A Long Time Coming: Speed Racer (2008)

In 2008, the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer movie made its box office debut. At the time, I was eager to make an outing of it, but by the time anyone wanted to go watch it with me, it was already out of theaters in my city. Over the years, I watched its reputation go from “beloved by a select few” to “cult classic” to “criminally underappreciated gem too advanced for its time” in the eyes of the public, yet for whatever reason I never sat down to actually experience the film myself. Now, 14 years later, I decided to right this wrong, and I’ve come out of it wishing I decided to do this sooner.

Speed Racer is based on the 1960s anime of the same name (known in Japan as Mach Go Go Go), and follows a guy (literally) named Speed Racer. Coming from the appropriately named Racer family, Speed loves cars and driving, but his entry into the circuit world comes tinged with memories of his controversial dead brother, the ex-pro Rex Racer. When Speed is propositioned to join an elite racing team under the auspice of one of the top sponsors, it sets him on a moral and literal battle between cynical big business and genuine passion—through racing, of course.

So many articles and reviews have been written about the Speed Racer film at this point that I doubt anyone needs me to convince them to watch it or give it a second chance. That said, as someone who’s watched a lot of anime (enough to blog about it for nearly 15 years!), I found Speed Racer to be entertaining and engaging in multiple ways without a shred of irony. The movie often looks intentionally flat, as if they had taken animation cels and replaced the characters with real people. The races are intensely energetic, but I never found them difficult to follow, and they always served a very clear narrative purpose to convey specific themes about how the characters like Speed see the world or racing. Not surprisingly, the fast pace at which information is integrated into the greater world, combined with its simple but memorable characters, reminds me of a different anime that is without a doubt descended from Speed Racer’s legacy: Redline.

The divisiveness of Speed Racer as either the greatest thing or an unwatchable mess comes down to a number of qualities, but I think characterization is a big bone of contention. If you’re looking for fully fleshed out beings with layers and layers of complexity and moral ambiguity, this film has maybe one or two of those, tops, if I’m being charitable. Otherwise, you have a literal monkey mascot as comic relief that the Wachowskis could have jettisoned Tom Bombadil–style, but they actively chose to keep. What Speed Racer has in spades, however, are characters as embodiments of groupings of emotions, and the film shows how these feelings drive their decisions and their ways of being. Speed has a number of times where he has to make tough moral choices, but they’re always through the lens of “How does it affect the love of racing that is core to his being?” The characters are very intentionally two-dimensional, and not for the worse.


When the film’s ending credits begin to roll, a remixed Speed Racer theme plays that starts with the Japanese lyrics of the Mach Go Go Go opening, and it feels indicative of how much the film seeks to pay homage to its artistically influential original that captured the imagination of so many people. It’s a clear love letter to the original, but stands on its own as a visual spectacle that drives its story through its aesthetics. For those who can take the step forward to meet Speed Racer where it’s at (or are indeed there already), what awaits is one of the best adaptations of an “anime” feeling to a film of flesh-and-blood people.

Mother of Mercilessness: Everything Everywhere All at Once

Everything Everywhere All at Once is a film that defies tidy categorization. It’s both ostensibly and fundamentally the story of a Chinese family struggling to keep things together, and it adds a hearty helping of what feels like every genre under the sun and moon that nevertheless achieves a bizarre harmonious blend of flavors. There’s a lot worth discussing about EEAO, but where I want to focus is its exploration of a familiar topic: intergenerational trauma. Particularly, I find that centering the story on the mother, Evelyn Wang (played by Michell Yeoh), brings a powerful and challenging perspective to the subject.

When it comes to stories about the Asian diaspora, intergenerational trauma seems to be big on Asian creators’ minds. Turning Red is an animated feature about the pressure a Chinese-Canadian girl feels towards her mother’s expectations. Himawari House is a comic about different Asian women moving to Japan to find themselves. Crazy Rich Asians shows how the decisions of one’s ancestors can ripple forward in time, affecting individual descendants in disparate ways. Messy Roots is about growing up Wuhanese in a predominantly white American environment. These works tend to describe families that come into conflict over the frustrating combination of expressing familial love through familial structure and obligation, but in every case, it’s the sons and daughters who are the main characters. 

