“American justice has become American injustice. Superimposed on you.”

Showcased at this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival, “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail” is a documentary directed by Steve James that encapsulates a five-year-long legal battle between the state of New York and Abacus Federal Savings Bank.

Within the first three minutes of the film, the viewer is introduced to the entire plot.

Thomas Sung founded Abacus in 1984 after realizing Chinese immigrants had no access to financial resources such as loans and credits. The family-owned community bank quickly expanded in location and provided accessible resources as it served and uplifted the Chinese community for decades in New York. Eventually, Sung’s daughters Vera and Jill joined their father in his mission to provide the Chinese community with an opportunity to attain the American Dream.

However, Abacus was not immune to greed.

The company underwent two waves of larcenous employees. The first transpired in 2003, where branch manager Carol Lim disappeared with ten million dollars. The second incident occurred in 2009 and had a less forgiving outcome. The Sung family discovered Ken Yu, a loan officer, and several other employees in the loan department had committed fraud by embezzling money from borrowers and falsifying loan documents. The Sungs responded by firing all of the responsible individuals, notifying the proper authorities and pursuing a private investigation. Shortly after their response, the New York District Attorney office involved itself in the case and charged Abacus in 2012 with 184 (later 240) counts of indictments that included mortgage fraud, grand larceny and conspiracy.

The film mastered navigating through narratives with smooth editing and transitions. The incorporation of investigative journalism that occurred during the legal battle provided an insightful and realistic element to the documentary.

The intimate familial scenes between the Sungs were well situated in the film.

The family’s Dim Sum and interview segments, for the most part, portrayed them as dedicated, genuine and humble individuals who just want to see their community succeed. These moments lighten the intense mood from the case, and for the most part, incorporated a fairly balanced perspective to juxtapose the two parties.

Nevertheless, it is evident that the prosecution lacked a definitive case.

The prosecution’s approach seemed to be executed with discrimination in mind. Their entire case was built on speculation that Abacus’ management was well aware of the corruption within their loan department, which seemed likely, but Abacus cooperated and assisted the DA when they first opened the case. However, the prosecution did not end there, for they believed that Abacus had contributed greatly to the 2008 financial crisis.

The latter is a bit far-fetched and hypocritical.  

It became obvious that justice depended on who the offender was. And Abacus was the offender targeted because of its skin color.

The government turned a blind eye on large bank companies when they engaged in fraudulent schemes that blew up and caused the 2008 financial crisis. In fact, the film shows the government bailing out the big bank companies (typically ran by white CEOs) who just had to pay the penalty fees to make the situation go away.

Abacus did not receive the same treatment.

“The DA told us, ‘You have to accept a plea of guilty for felony, plus a fine,’” said Thomas Sung.

The lack of options disregarded by the prosecution raised concerns that the DA’s targeting of Abacus was saturated with prejudice.

In response to these accusations, District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. said, “I think the characterizations that this was somehow a cultural bias on the office’s part…entirely misplaced and entirely wrong. We devote an enormous amount of effort into protecting immigrant communities and I felt that our handling of the bank was consistent with how we would have handled the bank if we were investigating a bank that services a South American community or the Indian community. There was nothing different that we did or purposely designed to treat this bank differently.”

Vance highlights community of color banks in his statement, which seems contradictory to what he is saying because he is creating a distinction between privilege in large corporate banks and community banks.

His quick dismissal of discrimination is also inconsistent with the behaviors exercised by the DA office throughout the case.

In the film there is a scene where the convicted employees of Abacus were all handcuffed to a chain and led out of the courtroom by DA investigators. According to interviews from attorneys and investigative journalists, they recall their shock in seeing the fifteen Chinese individuals chained for the first time in their entire career.

The film highlighted more issues within the Chinese American community than just the legal battle.

The cinematography captures culture, conflict and a family’s grit faithful to reality. We see an entire community dependent on the offender–Abacus, to achieve their means of the American Dream and yet, that same community is harassed by the law.

“When we started the bank, it was our motivation to help all the people, all of the immigrants,” said Thomas Sung.

The Sung’s duty to the community never faltered and they persisted and fought for their legacy in court so that they can continue to serve the Chinese community.

“Abacus: Small Enough to Jail” will be in theaters May 19.

