6 Asians are nominated for an Oscar this year: Get to know them and their journey to fame

6 Asians are nominated for an Oscar this year: Get to know them and their journey to fame

The award goes to representation

Text: Adelina Tan

It’s about time the Oscars, now in its 93rd edition, is making headlines for having a diverse slate of nominees

Following the triumph of Bong Joon-ho and Parasite last year (Best Picture, Best Director, Best International Feature Film and Best Original Screenplay), many of us wondered if we’d have to wait long to see more Asians being acknowledged for their talent.

This March, amidst a slew of horrific hate crimes against people of Asian descent in various parts of the world, six Asians have received coveted Oscars 2021 nods. Out of the nine actors of colour to receive nominations, three are Asians. In a season of many firsts, three Asian directors have also received nominations.

This is significant to (hopefully) paving the way for more diversity, inclusion and acceptance. Ahead of the awards show on 25 April (26 April, 8am in Malaysian time), get to know the six nominated Asians and their climb to Oscars fame.

Youn Yuh-Jung

In the running: Best Supporting Actress for Minari

First South Korean actress to be nominated for an Oscar, a British Academy Film Award, a Critics' Choice Movie Award, and two Screen Actors Guild Awards

73-year-old Youn Yuh-Jung made her acting debut in 1967, after passing an acting audition held by a local broadcasting company. However, her breakthrough moment—in an illustrious career spanning over 50 years—came four years later in 1971, when she won awards for her role as a femme fatale in the film Woman of Fire.

Acting took a backseat when she got married and immigrated to the United States in 1975, resuming only in 1984 when she returned permanently to South Korea. In a testament to her talent and charm, Youn beat the odds in a youth-obsessed society by pulling off a stellar comeback despite her age and the stigma attached to divorcees.

To this day, she continues to land significant roles in movies and TV shows, such as the upcoming Apple TV+ adaptation of Pachinko. Youn also headlines her own hit variety shows, Youn’s Kitchen and Youn’s Stay, which also stars Park Seo-joon.

Chloé Zhao

In the running: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Editing for Nomadland

First woman of colour to be nominated for a Best Director Oscar; first Asian woman (and second woman) to win Best Director at the Golden Globe Awards

Born in Shanghai, Chloé Zhao has found acclaim in the United States for her involvement in independent films. Her passion for movies began in childhood, fuelled in part by Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together and Western pop culture. In an interview with Vogue, she described herself as "a rebellious teen, lazy at school" who found refuge in drawing comics and writing fan fiction.

At the age of 15 and despite knowing nearly no English, Zhao attended boarding school in the UK before moving to Los Angeles to finish high school. She eventually studied film production at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.

With Nomadland also nominated for Best Picture, Zhao is the first woman ever to have four Oscar nominations in a single year. Eternals, part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is her first blockbuster directorial credit and will premier later this year.

Riz Ahmed

In the running: Best Actor for Sound of Metal

First Muslim nominated for a Best Actor Oscar; and the first Muslin and first Asian actor to win Lead Actor at the Emmy Awards (2017)

A British of Pakistani descent, Riz Ahmed began his career playing roles in independent films such as The Road to Guantanamo (2006), Four Lions (2010) and The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2013). The following year, in 2014, he got his big break co-starring alongside Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler.

That said, most of you will probably recognise Ahmed from his roles in Jason Bourne (Aaron Killoor) and Rogue One (Bodhi Rook). Besides acting, he’s also a respected solo musician with his own record label, a member of the hip-hop group Swet Shop Boys, and producer of two chart-topping albums.

Recently, Ahmed married bestselling novelist Fatima Farheen Mirza in a low-key, socially distanced wedding ceremony. The couple met at a cafe in New York, where Riz was preparing for his Oscar-nominated role.

Steven Yeun

In the running: Best Actor for Minari

First Asian American actor to be nominated for a Best Actor Oscar

After battling zombies in six seasons of The Walking Dead—and fighting prejudice as a first-generation Asian American for far longer—Steven Yuen managed to land more nuanced roles in Bong Joon-ho's Okja (2017) and Lee Chang-dong's Burning (2018).

Fun fact: Born in Seoul and raised in Canada and Michigan, Yeun got his English name after his parents met a doctor with that name. Although he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, his interest in acting and improv was sparked during his undergraduate years in Kalamazoo College.

Given two years by his parents to make it as an actor, Yeun’s perseverance has now paid off. Though we don’t foresee his acting career stalling after this, he has his stake in The Bun Shop, a Korean-Mediterranean fusion restaurant in LA’s Koreatown, to fall back on. Yeun is married to photographer Joana Pak and has two children.

Lee Isaac Chung

In the running: Best Director and Best Original Screenplay for Minari

Lee Isaac Chung was close to giving up on filmmaking and accepting a teaching job. While the Korean-American director's debut feature, Munyurangabo, was an official selection at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, his subsequent efforts hovered just below mainstream radar till Minari came along.

The semi-autobiographical film is based on Chung’s experience as a child of South Korean immigrants trying to make it in rural America. He’s officially made it, just perhaps not in the way most Asian parents imagine. Chung is an alumnus of the United States Senate Youth Program, and studied biology at Yale before dropping out in his senior year to pursue filmmaking.

Despite controversy over whether Minari could be categorised as a Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globe Awards, it went on to win in this category.

Derek Tsang

In the running: Best International Feature Film for Better Days

We never thought veteran comedianactor and TVB executive Eric Tsang would ever be associated with the Oscars—but the day has come, through his son Derek Tsang. The latter was raised in Canada by his mum, before moving back to Hong Kong as an adult.

More prolific as a filmmaker, Tsang acts occasionally too, appearing in South Korean heist flick The Thieves. His previous works, Lover's Discourse and Soul Mate, were both nominated for the Golden Horse Awards, but it wasn’t until Better Days that Tsang truly stepped out of his father’s shadow. The coming-of-age tale dominated Hong Kong Film Awards, sweeping up eight trophies, and pulled in US$230 million from the box office.

Tsang married actress Venus Wong at a destination wedding in Hokkaido, Japan.

Regardless of the results, these nominations—given for more positive and authentic depictions of Asians on screen—are a win for both Asian cinema and Asian representation in Hollywood!