Michelle Yeoh also plays a mom of one of the main characters in the Crazy Rich Asians movie. There, she’s a Singaporean mom trying to prevent her son from marrying a Chinese-American girl who comes from outside the vast-yet-insulated world of the ultra wealthy. Like so many of these stories, she as a parent is not necessarily a “villain,” but she and those of her generation are at least a source of stress for their kids as they try to carve out their identities.

EEAO flips the script, with Evelyn being both the figurative and literal hero. On the one hand, she’s a mother struggling with her non-serious husband, her teenage lesbian daughter, her judgmental elderly father, and a tax audit on the family’s laundry business. On the other hand, her endless string of failures apparently have made her the perfect candidate to stop the destruction of the multiverse. To say that it’s rare for a character like Evelyn to be this kind of protagonist is to make the queen of understatements. 

Through the metaphor of the multiverse, I find that EEAO explores so many facets of that Asian intergenerational experience. It’s stated that Evelyn made sacrifices to move to the US from China, and that she has a tendency to leave a lot of goals unfinished, giving a sense that she’s, well, trying to be everything everywhere all at once. Similarly, the pressure she puts on her daughter to be better than her through a combination of shame and criticism—well-intended but nevertheless painful—is one of the major sources of conflict in the film. 

By having all of this told primarily from the perspective of Evelyn, however, the Asian mom ceases to be a close-yet-distant figure in the story to eventually understand, and becomes the primary conduit through which these conflicting emotions are experienced. And it all comes down to trying to figure out how to deal with the expectations of others while trying to raise a child to exceed all expectations.

There’s actually a lot more I’d like to discuss about Everything Everywhere All at Once, especially the daughter and the husband Waymond, and how they each add to the wonderfully complex milieu that the film provides. But Evelyn is the main character and star, and the stalwart yet wobbly pillar around which the story is built. It’s an uncommon but welcome sight, and it has me wondering if I need to view my own mother a little differently—even if that doesn’t come easily.

Redefining Traditions and Expectations: Turning Red

Turning Red is Disney Pixar’s latest theatrical animation, and its focus on life as an Asian middle schooler hits close to home. Like many Asians from North America, I was a kid who took overachieving to heart due to my upbringing. I wasn’t dedicated as some of my peers, mind, but it was enough that getting a B+ used to summon deep and gut-wrenching dread. But when I looked at TV and movies, it was clear that characters who were like me were few and far between, and the ones who did appear were often relegated to support characters even when factoring out physical appearance. 

This has changed over time, with the mainstream rise of the “nerd” and protagonists like Twilight Sparkle from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic carrying a similar energy, but that particular cocktail of emotions shared by so many of Asian descent remained a rarity. That’s why I was so taken by the heroine of Turning Red, Meilin Lee. A 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian from Toronto, her story is the latest in a line of works addressing generational trauma—and one of those symptoms is the way that Asian kids are expected to get those straight A’s, learn piano and violin, get into a good college, have a successful career, have a family and kids, and on and on. 

Yet, the key is that the pressure placed upon us does not come from malice, neglect, or simple fear of ruining family reputation, but rather from what is practically the opposite. For our elders who had to endure unbelievable hardship, they do not want us to suffer as they did, yet the context in which many of us are raised is so fundamentally different that it creates inherent tensions.

The way Turning Red pursues this complex relationship through Meilin is nothing short of brilliant and powerfully relatable. Within her is a turbulent embrace of both 2002 North American pop culture (boy bands!) and the traditional culture of her parents, and the way they merge and split and get thrown into the blender feels so much like what I experienced as a kid and still do today. It’s a film where I instantly saw myself—not simply because it’s about Asians but because it tells a personally familiar story in a way that assumes that such experiences are natural and common.  

Encanto Is Too Real

The Madrigal family from Encanto in a group photo

Encanto gave me an existential crisis, a first for a Disney film.

Its story centers around a family with supernatural powers called the Madrigals who have been the spiritual center of their town for generations. Each member of the Madrigals is bestowed a “gift” by a magic candle when they come of age, going all the way back to the family matriarch, Abuela (“Grandmother”), who received the candle through some unknown miracle while escaping from her hometown—and through the noble and tragic sacrifice of her beloved husband. The protagonist of the story is Mirabel, one of Abuela’s granddaughters, who is the only Madrigal to not have a gift. But when Mirabel begins to see what looks like a premonition about the destruction of their house and their magic, she takes action to solve the mystery, and in doing so, learns more about her family than she—or anyone else—ever knew.

