According to insiders, Asian representation in Hollywood has accomplished a remarkable and long-awaited breakthrough this year, from the Oscars frontrunners Everything Everywhere All at Once and RRR to an unprecedented four nominations for actors.
Despite many records being shattered this awards season, one that stands out is Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh’s nomination for Best Actress in Everything Everywhere, making her only the second Asian woman to achieve this distinction in the 95-year history of the Oscars. She is well-positioned to become the first Asian actress to win the award on Sunday (Mar 12).
The number of Asian actors who have won an Oscar in the entire history of the Academy Awards is only four. Remarkably, this year, the number of Asian nominees is also four, with the nominations of Ke Huy Quan, Stephanie Hsu, Hong Chau, and Michelle Yeoh’s performance in Everything Everywhere.
Another notable contender at the Oscars is RRR from India, renowned for its extravagant musical and dance performances, which is a strong favorite to win the Best Original Song award. Further, Kazuo Ishiguro, a Nobel Prize-winning author, has been nominated for Best Original Screenplay for the movie Living.
Behind the camera, best picture frontrunner Everything Everywhere – a US$100 million box office hit with 11 Oscar nominations – has an Asian co-director, Daniel Kwan, and an Asian producer, Jonathan Wang.
“There’s something really beautiful about being able to show that if you put people in these roles, people will go see it,”said Jonathan Wang.
At the recent Screen Actors Guild awards, James Hong, the 94-year-old veteran who appears in Everything Everywhere, reflected on how white actors with “their eyes taped up” once played leading Asian roles because producers thought “the Asians are not good enough and they are not box office”.
“But look at us now,” he said, to a huge ovation.
Asian success at the Oscars has remained limited to a tiny group.
Just 23 Asian actors’ performances have ever been nominated, representing a mere 1.2 per cent of all nominations, according to a New York Times study.
Only Ben Kingsley, whose father was Indian, has been nominated more than once. And there has never been a year in which more than one Asian actor won.
Could this be the year representation goes beyond a few, specific individuals?
South Korea-born Joel Kim Booster, who wrote and starred in gay rom-com Fire Island, said having his work championed by two Asian executives at Disney-owned Searchlight had “really pushed this project through and made sure that it was going to get made”.
“For a long time, there was this pull-the-ladder-up-behind-me mentality” among many minorities who found success in Hollywood, he told AFP.
“There was a scarcity … a mentality of ‘there’s only room for one of us at the table and that’s going to be me.’
“I think that has dissipated in a big way.”