Joan He—a Chinese American author who studied Psychology and Chinese History at the University of Pennsylvania—weaves a tale of environmental destruction and sisterly bonds upon the backdrop of an eco-tech city. She’s also written a duology since the publication of her debut novel Descendant of the Crane in 2019.

Image courtesy of Roaring Brook Press & Macmillan Publishers

Miracle Creek and Happiness Falls by Angie Kim

Focusing on family dynamics under the unique circumstances of childhood illness and living with disabilities, Miracle Creek and Happiness Falls are both captivating and thought-provoking literary mystery novels, crafted with Angie Kim’s perfect balance of prose and thrills, law and medical malpractice, and grief and loss. As a preteen, Kim moved from Seoul, South Korea, to Baltimore, Maryland, and went on to attend both Stanford University and Harvard Law School; become editor of the Harvard Law Review; and practice as a trial lawyer at Williams & Connolly LLP. She’s a breakout author to keep your eye on!

Miracle Creek book cover Happiness Falls book cover

Images courtesy of Macmillan Publishers
and Hogarth Press & Penguin Random House, respectively

Minari

Minari movie posterMinari is a 2020 award-winning drama written and directed by Korean American filmmaker Lee Isaac Chun. The film follows a Korean American family chasing their own American dream on their new farm in Arkansas. This poignant look at a portrait of a family trying to build a home stars Korean American actor Steven Yeun (of The Walking Dead fame) and South Korean actresses Han Ye-ri and Youn Yuh-jung. Youn took home the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Minari in 2021, making her the first Korean performer to win an Academy Award for acting. If you missed this film when the world started falling apart, now is the time to revisit it.

Image courtesy of Plan B Entertainment

Recommendations by non-American creators

We know this month is about the contribution of American citizens who come from Asian and Pacific Islander backgrounds, but there are just so many movies and books created by incredible visionaries, that we thought we’d share a few more by authors and filmmakers from other countries.

  • Grass is a powerful antiwar, antitrafficking graphic novel set during World War II, written by South Korean author Keum Suk Gendry-Kim and translated by Korean Canadian writer Janet Hong. 
  • The Three-Body Problem is a science-fiction novel written by Chinese author Liu Cixin and translated by Chinese American author Ken Liu. The novel was adapted into a Chinese TV show in 2023 and an American Netflix TV series in 2024.
  • The Handmaiden is a psychological historical thriller set in Japanese-occupied Korea during the early to mid-1900s that’s written, directed, and produced by Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook.

One month hardly seems sufficient to fully grasp the richness of Asian American and Pacific Islander cultures as well as the remarkable impact that AAPI creators have made, particularly in literature and film. From heartfelt memoirs to gripping novels to groundbreaking movies, take some time to delve into these narratives that transcend borders and offer powerful stories that everyone can relate to or learn from.

Find even more ways to celebrate, honor, and learn about Asian and Pacific Islander culture and communities year-round on CollegeXpress!

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About Kelli Dolan

Kelli Dolan

Kelli Dolan is the Senior Assistant Editor & Counselor Communications Coordinator for CollegeXpress. Her day-to-day includes editing and writing CollegeXpress articles, running the CollegeXpress Counselors social media platforms, and basically just doing all things CollegeXpress. When she’s not editing other people’s work, she's writing for fun, favoring fiction stories and poetry. You could also potentially find her reading, playing video games, or hanging out with her dog, Athena; cat, Apollo; and red bearded dragon, Freya.

 

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