The story of the “non-special” person who is surrounded by incredibly talented people and goes on to do big things doesn’t seem all that unique, and plenty of similar narratives never felt like a chest-wrenching experience to me. But the way in which the genuine mutual love between Mirabel and her family carries a vein of patronizing concern over Mirabel’s lack of conventional ability (by Madrigal standards) hits a little too close to home. It’s that complicated extra layer underpinning the interactions between Mirabel’s immediate and extended family, where a desire to help Mirabel ends up hurting by inadvertently reinforcing the idea that she’ll never be good enough, which makes the film wallop like a sack full of bricks.

But the film also has plenty of joyful highs, especially as Mirabel gradually breaks through the invisible barriers that obfuscate the state of her relatives’ emotional wellbeing. The emphasis on family is anything but shallow, and the simple yet profound truths about every character lend credence to the idea that the notion of the ideal and picturesque Madrigals is neither entirely true nor entirely false. The pressure to live up to greatness is heavy. And as for the eponymous uncle from the film’s hit song “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” for me his story strikes closest to home.

What is also eminently relatable as someone who is descended from immigrants who had to basically start anew in an unfamiliar land is the story of the cultural gap that forms as each successive generation must deal with the challenges that lie ahead. Abuela’s priorities are the result of the circumstances that shaped her, and it makes me reflect on my own ancestors’ hardships—though not without pondering why the generational divide can be so very steep. 

I don’t hate Encanto for making me feel all sorts of ways. Quite the opposite, in fact. It’s a powerful and authentic rollercoaster of emotions that reflect a family with a complex history, and I appreciate that a lot. I think it can sometimes be easy to think that those who have those feelings of inadequacy brought upon by familial pressure are alone, and it’s comforting to see such a story play out on so grand a stage.

Transformative Ties: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings has a tricky balancing act it strives to achieve. As the first Marvel film with an Asian protagonist as well as having a majority Asian cast and creative team, it must consider the audience in the US, the audience in Asia, and the Asian diaspora around the world that sits in between and among the first two. As an American of Asian descent myself, I can only speak to two of the three, but I found myself really connecting with the film and its characters’ struggles, while also enjoying it as a high-quality mainstream superhero action film.

Shang-Chi puts a heavy emphasis on family. I think it’s because family is such a common thread that connects Asia to its diaspora, and thus the most surefire way to have a story that resonates across the divides that exist between the two, and even between Asian cultures. It’s the relationships of Shang-Chi—between spouses, parents and children, siblings, and friends—that really spoke to me on a personal level.

My father, who I’m pretty sure is not a thousand-year-old magical conqueror, is nothing like Xu Wenwu (aka the Mandarin)—and I am certainly no Shang-Chi. However, the story of a person chafing against the upbringing his father tried to instill in him feels incredibly real, especially the fact that the characters’ emotions regarding these experiences is so complex. Shang-Chi was raised to be the ultimate deadly martial artist by Wenwu after losing Shang-Chi’s mother, and the situation basically forces Shang-Chi to run away from his home and his family. In a way, Shang-Chi is both the story of an immigrant trying to start a new life and one of someone who has to reconnect with his estranged past, and this makes the character capable of connecting to multiple generations of Asian viewers. 

The fight scenes are probably the best we’ve ever seen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, drawing from a long history of martial arts movies. Their execution is what tells me that the creators have the utmost respect for the films that paved the way and the actors in them, as they’re easy to appreciate on both storytelling and choreography levels. Shang-Chi is supposed to be the “master of kung fu,” and actor Simu Liu makes for a strong performance. 

But as solid as Liu is in the role of Shang-Chi, I’m in agreement with virtually everyone who saw the film that Hong Kong legend Tony Leung stole the show. One might even say that it was a very good Shang-Chi film but a fantastic Mandarin film. Leung is so utterly convincing as a multifaceted antagonist with conflicting emotions and a deep sense of pain that it strikes right at the soul. A common criticism of the Marvel films is that the villains tend not to be terribly memorable, but Shang-Chi is practically the opposite. If there’s one thing that lingers in the mind after the film is over, it’s Leung’s Wenwu. Much like Mr. Freeze from Batman: The Animated Series, I wouldn’t be surprised if he has permanently influenced all future portrayals of the Mandarin even in the comics. In other words, we’re quite removed from the entertainingly bombastic yet still kind of offensive Mandarin from the 1990s arcade game Captain America & the Avengers.

