Asian Oscar Nominees And The Limits Of Representation

This morning, nominations for the 2023 Academy Awards came out. Within the entertainment industry, it has already been celebrated as a banner year for Asian representation in Hollywood. The slate includes four nominations for performances by Asian actors, the highest number in the awards ceremony’s history. Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan, and Stephanie Hsu were all nominated for Everything Everywhere All at Once, while Hong Chau received recognition for her role in The Whale. Meanwhile, Everything Everywhere All at Once, a story about a Chinese American family struggling to understand each other across the multiverse, received 11 nominations in total, the most of any film this year. 

Industry publications like Variety and the Hollywood Reporter have published diversity reports detailing other firsts (or almost-firsts) among all the nominees. But using Oscar nomination statistics as evidence of progress for Asian American artists starts to feel more rote the more you do it.

For instance, Hsu and Chau were both nominated for Best Supporting Actress, which is the first time two Asian actors have been in contention for that category. That’s simple enough. Considering that five white men are competing for Best Actor this year, the presence of two Asian women in one performance category stands out. But then there’s the fact that Daniel Kwan, one half of the Everything Everywhere All at Once directing duo the Daniels, is the third Asian filmmaker to be nominated for a “hat trick,” garnering nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. Kwan’s accomplishments as a director are significant, but this mouthful of a statistic betrays the awkward philosophy inherent to seeking historic achievements in awards nominations. 

Homing in on increasingly specific honors — in which any given artist of color might be named the first, second, or third person to attain it — reduces the artist’s success to a pat on the head in a lineup of other artists of their race. And it obscures the distinctions between the work of artists of the same race. The other two Asian filmmakers nominated for hat tricks have been Bong Joon-ho and Chloé Zhao, who were nominated for 2019’s Parasite and 2020’s Nomadland respectively. But these three films have very little in common beyond the race of their lauded auteurs. Parasite is a suspenseful Korean-language class satire, Nomadland is a naturalistic adaptation of a book about American seasonal workers after the Great Recession, and Everything Everywhere All at Once is a campy, colorful hybrid of family drama and sci-fi saga. Their tones, intentions, and subjects scarcely overlap. They’re only relevant to each other because of this awards ceremony; emphasizing their shared lineage bolsters the Oscars’ credibility but collapses the directors’ distinct oeuvres. 

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