Earlier this month at Star Wars Celebration Orlando, Vietnamese American actress Kelly Marie Tran was announced to play the largest new role in the upcoming film “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”

According to “The Last Jedi” director Rian Johnson at the event’s “The Last Jedi” panel, Tran’s character Rose is a maintenance worker in the Resistance.

Johnson explains that one of the takeaways he had as a child growing up watching the “Star Wars” series was the idea of heroes like Luke Skywalker getting “pulled out of wherever” and becoming “this unlikely hero.”

The main hero of the original trilogy, Luke Skywalker, was a moisture farmer on the Outer Rim planet of Tatooine who was suddenly pulled into the Rebellion with the purchase of two droids. The main hero of the prequel trilogy, Luke’s father Anakin, was born a slave.

Up until recently, this “unlikely hero” has always been a white man. The seventh film in the franchise, “The Force Awakens,” features another Skywalker, Rey, but this time a white woman. The “unlikely” hero in last year’s anthology film “Rogue One” was Jyn Erso, who was also a white woman.

Evidently, it is very likely that the main “unlikely hero” in the “Star Wars” franchise is white.

(As an aside, the idea that anyone can become a hero is at odds with Anakin’s Jesus-like backstory introduced in “The Phantom Menace,” which makes the unlikeliness of the Skywalkers’ heroism much less random and much more purposeful. But we’ll ignore that because, well, “The Phantom Menace,” am I right?)

While Tran’s role is not as the main heroine of the film, it is promising that Johnson introduces Tran’s character as “the biggest new part” of “The Last Jedi.”

He explains, “The notion that anyone out there, any of us, can step up and turn into a hero. That’s really kind of where the character Rose comes from. She’s not a soldier, she’s not looking to be a hero, and she gets pulled in a very big way into an adventure in this movie with Finn, and Kelly just embodies that for me.”

Discussion of Tran’s  character from 28:37 to 32:45.

This is the first time in which the narrative that “anyone” can become a hero has been extended to an Asian American woman in the franchise since the original release of “Star Wars” 40 years ago.

Also important is the role of an Asian American woman on the big screen as a hero of the Rebellion. With Asian women generally portrayed as submissive and conforming, the role will hopefully break stereotypes and prove that they can be rebels and kick ass too.

It will be the first time that Tran, who up until now has appeared in web series and guest starred in TV roles primarily as a comedian, will appear on the big screen. The “Star Wars” franchise has propelled many of its actors to fame over the years. It has done so for the likes of Mark Hamill, and more recently Daisy Ridley and John Boyega–and it may just do the same for Tran.

This is a timely announcement considering this year’s controversial casting of a white woman, Scarlett Johansson, as Major Motoko Kusanagi in “Ghost in the Shell,” which was just released at the end of last month.

In an interview with Vice, “Ghost in the Shell” director Rupert Sanders claimed, “The world cast Scarlett really. That’s who people want to see in this kind of film … it is ultimately an international and global film starring a global lead. You need Scarlett Johansson if you are opening a film in Russia as well as in Tokyo.”

The message that Sanders sends is that only the stories and experiences of white people are universal. The “world” does not want to see an Asian story come to life portrayed by Asians. Asians are not “global,” whatever that means.

(Of course, Sanders has only directed one other film, so take his opinions on what kinds of films the world wants to see with a grain of salt.)

Ironically, on the same date that “Ghost in the Shell” was released in U.S. theaters to flop in the box office, Marvel Vice President David Gabriel accused diversity and women as the forces behind declining sales. In a statement that has been well-criticized, Gabriel claimed, “What we heard was that people didn’t want any more diversity. They didn’t want female characters out there.”

It is thus refreshing to see a well-loved franchise and cultural phenomenon like “Star Wars” continuing to follow its trend of including more and more diverse roles in space by introducing an Asian American woman in what will hopefully be a dynamic, stereotype-breaking role.

The series’ most recent film, “Rogue One,” features a diverse cast that includes three Asian men as part of the Rebellion. However, in celebrating the film’s diversity, it is also crucial to recognize that the film’s women and men of color all die in order to secure the plans for the Death Star. Though the cast introduced in “Rogue One” was never referred to in the original “Star Wars” films, it is questionable just how necessary it was to kill everyone off. It also raises the issue of whether or not the bodies of women and people of color are seen as more expendable.

