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Asian Pacific American Heritage Month: Lao Films and Films about Laos

This week kicks off Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, so you can expect lots of Celebrasian puns in various news articles. Not to be confused with Celebraisin, which would be one of those dancing claymation raisins from the 80s. This year marks the 40th anniversary since the first Asian Pacific American Heritage Month was recognized by Congress and the White House in 1978. For those of you who were curious, the month of May was chosen to commemorate the immigration of the first Japanese to the United States on May 7, 1843, and to mark the anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869. The majority of the workers who laid the tracks were Chinese immigrants. And of course, everyone knows the significance of May to Lao because of the incredible lessons we all get about our journey to America in history class, right?

Recently, community members have been asking Little Laos on the Prairie for movie recommendations involving Laos, especially in the aftermath of that Angelina Jolie movie about our Cambodian neighbors to the south last year. While we’re still waiting for the Lao Siskel & Ebert, we do have a few films we can recommend you check out if you want to hold your own Lao American mini-film festival to understand the different directions our film-makers have taken over recent years.

Nerakhoon: The Betrayal (2008)
It’s hard to believe the Emmy-winning, Oscar-nominated film based on the life of Thavisouk Phrasavath and his family’s winding journey from Laos is turning ten years old this November. It remains one of the classics of Lao American cinema to this day as it explores the history of one family during the war for Laos in the 1970s, and as they make their way to America. Moreover, it also serves as a profound meditation on the nature of betrayal and the chain reaction of further betrayals such actions create in societies.

This year our community has two films just starting to make their way around the US film festival circuit.

Origin Story (2018)
Actress, comedian, and podcast celebrity Kulap Vilaysack’s long awaited documentary Origin Story will look at her roots in Minnesota and her search for the truth and understanding her Lao heritage following a fateful argument with her family that challenged everything she understood about herself.

Getting Lao’d (2018)
Dr. Steve Arounsack recently completed his documentary Getting Lao’d which examines the unusual route for post-war Laos to build an emerging music scene for itself. It had its World Premiere in Seattle in February.

Chanthaly (2013) and Dearest Sister (2016)
Film-maker Mattie Do currently holds the distinction as the first Lao woman to be a film director thanks to her 2013 horror film Chanthaly and her second feature, Dearest Sister, released three years later. Do’s directorial style manages to evoke the work of the great mystery and thriller directors but also brings a modern sensibility and pacing to screen that is not to be missed.

The Letter (2016)
If you’re in the mood for a short film, Sydney Viengluang stars in “The Letter” inspired by a true story of a Laotian family resettled in America after the war and a daughter’s journey of discovery.

Bomb Harvest (2007)
There have been many exceptional documentaries between now and the beginning of the 21st century about the lingering legacy of unexploded cluster bombs and other weapons dropped by the US on a neutral Laos during the Vietnam War era. Bomb Harvest takes a look at the lives of experts working with the villagers, NGOs and government officials to safely remove the weapons dropped on Laos nearly 4 decades ago. An earlier documentary to watch addressing similar material is the film Bombies.

Blue Collar and Buddha (1986)
One of the early documentaries to look at the Lao refugee resettlement experience in the US is Blue Collar and Buddha, taking a look at the culture clash between Lao youth and the residents of Rockford, Illinois.

Moon City (2018)
This season, while everyone is talking about the Infinity War, Deadpool 2, and Black Panther, there’s also a scrappy family-friendly Lao superhero film coming onto the scene called Moon City, in case you need something to watch.

Of course you could fill up a miniature Lao American film festival with many other films and shorts, including Found: a short film based on the book of poet Souvankham Thammavongsa’s experience of finding her father’s discarded notebook written in the refugee camps. Perhaps you want to fill a few hours with the Kahn Souphanousinphone episodes from King of the Hill. Maybe you want to play episodes of Z-Nation’s 3rd season that introduced the first recurring Lao character in a live-action film, Dr. Sun Mei, searching for a cure to the zombie virus. More mainstream Hollywood films might also include works such: as Air America with Robert Downey Jr. and Mel Gibson, or Rescue Dawn with Christian Bale as a pilot shot down in Laos, or the Clint Eastwood vehicle Gran Torino about Hmong refugees trying to deal with a crabby old white guy.

We’ve probably missed a lot in this roundup, so what are some of YOUR suggestions? Tell us in the comments below.

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