Zhao’s victory in particular was “validation that is momentous for Asian filmmakers”, observed Ruby Yang, a member of the US Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that nominates, votes on and awards the Oscars and a distinguished fellow in humanities at The University of Hong Kong. “It will open doors for Asian directors. Hollywood already is pushing for diversity in above-the-line or below-the-line representation in film productions. We will see more films or TV productions with Asian directors.” Yang was herself a trailblazer, winning the 2007 Oscar for Best Documentary (Short Subject) for her film The Blood of Yingzhou District, a poignant portrait of AIDS orphans in China.
Zhao’s directing success was not the only assertion of Asian arrival at the Oscars and in the films of 2020. Minari, an intimate portrait of a Korean immigrant family trying build a successful life in rural Arkansas in the 1980s. A close contender for Best Picture, the film earned nominations not just for Youn but also for Its director Lee Isaac Chung and lead actor Steven Yeun, who until this movie was best known for his work in the post-apocalyptic zombie horror television series The Walking Dead.
While the Asian touch and perspective may be evident in these films and performances, they are easily overblown. Nomadland, after all, is a very American film that follows lead character Fern as she drives around the American West in a white van which doubles as her home, finding soulmates among the fellow nomads she encounters along the way. It is reminiscent of the films made of the classic novels of the Great Depression by American author and Nobel Prize laureate John Steinbeck – Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath.
In spite of the media attention paid to Zhao and her background as the American-educated daughter of Chinese billionaire industrialist and real-estate magnate Zhao Yuji, Nomadland is a stellar example of intricate moviemaking , marked by its sweeping cinematography, the intimacy of the characters, the casting of professional and amateur actors, as well as a documentary-style approach that bring to the audience an authentic depiction of hard-scrabble lives on the road that have no final destination.
There is obvious irony in that it takes an immigrant Chinese director, part of a minority community that has recently been the target of racist attacks, to deliver a sobering portrayal of invisible marginalized Americans. Zhao succeeded in painting an almost idyllic picture of abject poverty and abandonment, yet gave her characters empathy, respect, and grit in the face of the loneliness and heartache from the loss of friends and the ending of friendships.
As surprising has been the enthusiastic reception Minari has won among critics and Academy members, a seeming outlier in today's anti-immigrant climate. In spite of the political polarization in the US and globally, the celebrated films affirm the possibility that art and humanity can prevail over tribalism and narrow nationalism. The movies are a powerful statement that culture can shine even in toxic and polarized political environments. The same message came through in the documentary film American Factory, produced by Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company, which won the 2019 Oscar for Best Documentary (Feature).
Both Nomadland and Minari are showcases of cultural fluidity, displaying cultures at their best with noble characters to whom all people of all backgrounds can relate. As Zhao said in her acceptance speech when she quoted Chinese classical writing, “people at birth are inherently good.” She went on: “I have always found goodness in the people I met. This is for anyone who has the faith and courage to hold onto the goodness in themselves.” This was a rare moment when a Hollywood that can sometimes seem too “woke” or politically correct and critical of the powers that be was inspiring moviegoers and everybody else to keep faith in a world plagued by a raging deadly virus and destruction wrought by climate change.
A more inclusive Oscars
The universality of that message seemed to fit well with this more inclusive Oscars, which has been years in the making. In 2016, the Academy was roundly criticized for nominating an all-white group of actors and actresses for a second year in a row. The outcry that ensued forced the Academy to respond by making a concerted effort to expand its members to include more women and non-whites.