There’s a kind of poetic, if slightly depressing, serendipity in the fact that Halle Berry, who became the first Black woman to win the Oscar for Best Actress in 2002 for Monster’s Ball, presented Michelle Yeoh with her Best Actress award last night. In the 21 years since her history-making achievement, no other Black woman or woman of colour has won in that category – until Yeoh, who is now the first Southeast Asian woman to ever do so. That these two wins are two decades apart shows just how far Hollywood still has to go in its effort to improve diversity.
The first Instagram post I saw early this morning, in that familiar post-Oscars rush to catch up on all the wins and best dressed celebrities from the night, was from Yeoh, jubilantly clutching her Oscar statuette. As I scrolled down, my entire feed was flooded with celebration and emotion for her win, be it archival images paying tribute to her longstanding status as an action icon, or clips from her heartfelt acceptance speech. ‘This is proof… that dreams do come true,’ she said, to an audience erupting into cheers.
Well, finally. You see, Hollywood has been playing catch up when it comes to platforming stars like Yeoh, who was born in Ipoh in northwestern Malaysia. Incredibly, without any formal martial arts training, Yeoh became synonymous with late 1980s and 1990s Hong Kong action films, and gained international acclaim for her performances in blockbuster hits like Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), and Memoirs of a Geisha (2005).
Despite this catalogue packed full of memorable, fierce performances, it wasn’t until last year’s Everything Everywhere All at Once, in which she played exasperated launderette owner Evelyn Wang, that Yeoh had the top billing in a Hollywood film. ‘It shouldn’t be about my race, but it has been a battle,’ she told TIME magazine in December, reflecting on how stereotypical views had shaped her career to date.
And yet recent successes at the box office have shown what happens when Asian creators and filmmakers finally get to tell their own stories with autonomy. For Yeoh, starring turns in 2018’s romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians and 2021’s Marvel hit Shang Chi showcased both her emotional depth as an actor, and her physical skill in performing her own stunts. To see her become a household name world over feels both glorious, and long overdue; in the same way it has done withHong Kong cinematic legend Tony Leung for his complex, villainous role in Shang Chi, South Korean television legend Youn Yuh-jung for her brilliantly mischievous performance in 2021’s Minari, and Vietnamese American actor Ke Huy Quan, who won Best Supporting Actor on Sunday for his charming portrayal of Waymond, Evelyn’s husband in Everything Everywhere. Quan, who fled the Vietnam War with his family as a child and spent time in a refugee camp in Hong Kong, has spoken frankly of being forced to quit acting in his 20s due to a lack of roles for Asian actors. ‘It was tough,’ he told PEOPLE last April of his acting career. ‘I was waiting for the phone to ring, and it rarely did.’
‘Ladies, don’t let anybody ever tell you that you are past your prime,’ said 60-year-old Yeoh last night, in a message of resilience that echoed Jennifer Coolidge’s proclamation at the Critics’ Choice Awards in January: ‘It’s not over until you’re dead.’ Both speeches, and the experience of actors like Quan, are reminders of the sheer defiance, drive and ambition of many working in the entertainment industry today, and the need for the industry itself to catch up.
After Sunday’s Academy Awards, Everything Everywhere became the most-awarded Best Picture winner since 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire. A surreal journey through time and space, the film explores experiences of immigration, intergenerational tensions and ponders the possibilities of what could’ve been had Evelyn chosen a different path – or several.
At its core though, it’s about motherhood, and the complexity of relationships when so many things are left unsaid. Watching it with my Malaysian mother in our local cinema last year, there were several moments that felt relatable, and made me appreciate that we were able to watch it together. It’s fitting then, that Yeoh dedicated her win to her 84-year-old mother, who was watching at a viewing party with family and friends back home in Kuala Lumpur. ‘I have to dedicate this to my mum, all the mums in the world, because they are really the superheroes, and without them, none of us would be here tonight.’
And while I don’t think Everything Everywhere is necessarily a perfect film (does such a thing even exist?), it’s brilliant to see Asian talent, creativity and performances receiving the credit they deserve. And that this genre-defying film can be recognised because of its fearlessness, rather than in spite of it.
Of course, we know that representation isn’t the everything in the struggle for a more equitable society, and as Parasite director Bong Joon-ho reminds us, the white, western film canon is not the only one that matters. There’s also still so much more work for the Academy to do since #OscarsSoWhite went viral eight years ago. But it is significant and moving to see Michelle Yeoh, who has worked tirelessly for the last four decades and proudly represent Malaysian women in doing so, finally get recognition, in a story that presents an unapologetic and unfiltered look at immigrant identities.
‘For all the little boys and girls who look like me watching tonight — this is a beacon of hope and possibilities,’ said Yeoh at the Oscars podium, statuette firmly in her hands. I know that every newspaper in Malaysia will be carrying her image on their front pages today and through the rest of this week, ecstatic for her win. But for the children in her home country and many people beyond, we know Michelle Yeoh has always been a star. It’s just a shame Hollywood took so long to catch up.