What Really Helped Michelle Yeoh Win an Oscar

As tough as action film star Michelle Yeoh is, it still might have been hard for her to clinch the best actress Oscar and become the first Asian woman to win the coveted award in its 95-year history—if everything hadn’t fallen into place.

Besides her hard work and talent, Yeoh’s history-making win Sunday is a culmination of many forces, according to film experts and critics.

First, Hong Kong’s film industry made her a well-known star in Asia long before Hollywood noticed her.

“I think her Hong Kong experience definitely is crucial to her latest success,” Timmy Chen (陳智廷), director of the Hong Kong Film Critics Society, said of the Malaysia-born Yeoh, commenting that there were few opportunities for Chinese actors in Malaysia’s Malay-dominated film industry at the time.

Hong Kong cinema cast her in many action and martial arts films — from Yes, Madam to Police Story 3: Super Cop — nurturing her acting and fighting skills, which enabled her to land the role as a Bond girl in the 1997 James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies, her first Hollywood film.

Yeoh also benefited from trailblazing Asian-American directors who boldly made films with an Asian theme and cast her in them, including Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Jon Chu’s box office hit Crazy Rich Asians, both of which boosted her fame.

The success of Yeoh, her co-star Vietnamese American Ke Huy Quan — who became only the second Asian to win an Oscar for best supporting actor — and their film Everything Everywhere All at Once, which won seven awards including best picture and director, is part of a growing trend in the past few years of “trans-Pacific” Asian directors producing works that are popular not only in Asia, but also the United States, says Jason Coe, an assistant professor at Hong Kong Baptist University’s (HKBU) Academy of Film.

These are people who “are working both in the U.S., but also in places like Hong Kong and Taiwan, taking the sort of best of both, and making films that can appeal to audiences in Hong Kong, Taiwan, mainland China and Southeast Asia, but also in the United States,” Coe noted.

This has led to more opportunities for actors such as Yeoh and has made it possible for the making of the sci-fi comedy Everything Everywhere All at Once, in which Yeoh plays a middle-aged Chinese American immigrant laundromat owner determined to save the universe and her family, all the while showing off her martial arts skills.

Movie streaming platforms such as Netflix helped to fuel this trend by letting audiences have more say.

“Because streaming platforms like Netflix and even YouTube are able to make and distribute so many different types of content, they’ll eventually find their audience, and because their audiences are so diverse, they’ll eventually find their content,” Coe said.

That means a film that might seem niche, like Crazy Rich Asians, a romantic comedy about rich Singaporeans, can find an audience of Asians and non-Asians, “and this can build a momentum that allows for the audiences to have a say in the kind of stories they want,” Coe said. Everything Everywhere All at Once is further proof that stories about Asian Americans can do well at the box office, he said.

It helps to have a theme that resonates with a wide audience – in this film’s case, it’s being overwhelmed and losing touch with what’s really important in life, as well as the disconnection among family members.

But it’s not just the popularity of such stories and the skills of the directors and actors. Yeoh and the film also benefited from the push for diversity in Hollywood in recent years.

“A few years back, they tried to give justice to African American representation, now they are paying attention to Asians. It’s part of the same wave for diversity,” Chen said. “We see more Asian representation, such as award recognitions for films about Asians or made by Asians, including Parasite, Nomadland, Crazy Rich Asians and Farewell.”

Coe agrees, crediting activism within the filmmaking and greater community.

“You’re not going to get a film like Crazy Rich Asians or even Shang-Chi and the Legend of Ten Rings without a film like Black Panther,” Coe said. “It takes all of these ethnic minority communities and disenfranchised communities to advocate for greater diversity in order for more [of these] movies to be made.”

It’s taken decades, but Asian actors have come a long way since the days of Anna May Wong, the first Chinese American Hollywood actress. She had no choice but to play stereotypical and demeaning supporting roles in the 1930s. When a film version of Pearl S. Buck’s novel about China, The Good Earth, was to be made, Wong was not considered for the leading role; it was instead given to a white actress to play in yellowface.

But many insist there’s still a long way to go.

“Michelle Yeoh is one the few fortunate Asian actors or Asian-American actors to get this recognition. There are countless unnamable talents out there who are struggling,” Chen said.

He noted Yeoh’s co-star Quan suffered a nearly 20-year hiatus in his acting career before he got his latest role. Quan couldn’t get much acting work, despite his talents as a child actor, including playing Short Round, Harrison Ford’s sidekick in 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

“It’s hard to tell whether [the recent successes] will lead to a long-term trend. We definitely will see more Asian content and representation on American screens in the future, but I think there is still structural inequality in the system,” Chen said.

What helps is that it’s never been easier to make a movie and it’s never been easier to find your audience, Coe said.

“The gatekeepers no longer have that sort of power, and so if you’re telling a really great story, and there are people who want to hear that story, then you’re much more likely to find them [your audiences] now than ever before,” Coe said.

The hopeful impact is that the film, and more films like it that tell Asian American stories in an authentic way, will lead to fewer stereotypes, a sense of understanding, and a sense of belonging by Asian Americans in the United States.

Already, it’s making an impact among young Asian actors and actresses who are inspired by Yeoh, Quan and their film’s success.

“Before, I didn’t dare to think of going to Hollywood. Asians are a minority there and there are many Asian actors that are underrated because of race and language barriers. I didn’t think there would be opportunities,” said Sheena Chan, a student in HKBU’s Acting for Global Screen Program. “Now that Michelle Yeoh and this film have won many Oscar awards, and it’s not just in English, but Cantonese and Mandarin, I think there are more opportunities. I will start to think of going to Hollywood.”


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