Having Wenwu/the Mandarin as Shang-Chi’s father is a significant change from the source material, where his father was Fu Manchu, the face of the highly racist Yellow Peril portrayals in American media. But the Mandarin was not exactly free of that racist tinge, and the steps taken by the film and by Leung go an incredibly long way towards freeing that character—and by extension many of the Asian characters in Marvel—from the stereotypes that plague them. The film even pokes fun at the clumsy results of how the Iron Man films attempted to tie in the Mandarin’s character, and it’s Leung’s delivery of the US’s fear of a pale imitation of the real deal (i.e. himself) that makes this self-referential mockery feel less like a halfhearted apology and more like a genuine understanding of Asian culture. 

Shang-Chi also gives a lot of attention to the women portrayed in the film, and while the push to show them as equals to the men of the story can be somewhat hamfisted, it’s still appreciated. Key to this being more than a shallow “girl power” demonstration is the degrees of difference each female characters have in comparison to one another—things that either hint at or reflect specific aspects of how and where they were brought up, and how they see the world.  

Overall, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings truly feels to me like a film that tried its very best to be a respectful representation of an Asian hero that celebrates Asian culture without overly burdening it with the need to show everything. The very personal stories that unfold between Shang-Chi, Wenwu, Katie, and all the others already captures so much of the Asian/Asian diaspora experience that it makes everything feel satisfyingly real. This is ultimately what helps make Shang-Chi, a B-tier hero in terms of the Marvel pantheon, feel like a worthy equal to those who came before him.

There’s More to Life: Pixar’s Soul

Soul, the latest CG animated film from Disney and Pixar, speaks to me on a very deep and personal level. It’s not just that it’s about an older minority protagonist who chafes at family pressure when it comes to doing what’s safe and expected. Nor is it that the movie is set in New York City, where the familiar sights and sounds make me oddly nostalgic in a time when stepping foot outside can be a stressful decision in itself. What really hits home is one of the core messages of Soul, which is to be aware of how we as people often confuse inspiration, passion, purpose, and fulfillment—and how doing so can hold us back in life in fundamental ways.

The story of Soul follows Joe Gardner, a black middle-aged middle school music teacher who still dreams of being a professional jazz musician (the long overdue first black protagonist in a Pixar film). When a rare opportunity to play with one of the greats comes knocking, an ecstatic Joe gets caught in an accident that causes his soul to leave his body. Desperate to avoid the afterlife and get back to the land of the living (and his gig), he winds up as the mentor to 22, a soul that for thousands of years has failed to find the spark to become a full-fledged living being, and who sees her pre-life to be much more appealing than life on Earth.

Whether it’s Joe’s firm belief that his purpose in life is to play jazz, or the pre-life system that brings history’s greats in as mentors to guide those like 22 to begin life, Soul highlights the way people often think about what it means to live a great life. We celebrate those who follow their passion and transform them into monumental discoveries and achievements. We think having a greater purpose is the key to reaching greater heights. But just as Joe throughout the film is often so obsessed with his life-long aspiration that he fails to see the positive influence he gives (and receives) from those around him, it’s all too easy to feel like a failure when we focus only on destinations and not journeys.

Although I don’t see myself as being in a completely similar position to Joe, Soul made me realize something: for whatever reason, I often feel a lingering sense of guilt over not accomplishing more than I should have, or was supposed to. On a certain level, it can feel ridiculous. I’m at least fairly proud of the things I’ve managed to see and do in my life, achievements that I know took intelligence, dedication, and maybe even a bit of courage. Yet, I still see myself as rarely having ever gone the distance that can leave myself without any regrets. A career switch may have truly turned out for the better on a personal level, but still leaves me feeling that I left some potential unfulfilled. Even in the context of this blog here, I sometimes criticize myself for not having improved my writing as rapidly as I should have been, and for not having the drive to force that change upon myself. This guilt is in some ways internal and in other ways external, but the result is the same. 

Thanks to Soul, I realize now that I do indeed get caught up in conflating inspiration with passion, purpose with fulfillment, and so on. I haven’t resolved what exactly this means for me, or what it is that I ultimately will feel once I’ve sorted out these feelings and the degree to which I value them, but it has me on a long road of introspection. Not every film can do that, which makes having watched Soul all the more worthwhile.

