For a comedy, Jo Koy’s new movie “Easter Sunday” had a lot of tears.
The tape was no ordinary job for the comedian and the rest of the cast. The enormity of being on a majority Filipino set led to a riot of tears of joy, Koy said. Emotions ran high as co-star Tia Carrere noted that this was the first time she had played a Filipino character in her 40-year career.
“To be able to be right there in a scene with five other Filipino actors and just do a scene about a family… She’s never seen that before,” Koy, 51, told The Associated Press. “We all cried and celebrated together because it was like, ‘OK, this is going to be one of many moments here.’”
Koy, who is half Filipino and half white, makes his feature film debut with a film heavily inspired by material from his Netflix comedy specials. DreamWorks/Universal touts “Easter Sunday,” which opens in theaters Friday, as the first movie from a major studio with an all-Filipino ensemble.
Koy plays Joe Valencia, a comical aspiring actor who travels to his family’s home in the San Francisco Bay Area for the Easter holidays. He tries to bond with his teenage son while dealing with well-meaning but overbearing relatives. The production comes at a time when Filipino-American food, history, and advocacy are increasingly emerging in the zeitgeist.
“Finally, our stories, our faces are front and center on the big screen,” said Carrere, 55, known for movies like “Wayne’s World,” “True Lies” ( “True Lies”) and “Lilo & Stitch” (“Lilo and Stitch”). “I have to pinch myself (to believe) that I’m still here, in business, and invited to the party.”
Jimmy O. Yang, an actor from “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Love Hard” who makes a cameo appearance on “Easter Sunday,” also served as producer. That meant watching tons of auditions for actors of Filipino or Asian descent. Yang was blown away by the talent; choosing 10 roles was much harder than he imagined. He thinks Hollywood’s claims that capable Asian actors are hard to find are just cheap excuses.
“As an actor, I think all these guys are very good,” Yang said. “I wanted to call some of them and say, ‘Hey man! Please continue, okay? We couldn’t hire you for this job, but please keep going.’”
“Easter Sunday,” directed by Jay Chandrasekhar, is set in the Philippine suburb of Daly City, to which screenwriter Ken Cheng emigrated as a child. He envisioned a mix of Ice Cube’s “Friday” and the classic Christmas movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Cheng, also a producer, wrote it in 2020 during the pandemic lockdown. He then turned to Steven Spielberg, whose company Amblin Partners co-produces the film, and within hours the legendary director had read it and given his approval, according to Cheng.
“From that day to the first day we started shooting it was something like five and a half months. And that is incredibly fast,” she said. “A lot of that is because of how excited everyone was to build a movie around Jo.”
Hollywood is full of notable half-Filipino actors, like Vanessa Hudgens and Darren Criss. But Koy uses his origin in his work. For example, he wanted a scene in “Easter Sunday” that would show the family packing the traditional balikbayan boxes. Filipinos, usually first-generation immigrants, often send boxes of American products to relatives in the Philippines. Balikbayan box shipping is practically an industry by itself.
“There is this responsibility that they put on their shoulders when they come to this country,” Koy said. “I see that with a lot of Filipino families and I wanted to show the world how important this is to us.”
Today, Filipinos make up more than 4 million of the country’s more than 23 million Asian people, according to the US Census. Only the Chinese and the Indians are more. Philippine culture and history have gained increased visibility in recent years, primarily due to their decades of activism.
This year, a 30-foot (9-meter)-tall archway opened in Los Angeles’ historic Filipinotown and a street in New York City’s Queens was named Little Manila Avenue. A newly built park in the Bay Area was named after striking Filipino-American farm workers. For years, Filipino food has been hailed from time to time as the next culinary trend. It seems to be having a moment again in the world of haute cuisine. Chicago’s Kasama became the only Michelin-starred Filipino restaurant in the country.
“Easter Sunday” comes at “this really amazing time in Asian American and Filipino American history, where political, social and economic capital has come together,” said Eric Pido, a professor of Asian American studies at California State University. San Francisco, with a background in Filipino-American studies. He predicts that younger generations will raise the profiles of Filipinos in the coming years.
“I think Filipino Americans are no longer shying away from taking on a representative role in American politics, which will bring up all sorts of interesting things about Filipino American culture that a lot of people just don’t think about,” Pido said.
Last month, Koy and Cheng were at a screening of “Easter Sunday” in Daly City. Among those in attendance was Pixar’s “Turning Red” director Domee Shi. “Turning Red,” about a Chinese-Canadian teenager and her family, was a hit after its March release on Disney+. But one white film critic called the animated film exhausting and relatable only to Shi’s Chinese family and friends. The review was later withdrawn over allegations of racism.
The idea that stories that focus on Asian ethnicities and cultures are too specific to be engaging is outdated, Koy said.
“The relationship between mother and child is the same, regardless of ethnicity,” he said. “I hate ignorant people who don’t move forward… There are a lot of people living in this country who need to be heard and it’s time to hear them.”