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The APAHM Project Day 1: Elemental

Updated: May 9



Film: Elemental

Directed By: Peter Sohn

Release: 2023

Where to Watch: Disney + 

Wanna Skip? Pick a Movie from APAHM Project 2023, 2022, 2021, 2020


Why It Made The List:

This Oscar-nominated movie is the third film by Pixar to be helmed by an Asian American, and the second of Sohn's. The film took 7 years to complete from concept to final frame. A metaphor for the immigrant story and that true love knows no bounds, Elemental is a film that both children and adults can appreciate.


My Thoughts:

If you are unfamiliar with Peter Sohn, you may know his other works, including Pixar's The Good Dinosaur and Pixar short "Partly Cloudy." However, Sohn has also provided voices for Lightyear's Sox, Ratatouille's Emile, and even the robber from The Incredibles. Peter's likeness also helped inspire Up's beloved character, Russell.


Sohn grew up as a second-generation Korean-American growing up in the Bronx. Sohn and his younger brother are sons of two Korean immigrants who came to New York in the 1970s with only $150. His father bought a hot dog cart until he saved up enough money to buy a grocery store. He built the store with his own two hands and eventually, the Sohn family added an art store to their entrepreneurial endeavors. At the art store, Sohn's father talked to the customers who were proof that being an artist was a sustainable career.


Sohn says in an interview "All the stories [his parents] told me of their journey here I took for granted until I was like, 'Oh my God, they did this without speaking the language. They did this with no money. My dad was a hotdog cart guy and he made all this. I could never do that.' My empathy grew for them." Sohn's story sounds like so many other immigrant stories we have heard. Whether from movies or someone we know, we have all heard about families leaving their native country with nothing for the chance to have everything. And that leads us to the Lumen family.


Elemental begins with a Fire couple arriving to Elemental City by boat. The city was first inhabited by the Water people and then the Earth and finally Air. Upon arriving at the immigration check point, the Fire couple say their names in their native tongue. The employee simply gives them new names Cinder and Bernie. This incident was all too familiar to me, as my family's names were changed or rearranged, etc. when coming to America. Because the Lumens are the first Fire people to come to Elemental City, none of the infrastructure is made for them in mind. The city is surrounded by water that can extinguish Fire or Fire can burn up the Earth people (is "people" the right word to be using?) Eventually, the Lumens settle in an unoccupied area and their child, Ember is born. They open their own shop and the community grows as more Fire people immigrate, creating a neighborhood reminiscent of Chinatown.


There are nods to some generalized "subtle Asian traits" such as Bernie not getting American idioms correct ("lying through his feet") and speaking in a broken accent. Wade's family tells Ember she speaks so well and clear. But there is also the tried-and-true topic of careers. It is a stereotype that Asian families often want their children to become doctors, lawyers, engineers, or accountants. We know that Sohn's own parents were skeptical of him being an artist until customers proved that artists actually do get work. But there is another career path that is often not talked about in Asian media and that is taking over the family business. Sohn's brother still runs his parents' art store today. My grandfather worked in his father's electrical shop in Hong Kong and my parents both worked in their families' grocery stores. Ember is trained from the beginning to take over the family business. She realizes that, although she has the skill set, her bad temper is really a sign that she doesn't want to work in the shop. She later acknowledges her talent for glass making and chooses to pursue this instead.


But Ember does not come to this decision lightly. While at the beach, she tells Wade that her parents sacrificed everything. "How do you repay a sacrifice that big?" she asks. She later accepts that she will take over the store and says that the only way to pay back a sacrifice that big is to sacrifice your dream too. Ember, like me, put so much pressure on herself to make sure that she did not let her parents sacrifice go to waste. I struggled so much when deciding to leave the medical field behind me. My grandparents didn't come to this country for me to run off and be a filmmaker. But like Cinder and Bernie, my parents wanted me to be happy and to pursue my dreams, not someone else's. To me, achieving the American Dream is to be able to have any kind of dream you want. There is no worrying about survival in a new country, there is no language barrier, no educational obstacles. Having the American Dream is being able to dream without limitations and people telling you what you can or cannot do. Ember finally let's go of feeling obligated to take over the family business. At the end of the movie, Ember departs Elemental City for her glass making internship, but not without giving her father the Bà Ksô, the highest level of respect. Just because Ember is chasing a new, personal dream does not mean she forgot all her parents have done for her in order to embark on this new journey.


