The Academy Awards made several 'firsts' with the nominations it gave these six Asian artists this year. Whether they win the awards they are nominated for on Oscars night, they have all already made history.
Following Bong Joon-ho and Parasite's historic wins at the Academy Awards last year, expectations are running high for the Asians in this year's crop of Oscar nominations. A closer look at their respective journeys to their groundbreaking nominations reveal, though, that regardless of what happens on Oscar night (April 25 in the US and April 26 in Asia), they are all already winners.
Nominated for: Best Supporting Actress for Minari
Breaking boundaries and going against social norms is nothing new for Youn Yuh-jung, both in her career and personal life. Her debut film Woman of Fire (1971)—part of legendary director Kim Ki-young’s groundbreaking “housemaid trilogy”—dealt with psychosexual perversions, and her riveting portrayal of a femme fatale who enters a quiet home and turns it upside down won her three best actress awards, including one from Spain’s Sitges Film Festival.
Just four years later, with her career taking off, she decided to leave it all behind for love, marrying popular singer Cho Young-nam and moving to the U.S. with him. After almost a decade, she returned to South Korea, left her husband, and strived to resume her acting career amid the stigma of divorce—one small role at a time.
Even in her 60s, she continued to surprise and inspire. In 2016, her poignant and powerful portrayal of a bacchus lady—an elderly woman who solicits men in Seoul's parks and plazas for sex in nearby motels—in The Bacchus Lady won her the coveted Daesang (Grand Prize) at the 53rd Baeksang Arts Awards.
Now in her 70s, she has become the first South Korean actress to win a British Academy Film Award, a Critics' Choice Movie Award, and two Screen Actors Guild Awards. And expectations are high that she will also be the first to win an Academy Award.
Nominated for: Best Actor for Minari
Those who only knew Steven Yeun from the hit U.S. TV series The Walking Dead before his captivating performance in the ground-breaking film Minari might be surprised to learn that he’s not new to the world of critically acclaimed films.
In 2016, he appeared as an animal rights activist in Oscar-winning director Bong Joon-ho's Okja, named as one of the New York Times' 10 most influential films of the last decade and a candidate for the prestigious Palme d'Or at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. He also appeared in Boots Riley's Sorry to Bother You, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2018 and won Best Screenplay and Best First Feature at the 2019 Independent Spirit Awards.
But it was the 2018 South Korean film Burning, by director Lee Chang-dong, that drew critical acclaim to his performance and a slew of acting nominations. He was named Best Supporting Actor at the 2018 Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards, Toronto Film Critics Association Awards 2018, Florida Film Critics Circle Awards 2018, and 2018 National Society of Film Critics Awards.
Now, as the first Asian-American to be nominated for Best Actor at the Oscars, he has used his newfound prominence to speak for the Asian-American community amid the recent wave of attacks against them. "We belong here. Don't ever think otherwise," he tweeted. That holds true, whether or not he becomes the first Asian-American actor to win a Best Actor Oscar.
Lee Isaac Chung
Nominated for: Best Director and Best Original Screenplay for Minari
If the Asian-American success story is one of perseverance, then Lee Isaac Chung’s life—on which Minari is based—is certainly one for the movies.
As a biology student at Yale University who discovered a passion for telling stories, "all the professors were joyfully telling me how bad my writing was," he told The Hollywood Reporter. But he fell in love with screenwriting so much that he went against his parents’ wishes for him to go to med school and applied for film schools instead. He didn’t get into any of them, though, and endured the expected parental lectures on how he was wasting his life.
Still, he persisted. His debut film Munyurangabo, a movie about the Rwandan genocide, premiered at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival as an official selection and was screened at top film festivals worldwide. It even won the Grand Prize at the 2007 American Film Institute Festival, and earned nominations for Chung at the Independent Spirit Awards and the Gotham Awards.
