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Because of the unimaginable-a-year-ago dominance of Everything Everywhere All at Once and the perception bias in which deviations from the norm appear more outsized than they actually are, the 2023 Oscars might be remembered as the most Asian Academy Awards yet.
Winners of Asian descent — namely, of Chinese and Indian ethnicity — took home statuettes in eight categories, the most ever in a single year (Asian winners showed up in five races in 2009 and 2020, aka the Slumdog Millionaire and Parasite years, respectively, and in four in 2001 and 2021, aka the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Nomadland/Minari years).
Daniel Kwan, whose parents hail from Hong Kong and Taiwan, was responsible for three category wins: original screenplay, directing (both shared with Daniel Scheinert) and best picture, which Kwan and Scheinert — aka Daniels — shared with producer Jonathan Wang, whose late father was Taiwanese. Kwan and Wang are the first U.S.-born Asians to win their Oscar categories.
“We are all products of our context; we are all descendants of something or someone,” Kwan said in his acceptance speech for best director. “I want to acknowledge my context — my immigrant parents — my father, who fell in love with movies because he needed to escape the world and thus passed that love of movies onto me. My mother, who is a creative soul who wanted to be a dancer, actor and singer but could not afford the luxury of that life path and then gave it to me.”
Added Wang, accepting for best picture: “This is for my dad, who like so many immigrant parents died young. And he is so proud of me not because of this [looking at statuette], but because we made this movie with what he taught me to do, which is…no one is more important than anyone else. And these weirdos right here supported me in doing that. Wang Da Zhang, memory eternal.”
EEAAO’s best supporting actor Ke Huy Quan is himself an immigrant, having fled the war in Vietnam as a child with his family. “My journey started on a boat. I spent a year in a refugee camp and somehow I ended up here on Hollywood’s biggest stage,” he said in his emotional acceptance speech early in the evening. “My mom is 84 years old and she’s at home watching. Mom, I just won an Oscar!”
His leading lady, Michelle Yeoh, also thanked her own mother. “I have to dedicate this to my mom, all the moms in the world because they are really the superheroes, and without them, none of us would be here tonight,” said Yeoh, who made history Sunday night as the Oscars’ first Asian best actress winner. “She’s 84, and I’m taking this home to her. She’s watching right now in Malaysia, KL [Kuala Lumpur], with my family and friends.”
But not all of the Asian winners came from EEAAO. The Whale makeup department head Judy Chin became the first woman of Asian descent to win for makeup and hairstyling (legendary Japanese special effects makeup artist Kazu Hiro remains the only Asian man to have won in the category). And India had a relatively big night at the Academy Awards (bigger than Ireland, given The Banshees of Inisherin’s shutout), with two women and two men prevailing across two categories.
“I stand here today to speak for the sacred bond between us and the natural world, for the respect of Indigenous communities and empathy toward other living beings we share space with,” said The Elephant Whisperers director Kartiki Gonsalves, who with producer Guneet Monga became the first Indian Oscar recipients for documentary short (Monga, among the first Indian producers to be inducted into the Academy, was previously an executive producer for the 2020 winner, Period. End of Sentence.). “To my motherland, India.”
Later, “Naatu Naatu” composer M.M. Keeravaani invoked the Carpenters in his musical acceptance speech for RRR’s crowd-pleasing best original song: “There was only one wish on my mind, S.S. Rajamouli’s and my family’s: RRR has to win, pride of every Indian, I must put me on the top of the world,” he sang, later adding backstage: “I feel very blessed to have this kind of greatest recognition of the world for my country, for my culture, my motherland, my movie industry. I feel this is just the beginning of everything, so that the rest of the world focuses more on Indian music, which is long due.”
His co-winner, lyricist Chandrabose, simply added: “The only thing running in my mind presently is I have to go to India to show this honor to my wife and children.”
The significant leaps in representation for ethnically Chinese and Indian winners do not necessarily mean that this year’s Oscars winners were diverse across the board, however. This year Academy voters recognized just one Latino winner — Guillermo del Toro, for animated feature Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio — and one Black winner: Ruth Carter, still the only Black costume designer to win an Oscar.
Like the other winners of the night from systemically excluded backgrounds, Carter paid tribute to a parent in her acceptance speech for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. “Thank you to the Academy for recognizing the superhero that is a Black woman. She endures, she loves, she overcomes. She is every woman in this film. She is my mother,” she said. “This past week, Mabel Carter became an ancestor. This film prepared me for this moment. Chadwick, please take care of Mom. Ryan Coogler, Nate Moore, thank you both for your vision together. We are reshaping how culture is represented.… This is for my mother, she was 101.”
See the star-studded Oscars red carpet arrivals.
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