Asians Chloe Zhao and Youn Yuh-jung make history at 2021 Oscars

Best Director winner Chloe Zhao and Best Supporting Actress winner Youn Yuh-jung.
Best Director winner Chloe Zhao and Best Supporting Actress winner Youn Yuh-jung.PHOTOS: EPA-EFE
Emerald Fennell, a first-time nominee, won best original screenplay for Promising Young Woman.
Emerald Fennell, a first-time nominee, won best original screenplay for Promising Young Woman. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SINGAPORE - Two Asian women have made Oscar history. 

Beijing-born Chloe Zhao became the second woman and first non-white woman to win the Best Director prize at the 93rd Academy Awards ceremony, which was held on April 26 morning Singapore time. 

Actress Youn Yuh-Jung, 73, picked up the Best Supporting Actress prize for her role in the immigrant drama Minari, making her the first South Korean to win an acting award at the Oscars. 

The 39-year-old Zhao – known as Zhao Ting in China – is the third person of Asian descent to win the Best Director award, after South Korean Bong Joon-ho (the black comedy Parasite, 2020) and Taiwanese Lee Ang (the dramas Brokeback Mountain, 2005; and Life Of Pi, 2012). She is the second woman to win after Kathryn Bigelow, director of the war diary The Hurt Locker (2009). 

Her movie, Nomadland, a drama about a woman who starts a new life as a van-dweller, also won Best Picture. Frances McDormand, who plays the lead character of Fern, won an Oscar for Best Actress. The three trophies make the film the biggest winner of the ceremony. 

Youn’s performance as the energetic grandmother in Minari was delivered largely in Korean. It goes some way in addressing the criticisms levelled at the mostly white and mostly English-speaking Academy voters, who last year failed to nominate any member of the South Korean cast of Parasite. 


A view of the 93rd Academy Awards red carpet at Union Station in Los Angeles on April 25, 2021.

The respected veteran of the entertainment industry in her home country beat Glenn Close (the drama Hillbilly Elegy), Maria Bakalova (the prank comedy Borat Subsequent Moviefilm), Olivia Colman (family drama The Father) and Amanda Seyfried (the biopic Mank) to win. She has enjoyed a great run, with her Oscar triumph coming after wins for Best Supporting Actress in the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (or Bafta) Awards and at the Screen Actors Guild Awards.

In a ceremony marked by socially distanced in-person events in various cities around the world connected by a live feed, most of the wins came as no surprise, but there were a couple of upsets. 

McDormand’s win came as a shock because before the night, it looked as if she had been left in the shade by fellow nominees. Carey Mulligan (the thriller Promising Young Woman) had been on a winning streak with critics’ awards, while Andra Day (the biopic The United States Vs. Billie Holiday) had won the Best Actress Golden Globe. Viola Davis (the play-turned-movie Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) had been the favourite because of her Best Actress win in the crucial precursor race, the Screen Actors Guild awards. 

The biggest shock was reserved for the Best Actor award. 

In a break with tradition, the event’s producers moved the Best Actor and Best Actress categories to the end of the ceremony, supplanting the traditional climax, the Best Picture award.

The producers, including Oscar winner Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, 2000), had expected Black Panther (2018) actor Chadwick Boseman to win posthumously for playing the trumpeter Levee Green in Ma Rainey. He had already won Best Actor at both the Golden Globes and the important Screen Actors Guild Awards. His win, coming after his death last year from cancer, would have been an emotional moment. 

But the evening ended abruptly when it was revealed that Welsh actor Anthony Hopkins won for playing the title role in The Father. At 83, he is the oldest person to receive an Oscar for acting. Because Hopkins had decided to skip the event, the evening wrapped somewhat anti-climactically. 

There will be an encore telecast of the Oscars on April 26 on Channel 5 at 6pm for the red carpet and 10.30pm for the awards ceremony. An international (edited and shortened) version will air at 11.30am on May 1 and at 1.45am on May 2. On Mediacorp’s streaming platform meWatch, free on-demand catch-up access to the show will be available until May 19.


Daniel Kaluuya was recognised as best supporting actor for playing the Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in Judas And The Black Messiah. PHOTO: AFP PHOTO/AMPAS

Key winners

Best Picture

Nomadland

Best Director

Chloe Zhao for Nomadland

Best Actor 

Anthony Hopkins for The Father

Best Actress 

Frances McDormand for Nomadland

Best Supporting Actress

Youn Yuh-jung for Minari

Best Supporting Actor

Daniel Kaluuya for Judas And The Black Messiah

Best Animated Feature

Soul

Best Adapted Screenplay

The Father

Best Original Screenplay

Promising Young Woman