Oscar nominations breakthroughs for several Asian actors and filmmakers

World | 23 Apr 2021 7:30 am

It may be hard to believe that there are still many “firsts” left to check off after 93 years of the Academy Awards, and yet this year there were a handful for Asian actors and filmmakers.

Steven Yeun (“Minari”) became the first Asian American actor to be nominated for best actor. Riz Ahmed (“Sound of Metal”) is the first Muslim to be nominated for best actor. It’s the first time that there are two best actor candidates of Asian heritage. Youn Yuh Jung (“Minari”) is the first Korean woman to be nominated for any acting award. “Nomadland’s” Chloé Zhao is the first Asian woman to be nominated for best director. And, with director Lee Issac Chung ’s directing nomination for “Minari,” it’s also the first time there are two Asian nominees in that race.

The historic gains spotlight where the organization has made progress and where there is still work to do, especially after a year in which Asian Americans were increasingly targeted in racist attacks.

Nancy Yuen, author of the book “Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism,” said the nominations this year are exciting. The actors are being recognized for roles, Yuen said, “That are not demeaning, that aren’t fitting into stereotypes that are problematic. They are fully complex human beings.”

That hasn’t always been the case for Asian actors who have broken through to the Oscars. The first and last time an Asian woman won for acting was in 1958 when Japanese actor Miyoshi Umeki won for her supporting role in “Sayonara.” In 1985, Haing Ngor became the first Asian man to win a supporting award for playing Cambodian journalist Dith Pran in “The Killing Fields.” And none has won in the leading category since Ben Kingsley, whose father is Indian, won for “Gandhi” in 1982. Yul Brynner, who was born in Russia, won for “The King and I” in 1957.

It’s coupled with the fact that there have been multiple Asian-led best picture winners that didn’t receive any acting nominations. In the history of best picture winners, it’s only happened 12 times, and three of them had predominately Asian casts: “The Last Emperor,” “Slumdog Millionaire” and last year’s “ Parasite.” Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Life of Pi” were also nominated for best picture without a single acting nod.

“I think Asian Americans and Asians in the Western diaspora tend to be seen as invisible and background. They are window dressing,” Yuen said. “It leads to not recognizing Asians as fully complex actors and characters.”

Yuen andothers noticed with “Parasite,” that people largely referred to the small ensemble as “they” rather by individual names: Chang Hyae Jin, Cho Yeo Jeong, Choi Woo Shik, Lee Jung Eun, Lee Sun Kyun, Park So Dam and Song Kang Ho. Whether a Western blind spot, a racial bias or some combination of the two, it’s at least part of the reason for the systemic oversights.

“People don’t bother to even try to learn,” Yuen said. “That added layer of challenge, I think, makes it that people in the academy aren’t even going to be nominating someone in those films unless they are already a known entity.”

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May 2021

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