Portrayals of Asians in space are a long time coming, especially as “Star Wars is a franchise that has always taken from Asian cultures without any representation of Asian characters up until recently.

(To be fair there is one Asian man (Lieutenant Telsij) in “Return of the Jedi” during the Battle of Endor, but he literally appears for less than 2 seconds. Yay representation!)

Director John Landis recalls that after a screening of the original film, he asked, “George, is everybody in outer space white?” It is high time for the series to feature Asians in space.

Whether or not these roles for people of color in space will be more dynamic is unconfirmed.

Hopefully the casting of Tran will lead the way for not only the casting of more and more Asian American actors and actresses, but for stories of them in more compelling roles.

Lastly, it is important to note that, despite her so-called huge role in the film, there is not a single snippet of Tran in the 2 minute and 12 second trailer for “The Last Jedi.”

The fact that Rose is a new character is irrelevant to the fact that she is excluded from the trailer, as the trailer for “The Force Awakens introduced multiple new characters. There are only 2 possible rational explanations for Tran’s character not appearing in the trailer. Either Rose is not relevant enough to the overall movie so she does not warrant time in the trailer, or Rose is relevant but the image of her is not important enough to include in the trailer. Unfortunately, neither of these two options are without flaw, and it is impossible to tell which is the better of the two, if there even is a better option. Implications of these options may mean that the Asian American community is celebrating the film for doing the bare minimum, pandering to our community, or, like Sanders’s claim referred to above, that the image of an Asian American woman will not sell and/or does not belong.

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is scheduled to release in U.S. theaters on December 15, 2017.


The past two months have been a great time for movies. With all of the winter blockbusters and the Sundance Film Festival wrapping up this past weekend, I thought I’d compile a short list of movies with positive APIDA representation that I either enjoyed or am looking forward to.


A film that’s a joy to watch: “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”

“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” is a refreshingly diverse prequel-extension of the eminent space series that delivers not only action and thrills, but great representation for APIDA community.

As members of our staff gleefully noted, “There are three Asian characters in this film! Three!” Not to mention, they are all prominent characters in the ensemble cast, each with thoroughly developed motivations and personalities. But these torchbearers are not exactly new Asian American talents.

Jiang Wen, who plays Rebel warrior Baze Malbus in the film, is already internationally-known as a Chinese actor and filmmaker. Some of his most critically acclaimed works are “Devils on the Doorstep” and “Let the Bullets Fly.”

Donnie Yen, playing warrior-monk Chirrut Îmwe, has enjoyed global renown as a Hong Kong actor and martial artist for over 20 years. Some of his work includes Guillermo del Toro’s “Blade II” and the extremely successful “Ip Man” series, in which he has the titular role.

Finally, British actor Riz Ahmed, who plays fan-favorite pilot defector Bodhi Rook, got his big break and plenty of nominations from “Nightcrawler.” Since then, he’s starred in the gritty HBO miniseries “The Night Of and the fifth installment of the popular “Jason Bourne” series.

In short, these actors have no problem selling seats. But a little extra(terrestrial) buzz never hurt.


A film that inspires me: “Moana”

“Moana” started with a pitch for a movie about the Polynesian demigod, Maui. John Lasseter, the chief creative officer for Walt Disney and Pixar Animation, demanded that the creators start researching.

This began a five-year long journey that resulted in the creation of both this film and the Oceanic Trust, an interdisciplinary collection of experts who are consulted on almost everything in the movie, from the designs of Maui’s character to the usage of coconuts. Even aspects that may have gone completely unnoticed by the casual, non-PI viewer were scrutinized.

An example that the creators cite is the wayfinding scene: they imagined Moana’s ancestors wearing traditional Papua New Guinean clothing, accessories, and face paint while navigating the seas, and the Trust strictly vetoed the idea as illogical as wearing “a tuxedo in the middle of the ocean.”

Despite all the effort that went into making the film culturally accurate, it’s been criticized for an over-simplified representation of Pacific Islanders, among other issues.

Still, knowing that Pacific Islanders were heavily consulted for their knowledge – on top of the color scheme, animation, and storyline – is hopefully a sign that filmmakers will become more considerate of APIDAs in their work.