Elemental is Pixar's first romantic comedy feature. Sohn was inspired by his own relationship with his non-Korean wife and the tension it caused within his family. Ember meets Wade, a city-inspector who is the opposite of Ember in many ways. He is sensitive and wears his heart on his sleeve, while Ember is hot-headed and doesn't always say how she is feeling. He pulls people in while she pushes them away. Oh, and of course, he's Water and she's Fire. The two eventually learn more about each other and each other's cultures, eventually falling in love. Due to a few past prejudiced moments (that we will cover next), Bernie is not a fan of Water people. However, realizing that Ember truly loves Wade, he comes to accept him.


This leads to another theme throughout Elemental and that is xenophobia, prejudice, and discrimination. Upon their first arrival to Elemental City, a Water person on the subway unknowingly spills water onto Cinder, causing her to partially extinguish. Bernie angrily says "water", his first English word in the film. When looking for a place to live, they are turned away by everyone due to xenophobia (a tree turns them away due to dry leaves). When Ember is a child, she desperately wants to see a Vivisteria flower, which is supposed to be able to withstand any element or condition. However, Bernie and Ember are turned away by a security officer who points to a sign that says "No Fire." While Bernie and the officer argue, Ember is confused as to why they cannot enter. It is not until the officer screams "Go back to Fireland" that Ember registers that they are being othered. Because of these instances and others, Bernie has generalized all Water people as being bad. Ember reminds him not all Water is the same. During the height of the pandemic, stories like Ember's popped up all over my feed and not only made me scared, but hurt. It triggered my own similar experiences during a time where I was living in a town with almost no Asian people. I think including such a real and powerful scene in Elemental was necessary. Not every immigrant story is tragic or full of hardships like the media often likes to portray. But experiencing racism is something that no non-white person in America is immune to. It is a sad but true reality many face.


Keeping on theme for this year's APAHM Project, I want to lastly point out that Wade and Ember are perfect examples of defying expectations. The citizens of Elemental City often saw Fire as destructive. But Ember (and Fire) are capable of creating beautiful things like colorful flames from gemstones and glass ornaments. Water caused damage to the city and to Ember's shop, but can also create beautiful rainbows. Wade even created his own fire to light his fortune stick. Both Ember and Wade show there is more than meets the eye.


In Conclusion:

In Disney's Good Chemistry: The Story of Elemental, Sohn compares New York City to a salad bowl rather than a melting pot. To melt is to assimilate and "white wash" as one interviewee stated. However a salad bowl is a combination of different ingredients while still preserving the integrity of each individual ingredient. Immigrating to America is becoming both. Being second-, third-, fourth-generation is being both. Ember's story is an excellent example of embracing a new life in Elemental City while still staying true to her Fireland roots. While Elemental is an immigrant story, that is not the only story it tells. It is a rom-com. It is a story of a strong-willed young woman who finds her own path. Just as Elemental is not one thing, neither are we. We are not simply defined as Asian or immigrants. We aren't defined by our jobs. We are defined by our passions, who we love and who love us. How we treat others. Those are the things that exceed the black and white of the words "Asian" and "American". Those are the things that make us human.


Shout Out!

I would like to give a shout out to Erin Siao, an illustrator who goes by Ink & Kimchi. Erin is a Korean-American artist who specializes in Asian-inspired art, especially food! She is also one of the organizers for AAPI Heritage Month Memphis in which she created the graphics for. Erin has been a big supporter of The APAHM Project so please give Erin a follow and check out her Etsy store!


If You Liked This, You Might Like:

Good Chemistry: The Story of Elemental on Disney +

Kim's Convenience on Netflix

The Flower Drum Song on Tubi

Tiger Tail on Netflix

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