Entertainment

Asian Talent Won Big at the Oscars. Here’s Why That’s Important.

Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland” took home Best Director and Best Picture awards while veteran South Korean actor Youn Yuh-jung won Best Supporting Actress for her role in “Minari.”
April 26, 2021, 11:44am
Chloe Zhao won best director and best picture while Youn Yuh-jung won best supporting actress at 93rd academy awards.
Chloé Zhao (L) and Youn Yuh-jung (R) at this year's Academy Awards. Collage: VICE / Images: Chris Pizzello / POOL, AFP

Finally, the Oscars aren’t so white anymore.

Following a pandemic year that saw the closing of cinemas and a disrupted film industry, Asian talent came out on top at the 93rd Academy Awards held in Los Angeles on Sunday. 

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Beijing-born filmmaker Chloé Zhao became the first woman of color to win Best Director for her film Nomadland, which also took home the biggest prize of the night when it was named Best Picture. Meanwhile, veteran South Korean actor Youn Yuh-jung won Best Supporting Actress for her performance in Minari, making her only the second woman of Asian descent (and the first from South Korea) to win in the category.

This year's Oscars also featured unprecedented Asian representation among its nominees, including Best Actor nods for Riz Ahmed, for his role in Sound of Metal, and Steven Yeun for Minari — the first time two actors of Asian descent were nominated for best actor at the same time.

It’s been a long time coming.

“People of Asian descent are increasingly claiming the value of their cultural identity, and owning its right to visibility, turning away from a past in which people of color had to erase their own heritage in order to assimilate with the white majority,” Ila Tyagi, a lecturer of film studies at Singapore’s Yale-NUS College, told VICE. “The trend toward greater representation for people of color in visual culture seems to be irreversible.”

These milestones for the Asian community come about a year after Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite won four awards at the Oscars, including Best Picture. Adam Knee, an American film expert and dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts, Media and Creative Industries at Singapore’s LASALLE College of the Arts, told VICE that Parasite’s runaway success “absolutely” paved the way for greater Asian representation in this year’s Academy Awards. 

“As a result of [Parasite] winning, it generated an incredible amount of publicity and awareness that wasn’t there before. And these things are all incremental to gradually get [Asian representation] into people’s consciousness in the U.S.”

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Apart from their awards, both Nomadland and Minari are groundbreaking in that they steer away from narrow and stereotypical narratives of an “exotic” Asia that have long existed in Hollywood. Minari features an Asian American family against the backdrop of rural America, while Nomadland is not about Asian characters at all. While Zhao was born and grew up in China, she paints a quiet yet moving portrait of white American vandwellers in Nomadland. “This is a way of taking away the prejudices and biases,” said Knee. “Why the assumption that people can only make films about themselves?”

“People at birth are inherently good,” Zhao said in her acceptance speech, quoting the first line of the Three Character Classic, an ancient Chinese text.

“This,” she said as she held up her Oscar trophy, “is for anyone who have the faith and the courage to hold on to the goodness in themselves, and to hold on to the goodness in each other, no matter how difficult it is to do that.”

On the other hand, Minari, a film about a Korean-American family starting a farm in 1980s rural Arkansas, has been widely praised for its portrayal of the Asian American experience. Featuring mostly Korean dialogue, many see the journey of the film’s Yi family as a rewriting of the American Dream.

“What’s important about Minari is that it shines a light on a dimension of Asian American history that people are not aware of,” Knee said. 

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He cited the film as an example of “self-representation” of Asian Americans who were “living in the U.S. in a time that most people don’t think of as being the Asian American age.”

In it, Youn plays a brash but endearing grandmother coming to the United States for the first time, bonding (or attempting to) with her Americanized grandchildren over long walks in the forest and a traditional Korean card game.

Youn’s Best Supporting Actress win for Minari is all the more precious considering that, despite Parasite’s big wins at the Oscars last year, the film’s cast did not receive a single nomination from the Academy in an acting category.

“Tonight, I have a little bit of luck, I think,” the 73-year-old Youn said in her acceptance speech. “Also, maybe, it’s American hospitality for the Korean actor.”

Adding a dose of humor, Youn quipped, “I would like to thank my two boys who made me go out and work.”

She then dedicated the award to late filmmaker Kim Ki-young, who directed 1971’s Woman of Fire, her first movie. “I think he’d be very happy if he was alive,” she said.

Knee noted that the backdrop of anti-Asian racism and the ongoing spate of attacks against Asians in the U.S. make these wins especially important in helping people see Asians as “part of the fabric of America.”

“That consciousness is obviously still developing, but it’s steps like these, the popularity [and] the widespread viewing of a film like Minari, [that] changes the imagination of what America entails. It’s incremental, but it’s a very important … step in mainstream films like this.”

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Hours after Youn’s win, South Korea’s largest newspapers were raving about her historic Oscar moment. Meanwhile, people are taking to Twitter to share their elation at seeing Asians finally being recognized in Hollywood.

Yet, in a country where the achievements of its diaspora are typically celebrated, Zhao’s fresh Oscar win appears to have been met with deafening silence by Chinese social media and news outlets. This is the result of a controversy that deeply complicated her relationship with Chinese authorities and viewers. Just as her talent was generating buzz in China earlier this year, past interviews — where she called China “a place where there are lies everywhere” and was misquoted as saying the U.S. was “now her country” — resurfaced, drawing the ire of Chinese nationalists.

The saga saw the censorship of Nomadland-related content on Chinese microblogging site Weibo in March. Meanwhile, searches for Nomadland and Zhao have been blocked on Douban, one of China’s top movie review sites.

But it’s not just Asians who are making history at this year’s Oscars. The 93rd Academy Awards may be remembered as a watershed moment for its racial and gender diversity.

Daniel Kaluuya won Best Supporting Actor for his role in Judas and the Black Messiah, joining Youn, Best Actor Anthony Hopkins, and Best Actress Frances McDormand in this year’s top performances.

Judas and the Black Messiah saw the first time an all-Black producing team was nominated for Best Picture. Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson, part of the makeup and hairstyling team for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, were the first Black women to be nominated and to win in the category.

Zhao’s win is also historic for women in the film industry, marking the second time in Oscars history that a woman won Best Director (the first being Kathryn Bigelow in 2010 for The Hurt Locker). This is also the first time two women have been nominated for Best Director at the same time; besides Zhao, Emerald Fennell was also nominated for Promising Young Woman, which won her Best Original Screenplay.