The story feels like myth, in that forces of nature seem to be conspiring to help Moana achieve her goal of saving her island, but also emphasizes very human qualities, like agency, resourcefulness, persistence, and teamwork.

To me, “Moana” is a reminder that we have to choose to go for what we really want, but not making the choice that we thought we wanted, choosing to go in another direction instead? That’s okay too.


A film that I hope gets made: “Dana Dana”

This could be the most important film on this list, given the ban that was initiated in the U.S. this past week on Muslim refugees from seven countries, Iraq among them.

“Dana Dana” tells the story of a young Iraqi musician named Mohamed who is forced to flee from his home country and ends up seeking asylum in Great Britain.

Mohamed faces a great deal of pressure and hardship, between worries for his family’s safety, adjusting to his new life, and attempting to attain refugee status.

Eventually, he turns to a life of busking, but his new life in music is challenged when the meeting that could secure his future as a refugee conflicts with his shot at British radio.

The movie is still in progress, but it was advertised at the 2016 Asian American International Film Festival, so keep an eye out if you’re interested.

Content warning for issues of depression and suicide.


A film that I want to watch that critics at Sundance seemed to love: “Band Aid”

This movie might be cheating a little bit because it centers on a non-Asian couple; however, there are four Asian cast members (out of fifteen), it has a fairly female-heavy cast, and it carries the distinction of an entirely female crew, so I think it deserves a mention.

Anna and Ben, played by Zoe Lister-Jones (writer and director) and Adam Pally, respectively, are a married couple with issues. The dryly hilarious clip above is 90 seconds of them trying to list their Top 12 Worst Fights, resulting in them just tossing gripes back and forth dispassionately. To help resolve these issues, they form a rock band, featuring original songs by the cast based on all of the fights they’ve had.

The film is packed with TV stars of color, including Jesse Williams of “Grey’s Anatomy,” Jamie Chung of “The Real World” and “Once Upon a Time,” Hannah Simone of “New Girl,” and Retta of “Parks and Rec.” The film also stars three Jewish actors, including the director. There was a lot of discussion about movie musicals after the critically acclaimed “La La Land” debuted this winter, and I hope that this movie is able to affirm that yes, movie musicals can be good, and yes, they can also be diverse.

Content warning: Possible mention of/reference to miscarriage.


A short-form episodic series: Strangers


If you’re like me, possibly the first (and only) thing that comes to mind when you think of queerness and Asian women is “The Legend of Korra.” I love animated TV, but sometimes I’m looking for a little less “intensity” and “world-saving” and a little more “’Girls-with-at-least-one-non-White-character.”

“Strangers,” a passion project helmed by Mia Lidofsky and starring Zoe Chao, tells the story of Isobel, a woman in her late twenties/early thirties who rents her apartment out through Airbnb.

With the help of her best friend and the various strangers who end up being her roommates, Isobel navigates her way through a series of ongoing professional, sexuality, and post-breakup crises.

The film/series takes inspiration from director Lidofsky’s own life and experiences renting out her NYC studio apartment to strangers on Airbnb, and promises to be a celebration of “life and love and the intricacies of human connection”. It also promises to have at least one, probably two, queer women who are main characters.

The first three episodes of this project aired at the Sundance film festival this past week, so here’s hoping it will soon premiere to the general public.         



On Friday, October 28, 2016, UCLA Campus Events Commission hosted a Free Speaker event with Disney writer and director, Jared Bush, who discussed the production — from creating characters to of Disney’s upcoming “Moana.” The film takes place in the South Pacific, and is about an adventurous teenage girl who sets out on a mission to save her people by locating the “mighty demigod,” Maui, and discovers her self-identity.  

Bush is the co-creator, executive producer, and writer for Disney XD’s animated comedy adventure series “Penn Zero: Part-Time Hero.” He also participated in the development of Oscar-winning animations “Big Hero 6” and “Frozen,” worked as a screenwriter and co-director for “Zootopia,” and, more recently, served as a screenwriter for “Moana.”

During the event, Bush directly addressed the topic of Moana’s production with firm conviction, stating that Disney made numerous efforts to make the animation culturally accurate and entertaining.

