The 95th Academy Awards was a big night for Asian representation on screen, with a number of milestones including the first Asian woman to pick up a Best Actress gong and the first ever Oscar for Indian productions.
Michelle Yeoh made history with her role as Evelyn Quan Wang in “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” dominating by taking home a total of seven awards, including the Oscar for Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor for co-star Ke Huy Quan.
The Telegu-language historical fantasy film “RRR” became the first Indian feature film to win an Oscar when “Naatu Naatu” bagged the award for Best Original Song.
And India also won another Oscar this year, with the best documentary short award going to “The Elephant Whisperers”.
‘Bring This Home’
Yeoh’s win makes her the first woman of Asian descent to win an Academy Award for Best Actress and the second woman of color to receive the award. Actress Halle Berry, the only other woman of color to receive the Best Actress award, presented Yeoh with an Oscar.
She is also the first person of Asian descent to win in a lead actor category, the fifth person of Asian descent to win in any acting category, and the first actress to win for portraying a Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese-speaking character.
The historical significance was not lost on Yeoh as she delivered an impassioned and defiant acceptance speech.
“For all the little boys and girls who look like me watching tonight, this is a beacon of hope and opportunity,” she said, holding up her statue.
Yeoh dedicated his award to his 84-year-old mother.
“I’m taking this home to her. She’s watching right now in Malaysia, KL, with my family and friends. I love you guys. I’m bringing this home to you,” she said.
Yeoh also thanked his “extended family in Hong Kong” for “letting me stand on your shoulders and giving me a leg up to be here today.”
Born in Ipoh, Malaysia, the actress got her start in a series of Hong Kong action films.
She gained international fame after starring in the 1997 James Bond film “Tomorrow Never Dies” and Ang Lee’s Oscar-winning “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” in 2000.
More recently, she gained further prominence for her roles in “Crazy Rich Asians” and Marvel’s “Shang-Chi,” but “Everything Everywhere All at Once” was her first Oscar nomination.
Stunt director Jacky Yeung, 58, who worked with Yeoh on “Tomorrow Never Dies,” told CNN she was particularly tenacious.
“One time she was so tired she couldn’t raise her leg anymore. So she had a masseuse come in to massage her so she could do the kick for the stage, but then she was in pain for the rest of the day.” he remembered.
“She’s no other ordinary girl,” Yeung added.
Dorothy Lau, who majored in film studies at Baptist University, home to one of Hong Kong’s top media schools, called Yeoh’s win “very significant”.
“It’s a celebration of Asian actors and actresses fighting for their presence in Hollywood,” she told CNN.
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Yeoh was among four Asian actors nominated for Oscars this year, the most ever.
Her “Everything Everywhere All at Once” costar, Ke Huy Quan, also won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, becoming the first actor, like Yeoh, to win an Oscar for portraying a Mandarin-Chinese and Cantonese-speaking character.
In his own emotional acceptance speech, the former child star, who spent years working behind the camera after roles dried up for him, recalled his remarkable path to the silver screen.
“My journey started on a boat. I spent a year in a refugee camp and somehow I ended up here, on Hollywood’s biggest stage,” said the Vietnamese-born actor. “I can’t believe this is happening to me. This is the American dream.”
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The seven awards “Everything Everywhere All at Once” won are the most for one film since Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire” took home eight in 2009.
A first for India
With the Best Original Song for “Naatu Naatu”, “RRR” became the first Indian feature film to win an Oscar.
An Indian composer had previously won the Oscar for best original song with “Jai Ho” from “Slumdog Millionaire,” but that film was a predominantly British production.
In contrast, “RRR” is an Indian production through and through — and a showcase for Tollywood, one of India’s non-Bollywood film industries that focuses primarily on Telegu language productions rather than Hindi films.
After the victory, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted: “The popularity of ‘Naatu Naatu’ is global. It will be a song that will be remembered for many years to come.”
“India is elated and proud,” Modi added.
The team behind the film took to Twitter to celebrate the win.
“No words can describe this surreal moment. Dedicating this to all our amazing fans around the world. Thank you! Jai Hind,” they wrote, using a popular rallying cry which means “Victory to India.”
The winning song was composed by MM Keeravani, with lyrics by Chandrabose.
“Naatu Naatu” beat both Lady Gaga’s “Hold My Hand” from “Top Gun: Maverick” and Rihanna’s “Lift Me Up” from “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”.
Earlier in the evening, the Academy Awards highlighted “Naatu Naatu” with a musical performance that recreated a famously energetic scene from the film that inspired countless memes.
Bollywood star Deepika Padukone, who introduced the performance, called the song “a total banger”.
The song’s composer MM Keervaani said he “grew up listening to The Carpenters and now I’m here with the Oscars,” before going on to sing his acceptance speech to the tune of “Top of the World” by The Carpenters. Credit: Carlos Barria/Reuters
Asian American diaspora celebrates
Many Asian-Americans in the film industry took to Twitter to share their excitement after the wins for “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” which is very much a story about Asian immigrants and the Asian-American experience.
Yeoh’s “Shang-Chi” co-star Simu Liu was effusive in his praise for Malaysian actress and Best Supporting Actor winner Quan. “Keep blazing a golden trail and show us all what’s possible,” he said on Twitter.
Filipino-American actor JB Tadena, who starred in the TV series “Hawaii Five-0,” said he hopes these victories will lead to greater recognition for people who may have been overlooked in the past.