Wyld Stallyns’ Greatest Triumph: Bill & Ted Face the Music

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and its sequel BIll & Ted’s Bogus Journey are two of my favorite films ever due to their absurd premises to their even more ridiculous climaxes. Bill S. Preston, Esquire and Ted “Theodore” Logan epitomize what people today call “himbos”—dim yet sincere dudes, and the two are great watches even today. Now, 30 years later we have a new movie in Bill & Ted Face the Music, and it’s a great sequel that captures the spirit of its predecessors. But as much as I enjoyed the film, I’ve also come to realize that it has an underlying story about how great Bill and Ted are as parents.

Because this is going to be discussing the ending to Bill & Ted Face the Music, be warned that there will be HEAVY SPOILERS involved.

The basic plot of the film is that metalheads Bill and Ted, aka Wyld Stallyns, have not been able to live up to their potential. They’re supposedly destined to write the song that ushers in a centuries-long age of peace and harmony, but they’ve spent the last 25 years failing to accomplish what should be their moment of greatness. Bill and Ted aro longer young, perhaps best shown by the fact that their daughters, Billie Logan and Thea “Theadora” Preston, have gone from babies at the end of Bogus Journey to 24-year-olds in Face the Music. After many time travel shenanigans (par for the course with Bill and Ted), Bill and Ted realize that they’re not the ones who are meant to write the ultimate song, but their daughters. What results is a song that is not only heard across time and space but also literally played by every person ever simultaneously.

There is a clear passing of the torch aspect to Billie and Thea being the true “destined ones,” in case any future films are to happen. However, I  see Billie and Thea as more than just replacements, and that’s because of something heavily implied throughout Face the Music: the daughters are able to succeed in creating the ultimate song because they were raised by Bill and Ted to love and appreciate music. It’s thanks to their dads’ support that they’re able to build on and surpass what the original duo achieved.

At the beginning of the movie, Bill and Ted perform their latest attempt at the song that will unite all, and it’s an extremely bizarre and experimental piece. Their audience, Ted’s brother’s wedding party, is not having it. But when the two talk to their daughters, they express how impressed they were by Wyld Stallyns’ use of the theremin and Tuvan throat singing—far, far cries from their rock and metal origins. What’s not said outright in these scenes is that Bill and Ted, in their attempt to write the ultimate song, have greatly expanded their musical horizons over the year. This pursuit of all forms of music, in turn, has rubbed off on Billie and Thea. The daughters are also portrayed as much more intelligent than their fathers, and might very well be musical geniuses.

Thus, when Billie and Thea go on their own time travel adventure to recruit the greatest band in history, they pick famous figures from across many musical genres: Jimi Hendrix, Louis Armstrong, Ling Lun, Mozart, and a cavewoman named Grom. And while a young Bill and Ted wondered who “Beeth Oven” was, Billie and Thea know exactly who Mozart (and everyone else) is. Another notable difference is that, whereas rock and metal have traditionally been dominated by white performers, most of these artists are non-white, showing greater respect for music from other cultures. When Face the Music gets to its climax and Wyld Stallyns make way for Billie and Thea’s production and DJing skills to thrive (and save the space-time continuum), Bill and Ted are doing more than just stepping aside for their daughters—they’re allowing their greatest triumphs to fulfill their own destiny.

The support shown by Bill and Ted towards their kids stands out all the more when remembering the upbringing they themselves had, especially Ted. Rather than fostering Ted’s dreams of becoming a rock star, Mr. Logan is a police captain who cares more about instilling discipline and making his son “do something” with his life. The threat of a future at the military academy hangs over Ted in both Excellent Adventure and Bogus Journey. It’s not until Face the Music that Mr. Logan finally accepts all that Ted has gone through (time travel, going to heaven and hell). In contrast, Ted has likely been behind Billie from Day 1. 

Although Isaac Newton has never appeared in the Bill & Ted films, his famous quote about standing on the shoulders of giants is highly relevant here. Bill and Ted are the unlikeliest of heroes, but the ground they cover thanks to their adventures allow their daughters to take things to the next level. Sure, BIllie and Thea are much more astute and sharp by comparison, but father and daughter alike appreciate the other on a deep and fundamentally important level. It’s that love and respect, the fact that their relationships embody the dual mottos of “be excellent to each other” and “party on, dudes” that ultimately allows them to save the universe.