Chloe Zhao and Yuh-Jung Youn Make Asian American History at the 2021 Oscars

L-R: Alan Kim and Yun-Jung Youn in "Minari"

The 2021 Academy Awards signaled it was going to be different from the get-go: instead of the traditional Dolby Theater, most of the ceremony was staged at Los Angeles’ newly restored Union Station. And the program marked milestones for Asian Americans, with Chloe Zhao becoming the first Asian American woman (and the first woman of color) for Nomadland, which also took home the Best Picture award, and Yuh-Jung Youn of Minari becoming the first Asian to win Best Supporting Actress.

While last year’s Best Picture went to the Parasite, a darkly humorous look at Korean class divides, both Nomadland and Minari are films that put a stake in the ground of America. “I’m struck at how both Nomadland and Minari are stories set in American landscapes, both literal and metaphorical,” says Stephen Gong, executive director of CAAM. “Though presented in different temporal settings, they also speak deeply about the times we are in, reflecting structures of belonging, families and community, and what we do for one another.”

Zhao was introduced by last year’s Best Director, Bong Joon Ho, who paid tribute―in Korean, with translation―to the five nominees, including Minari’s Lee Isaac Chung. In her acceptance speech, Zhao quoted a classical Chinese poem referencing the inherent goodness in all people. 

The Nomadland director is only the fifth female to be nominated for that honor in the Academy’s 93-year history and the second woman of any race to take home the award. It’s particularly poignant for two women born in China and Korea to win Oscars during a year marked with widespread hate crimes against Asian Americans. 

In a piece for CNN, sociologist and author of Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism Nancy Wang Yuen notes:

“While her accolades, of course, cannot erase anti-Asian racism, by winning the Oscar for Best Director she will garner more influence and visibility for the Asian community in the US movie industry that has long marginalized it.”

Yuh-Jung Yeon, as respected in Korean film as Meryl Streep is in Hollywood, charmed audiences with her acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actress, wryly correcting the pronunciation of her name and shouting-out to working moms everywhere by thanking her two sons and holding up her Oscar statuette as their reward for making “Mommy work so hard”.

Read CAAM’s interview with Yuh-Jung Youn

This Oscars night seemed to signal inclusivity and engagement with racial injustice, beginning with a pre-show performance by H.E.R., who is Black and Filipina, of  “Fight For You” which went on to win Best Original Song. Then Regina King’s mention of the Derek Chauvin trial. Trayvon Free, who along with Martin Desmond Roe won Best Short Film for Two Distant Strangers mentioned sobering statistics about police killings; Marlee Matlin used sign language to note Darnella Frazier’s cell phone video of George Floyd. Tyler Perry spoke out against anti-Asian violence. It’s also worth noting that Love Song for Latasha, about a Black teen shot and killed by a storeowner in LA Koreatown, was nominated for Best Documentary Short.

Of course, there were also moments where disappointment was in the air. Many hoped that Minari would win more of its six total nominations including Best Picture, Best Screenplay, Best Director, and  Best Actor for Steven Yeun’s performance. Sound of Metal’s Riz Ahmed was also nominated for Best Actor. Other nominees included: Derek Tsang’s Better Days (a CAAMFest 2021 on demand presentation) for Best International Feature Film, Erick Ho’s Opera  for Best Animated short film, and Genny Rim and Peilin Cho’s Over the Moon for Best Animated Feature. Many people were disappointed that Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman was not honored posthumously with Best Actor for his work in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.  

But if anything these wins give us hope that as productions resume and theaters open, we are moving in the direction of seeing a wider slice of life reflected on the screen.

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