Disney writer and Director Jared Bush at CEC Speaker Event

Before “Moana,” the last notable Pacific Islander animation film from Disney was “Lilo & Stitch,” and since then there has not been a film representing the Pacific Islander community in Hollywood. Thus, when Disney announced that its new animated feature will be about a heroine’s adventure in the ancient South Pacific, fans were not only excited for this film, which celebrates Pacific Island cultures, but also anxious about possible cultural misappropriation.

Prior to the Halloween season, Disney began selling costumes of characters from the film, which caused controversy. The Maui costume, in particular, was the most criticized because its tattooed brown skin was regarded as a form of “brownface” that also disrespected the cultural importance of tattoos in the Pacific Islander heritage.

The BBC reported: “After the release of Moana, Maui may be a Disney character to some, but to  many Pacific people, he is very real – a hero, ancestor, demi-God and a spiritual guide.”

In response to numerous protests that argued culture is not a costume, Disney apologized and removed the costumes from stores. However, the damage has been done, and people are more anxious than hopeful.

According to Bush, however, Disney’s approach to “Moana” will properly introduce culturally inclusive and sensitive standards, settings a hopeful precedent that Pacific Islander community  will receive respectful media representation. To do this, Disney sent a portion of the crew, including artists and animators, on a three week trip to the Pacific Islands to gain a better understanding of the local traditions and cultures.

While on the trip, one local Elder asked the crew, For years we have been swallowed by your culture…for once can you be swallowed by ours?

Hollywood films are globally recognized and influential, but their profitable grand spectacles often undermine the need to have accurate racial and cultural representations. Thus, many popular films that are suppose to have characters played by people of color are replaced by white actors – this is commonly known as whitewashing.

Similarly, Disney animations tend to be successful and influential on a global scale, but are often subject to criticism for reasons such as a lack of racial diversity and stereotypical portrayals.  

Disney’s “Peter Pan” is a clear example of an all-white cast that portrayed over-the-top exaggerations of Native American. For example, the song “What Makes The Red Man Red?” categorizes a group of Native Americans as uncivilized savages.

Although one may argue that “Peter Pan” is an older Disney film made in 1953 and point out that the times were different then, the film still remains a reminder that if not carefully produced, the animation can and will send negative and offensive messages to its massive audience and harm the communities they represent.

To present an accurate representation, Disney assembled an exclusive group of cultural specialists, the Oceanic Story Trust, to examine the screenwriting and animation drafts to prevent misrepresentations.

The Moana sound crew also consisted of musical artists Opetaia Foa’i and Lin-Manuel Miranda, who are from Oceania and familiar with traditional Oceania music, respectively, along with Mark Mancina, who had previously composed for “The Lion King.”

In terms of casting the two lead roles of the movie, Moana and Maui, the crew recruited Pacific Islanders Auli’i Cravalho and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, respectively.

Throughout the event, Bush shared exclusive behind-the-scenes footage of the production, along with sneak previews of the movie. The audience was able to be immersed into the “Moana Ohana” from animation scenes that did not make the cut, to clips of Johnson singing his heart out as Maui.

Bush also mentioned that Disney films take an extensive amount of time to produce; “Moana,” for instance, took five years to produce.

“The film is never finished until it is released,” Bush said. He explained that at Disney, films are constantly changing and, for Moana alone, he made about 700 drafts as a screenwriter.

However, he believes that while this process is strenuous, it allows the film’s production to have time to discover its mistakes and allow the story and characters to develop deeper and more fluidly.

“Moana” will be released during the Thanksgiving holiday.

On November 4, UCLA’s Hanoolim: Korean Cultural Awareness Group hosted an evening screening of Yoon Je-kyoon’s 2014 film 국제시장 (Ode to My Father) at Northwest Auditorium on the Hill. Beginning the week with a successful Korean Cultural Festival in Bruin Plaza, Hanoolim bookended the week with a screening of the second highest-grossing film in the South Korean film industry.

Hanoolim’s collaborations with several sponsors contributed to the programming of these two events. A collaboration with the UCLA Office of Residential Life provided the venue for the screening, and a collaboration with CJ Group, a South Korean conglomerate which holds entertainment subsidies, led to the securing of the screening rights for Ode to My Father. Hanoolim’s President Sharon Lee, a third-year UCLA undergraduate student, described collaborations with Korean businesses based in Koreatown, Los Angeles as mutually beneficial as these businesses are eager to reach out to the student population at UCLA.

