Michelle Yeoh, a star of action films, became the first Asian woman to win the best actress Oscar in the ceremony’s 95-year history, but she almost certainly wouldn’t have won if a few things hadn’t fallen into place.
Yeoh’s historic victory was the result of her tireless effort and natural ability. According to film scholars and critics, Sunday is the result of a confluence of factors.
Before she was ever a big deal in Hollywood, she was already a household name in Asia, thanks to the films she had starred in Hong Kong.
Timmy Chen (), director of the Hong Kong Film Critics Society, has said of Malaysian-born Yeoh, “I think her Hong Kong experience definitely is crucial to her latest success.” Chen made this statement because there were few roles available to Chinese actors in Malaysia’s Malay-dominated film industry.
Her acting and fighting chops were honed in a number of Hong Kong action and martial arts films, including Yes, Madam and Police Story 3: Super Cop, before she landed the role of a Bond girl in the 1997 James Bond picture Tomorrow Never Dies, her first film in Hollywood.
Her stardom was increased by the films of visionary Asian-American filmmakers like Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and Jon Chu (Crazy Rich Asians), both of which featured Yeoh in prominent roles.
According to Jason Coe, an assistant professor at Hong Kong Baptist University, the success of “trans-Pacific” Asian directors like Yeoh and her co-star Vietnamese American Ke Huy Quan, who became only the second Asian to win an Oscar for the best-supporting actor, is part of a growing trend in recent years. Everything, Everywhere, All at Once won seven awards, including best picture and director.
People like this “are working both in the U.S. and countries like Hong Kong and Taiwan, taking the sort of best of both, and making films that can appeal to viewers in Hong Kong, Taiwan, mainland China, Southeast Asia, but also the United States,” as Coe put it.
This has opened up more doors for actors like Yeoh and allowed for the production of films like the science fiction comedy Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, in which Yeoh plays the role of a middle-aged Chinese American immigrant laundromat owner who is determined to save the universe and her family while also showcasing her martial arts skills.
Netflix and other video-streaming websites empowered moviegoers to participate in this shift.
Coe argues that streaming services like Netflix and YouTube will succeed because “their consumers are so broad that eventually, they will discover their content” and the services can produce and distribute a wide variety of content.
So, for example, Crazy Rich Asians, a romantic comedy about wealthy Singaporeans, was able to attract viewers from both the Asian diaspora and the rest of the world. “And this can develop momentum that allows for the audiences to have a say in the kind of stories they want,” Coe explained. He added the success of Everything, Everywhere, All at Once is another piece of evidence that films portraying Asian Americans can be financially successful.
The film’s fundamental themes of being overburdened and losing sight of what’s truly essential in life, as well as the alienation between family members, should help it appeal to a wide audience.
It’s not only that these kinds of stories sell well and that good filmmakers and actors are hard to come by. The movement to increase diversity in Hollywood has helped both Yeoh and the film she’s in.
A few years ago, they made an effort to fairly represent African Americans; today, they’re focusing on Asians. According to Chen, this is all a part of the same “wave” toward greater inclusion. Parasite, Nomadland, Crazy Rich Asians, and Goodbye are just a few of the recent films about or made by Asians to win major awards.
Coe concurs, praising activist efforts in both the film industry and beyond. Coe argued that movies like Black Panther were necessary for audiences to see representational movies like Crazy Rich Asians or Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. “More [of these films] need to be made if ethnic minority populations and underrepresented communities can lobby for more diversity.”
Since Anna May Wong, was the first Chinese American Hollywood actress, the careers of Asian actors have flourished. In the 1930s, she could only find work in degrading supporting roles because of industry constraints. Wong was passed over for the major role in the film adaptation of The Good Earth, Pearl S. Buck’s novel set in China, and instead played by a white actress in yellowface.
Nonetheless, many people argue that we have a long way to go. Among the small number of Asian actresses and Asian Americans who have achieved such success, Michelle Yeoh stands out. “There are innumerable nameless talents out there that are having a hard time,” Chen remarked.
He pointed out that Yeoh’s co-star Quan had a nearly 20-year dry spell in his acting career before landing his most recent job. Despite his success as a kid actor—in which role he played Short Round, Harrison Ford’s sidekick in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)—Quan was unable to secure many other acting roles.
It’s tough to say whether or not the recent triumphs are the beginning of a lasting trend. Chen predicted that in the future, Asian Americans would see “more Asian material and representation” on American screens, but he also noted that “structural inequalities” persisted.
Coe remarked that the ease with which both filmmaking and finding an audience have improved in recent years was significant.
Since “the gatekeepers no longer have that sort of authority,” as Coe put it, “if you’re presenting a really fantastic tale and there are people who want to hear that narrative,” you are more likely to discover your audiences now than ever before.
The film’s impact, and the impact of similar films that represent Asian American tales authentically, can hopefully lead to less stereotyping, more understanding, and a stronger sense of belonging for Asian Americans in the United States.
Already, it has influenced a new generation of Asian performers looking to follow in the footsteps of Yeoh and Quan.
Earlier, the idea of moving to Hollywood was too terrifying to even consider. There are many talented Asian actors who aren’t given enough credit due to their minority status and/or linguistic problems. “I didn’t anticipate there would be prospects,” said Sheena Chan, a student in HKBU’s Acting for Global Screen Program.
“I think there are more prospects now that Michelle Yeoh and this film have received numerous Oscar honors, and it’s not just in English but in Cantonese and Mandarin. I’m going to start fantasizing about moving to Hollywood.
Michelle Yeoh, an Asian actress, made history at the Oscars by becoming the first Asian woman to win the Best Actress award. She was already well-known in Asia due to her success in Hong Kong cinema, particularly in martial arts and action films.
Yeoh’s success is a product of her dedication and natural talent, as well as several other factors such as the success of visionary Asian-American filmmakers and the increased diversity efforts in Hollywood.
Streaming services like Netflix and YouTube have also played a role in the increase in demand for diverse content. However, there is still a long way to go to achieve true equality, and there are many talented Asian actors and actresses who remain underrepresented in the industry. Despite this, Chen and Coe both believe that there will be more Asian representation in American films and that the recent trend toward diversity in Hollywood will continue.
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