Besides taking place during a global pandemic, this Sunday's Academy Awards ceremony made history for another reason: an actress of East Asian descent received an Oscar for the first time in 63 years.
South Korean Yuh-Jung Youn was named Best Supporting Actress for the film Minari, and the 73-year-old began her acceptance speech saying what an honor it was to finally meet Brad Pitt and that she forgave Americans for mispronouncing her name.
Her win was undoubtedly deserved but also marked a rare win for Asian actors. In the years between Youn's win and Miyoshi Umeki’s 1958 Best Supporting Actress win for Sayonara, East Asian actors have been nominated only six times, with three wins including Haing S. Ngor's 1987 Best Supporting Actor win for The Killing Fields. The Oscars are a blatant example of the slow — if not completely silent — efforts on behalf of the film industry to recognize Asian performers.
Legendary stars such as Toshiro Mifune, Chisu Ryu and Tatsuya Nakadai had long, distinguished careers that have hardly been recognized by award shows. Maggie Cheung and Gong Li were arguably among the greatest actresses alive in the '80s and '90s and were consistently ignored by the Academy.
In recent years, Ziyi Zhang and Awkwafina almost broke through to nominations as Best Lead Actress. Zhang was nominated by the Golden Globes, SAG and BAFTA awards for her performance in 2005's Memoirs of a Geisha, while Awkwafina won Best Actress at the Globes for The Farewell but came up short of an Oscar nod.
While it’s true that Oscar nominations for foreign-language performances are a rare thing, and especially rare for Asian actors, it isn’t as if the Academy fails to recognize Asian films or films starring Asian actors. Just last year, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite made Oscar history as the first-ever foreign-language feature to win Best Picture and Best Director.
The Academy, however, does seem to have a blind spot when it comes to Asian actors. Despite winning Best Ensemble performance at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, Parasite didn't receive a single acting nomination at the Oscars — and neither did the other Best Picture winner from East Asia, 1987's The Last Emperor. The cast for both films consisted predominantly of Asian actors. Steven Yeun, Youn’s costar in Minari, was the first-ever East Asian actor nominated for a lead performance in the Oscars’ 93-year history.
In the larger picture of film history, the Oscars are not an infallible indicator of the “best” movies or performances of any given year, and films often manage to become classics through posterity without the endorsement of a golden statue. Quite often, many of the great all-time movies don't get recognized by the Academy at all (such as Modern Times and The Shining).
And then again, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is a strictly American (and specifically Hollywood) institution. But the Oscars are an indicator of what the industry feels in the moment are the best examples of the works.
Although other award shows carry greater prestige among industry snobs, the Oscars are still relevant in their influence on audiences, and the ceremony itself, which attracts millions of viewers worldwide, can translate into greater bankability and opportunities for unknown actors.
For decades, Black actors, actresses, directors and craftsmen and women were poorly represented in these awards. It would take nearly three decades for the Oscars to award an actor of color, and then nearly another half-century before it happened again. While the industry has started to catch up in recognizing the contributions of Black men and women, they’ve been much slower to recognize those made by Asian actors.
Now, in less than a 12-month span, a Korean film has won Best Picture and Director, a Chinese-born woman has won Best Director (this year's win went to Chloe Zhao for Nomadland) and a Korean woman has won the first acting Oscar by an East Asian actress in over 60 years. In the face of the #StopAsianHate movement, these victories, though they might not seem like a hugely significant deal, go a long way in terms of visibility.
Actors such as Henry Golding, Amy Tan and Awkwafina are landing big movie and television roles. Movies such as the 2018 romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians and this year’s Disney-animated film Raya and the Last Dragon have been sizable hits, proving audiences are interested in stories involving Asian characters and culture.
Perhaps most notable is that Marvel Studios, the biggest force in modern commercial filmmaking, recently dropped the trailer for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, its first superhero movie starring a predominantly Asian cast and featuring an Asian superhero.
A 2013 study by the U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health suggests that when we see actors who look like us onscreen portrayed in a positive, specifically heroic, light, it improves our self-esteem, eases insecurities and encourages us to embrace what makes us stand out.
Seeing people who look like ourselves being recognized and awarded for their work goes even further in improving a collective self-image.
Now, nobody is naïve enough to believe that a few Oscars are going to turn around a wave of recent anti-Asian violence, but perhaps it will go a small way toward improving perception after a year of the former president and his followers insisting on calling COVID-19 the “China virus” and, either directly or indirectly, vilifying Asian people for their unfairly perceived role in the current pandemic.
Moving forward, perhaps Youn’s win (and Yeun’s nomination) will serve as a portent to the Academy rectifying a decades-long bias against Asian performers and let them see the light after a long-standing blind spot.
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