Lee hoped that Hanoolim’s movie screening would bring awareness to the historical narratives addressed in Ode to My Father, such as the Hungnam evacuation of 1950, the struggles of Korean migrant workers in Germany during the 1960s, and the broadcast television programming showing the reunions of family members separated by the Korean War in 1983. The film serves a purpose in highlighting the narratives of Korean and Korean American culture. In particular, the Hungnam evacuation is a recurring trauma for the film’s lead character, Yoon Deok-soo (played by Hwang Jung-min), in which the circumstances of the evacuation inform the choices Yoon makes in the different stages of his life.

Despite being a high-grossing film at the South Korean box office, Ode to My Father has been subject to controversy because the film’s interpretation of South Korean history leaves out problematic and contentious moments in the nation’s history that might tarnish the country’s image. For example, critics argue that Ode to My Father leaves darker events in South Korea’s history unaddressed, such as martial law, student protests, and political scandals. Instead, Ode to My Father focuses on South Korea’s success in its rapid industrialization from a developing country to a developed country through the view of Yoon Deok-soo’s life experiences. The idealized perspective of history reflects a conservative cinema, and the filmic narrative primarily speaks to the older generations of Koreans and Korean Americans. Nonetheless, the historical events covered in the melodrama are important reminders for Korean and Korean American youth of the sacrifices their elders made.

On Saturday, April 16th, Bad Rap, an independent documentary about Asian American hip-hop artists, made its world premiere at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.  The documentary, directed by Salima Koroma and produced by Jaeki Cho, follows four rappers, Dumbfoundead, Awkwafina, Rekstizzy, and Lyricks, as they try to break into the hip-hop world.

With the tagline, “You don’t hear us on the radio,” the rappers not only struggle with making it into the industry, but face additional burdens associated with their skin color, such as the inherent responsibility of representing Asian Americans, the struggles of chasing their dreams when hit with reality, and the pushback from critics and lack of belonging in the industry.

To honor the film’s premiere, here are some sample tracks from each of the four artists featured to get you familiar:


1. Jonathan “Dumbfoundead” Park

Based in Koreatown, Los Angeles, Dumbfoundead became one of YouTube’s most visible Asian-American personalities, gaining notoriety from rap battles, one of which followed a five-year hiatus, and recognition from Drake:

Standout tracks: “24KTOWN,” “Cool and Calm,” featured in Keith Ape’s “It G Ma Remix.”

2. Nora “Awkwafina” Lum

After her viral hit, “My Vag,” Lum, a New York-based Chinese American, became one of the cast members of MTV’s “Girl Code.”  She will also be featured in Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, starring Seth Rogen and Zac Efron.

Standout tracks: “NYC Bitche$,” “Yellow Ranger,” “Come Stop Me” feat. fellow Bad Rap-per Dumbfoundead.

3. David “Rekstizzy” Lee

Another New Yorker, hailing from Queens, Lee is known for his controversial acts, such as squirting condiments on his dancers’ rears in the music video for “God Bless America.” Despite explicit lyrics, in the track featured above, “You Can’t Be Serious,” Lee addresses the stigma against mental health treatment.

Standout tracks: “All Night,” “Whatever You Say,” “One Track Mind” feat. Ann One.

4. Richard “Lyricks” Lee

Hailing from Fairfax, Virginia, Lee faces the struggle between chasing his dreams and taking care of his parents, a value that resonates with most Americans born to immigrant parents.

Stand out tracks: “Seven Rings,” “Clutch,” “My Will Aside”


Bad Rap also features personalities like Jay Park, Traphik/Timothy DeLaGhetto, Far East Movement, MC Jin, Decipher, and the Fung Bros to provide commentary on Asian Americans in the music industry.

In addition to the Tribeca Film Festival, Bad Rap will also make an appearance at the 2016 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, screening on Wednesday, April 27th at 9:30 PM at the CGV Cinemas.  Student and senior tickets are priced at $13 and general admission tickets are $14, you can purchase your tickets here.

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