It was barely screened anywhere, though. From 2010 to 2015, he made three more features that did the film festival circuits, but they barely made an impact. In fact, in March 2019, he was already teaching film history in South Korea and considering retiring from filmmaking when he received a call from producer Christina Oh about the semi-autobiographical script he had written the year before.
The rest is literally making history. From the time Minari premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and won both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award, Chung has been fulfilling every Asian parent's dream. As for the Oscar? Chung told The Hollywood Reporter his mom isn't expecting it anymore, because "he had accomplished enough."
Nominated for: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Editing for Nomadland
Nomadland, based on the 2017 non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, is just Chloe Zhao’s third feature film. And yet, she’s already making history not just as an Asian but also as a woman.
She is not only the first woman of color to be nominated for a Best Director Oscar, she’s also the first woman ever to have four Oscar nominations in a single year. She’s also the first Asian woman—and just the second woman—to win Best Director at the Golden Globe Awards.
Born and raised in Beijing, where she grew up watching Wong Kar-wai films, she was sent to a private boarding school in the United Kingdom when she was 15 years old. She later moved to Los Angeles to finish high school, and studied film production at New York University Tisch School of the Arts.
In 2015, her debut film Song My Brothers Taught Me, about Native American siblings, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for Best First Feature at the 31st Independent Spirit Awards. Her next film, The Rider (2017), about a young cowboy whose career is cut short by an accident, earned her nominations for Best Feature and Best Director at the 33rd Independent Spirit Awards.
Aside from the Golden Globes, Nomadland has already won Zhao the Best Film and Best Director trophies at the British Academy Film Awards; the Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay awards from the Critics’ Choice Awards; and the award for Outstanding Directing–Feature Film from the Director’s Guild of America.
And she’s still just getting started. She has been tapped by Marvel Studios to direct the highly anticipated superhero film Eternals.
Nominated for: Best Actor for Sound of Metal
With his Oscar nomination, Riz Ahmed has become the first Muslim nominated for the Academy Award’s Best Actor prize. But making history isn’t new to the British-Pakistani actor. In 2017, he also became the first Muslim and first Asian actor to be named Outstanding Lead Actor at the Emmy Awards for his performance in the HBO miniseries The Night Of.
In fact, the London-born actor has been making his mark on screen and on the stage for well over a decade now. In 2008, he earned his first Best Actor nomination at the British Independent Film Awards for his portrayal of a charismatic young drug dealer in the film Shifty (2009).
That was followed by a prolific decade that saw him write and direct the short film Daytimer (2014), which won the Best Live Action Short award at Nashville Film Festival, and a coveted role in Rogue One, the first in the new Star Wars anthology films. He also won the Best Debut Screenwriter award for the film Mogul Mowgli at the 2020 British Independent Film Awards earlier this year.
Aside from acting, he is also an accomplished rapper and recording artist, with two studio albums, a mixtape, and several singles credited to his name.
In Sound of Metal, his portrayal of a rock drummer who loses his hearing earned him praise from critics and acting nominations from the Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild, BAFTA, Critics Choice, and Independent Spirit awards.
Nominated for: Best International Feature Film for Better Days
With the Chinese romantic crime film Better Days, Derek Tsang has become the first Hong Kong-born director to receive a Best International Feature Film nomination from the Academy Awards.
The son of Hong Kong actor and television host Eric Tsang, the prolific filmmaker and actor already has dozens of movie credits to his name. A Chinese romantic drama film he directed, Soul Mate (2016), earned him several best director nominations from Hong Kong and Asian award-giving bodies.
But Better Days is the film putting his name on the global stage. The Chinese drama about a bullied high school girl and a teenage street thug is a blockbuster hit in China, earning over $230 million at the box office and a slew of major awards. The film has already earned him Best Director nods from the Hong Kong Film Critics Society and Hong Kong Film awards. In fact, the film won eight out of its 12 nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards, including Best Picture and Best Screenplay.
If Tsang wins a historic Oscar, it would only further cement his reputation as one of Asia’s best up-and-coming directors to watch out for.
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