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The bittersweet victories of the 93rd Oscars

by Sian Wilson

The 93rd Academy Awards were dull and lifeless, with little to no sentiment, weirdly flat jokes and very minimal glamour. Keeping in mind the pandemic, this doesn’t seem overtly surprising. Yet, viewers wanted more - perhaps naively so.

The only saving grace would have been the monumental wins for deserving participants, but these, too, were clouded by the Academy’s controversial history of discrimination and blatant oversight.

Chloé Zhao became the first woman of colour to win an Oscar for Best Director, and the second woman ever in the 93 years of the Awards.

Zhao’s win comes as a result of her critically acclaimed film “Nomadland”. A film centred around the nomadic Fern, a lonely drifter who has lost everything, as she wanders the United States in search of meaning. “Nomadland” is a film about empathy, about normal people going through the motions of normal life, of belonging nowhere and everywhere. Frances McDormand does an impeccable job of invoking feelings in the audience while following the careful intuitive guidance of Zhao.

The victory is tremendously history-making, but leaves much to be desired when considering the 93 years of phenomenal women-of-colour directors who have been snubbed, fetishised and discriminated against.

Greater still, Zhao’s victory and film both have been censored by the Chinese government. In her speech, Zhao talked of her childhood in China and recited an excerpt of a poem, of which is translated to mean “people at birth are inherently good.” Zhao had previously been called “the pride of China” by state media; an honour swiftly retracted after a 2013 clip of an interview surfaced wherein Zhao refers to China as “a place where there are lies everywhere.” As a consequence, hashtags were censored and articles were deleted celebrating the director’s win. The film was banned on a local app called Douban.

RadioFreeAsia provides “free press to closed societies in Asia”. Illustration by @remonwangxt

Zhao’s censorship comes as no surprise, as many local stations in China, such as TVB, said that they would not be airing the Awards this year. It is speculated that this is a result of a short film by Anders Hammery about the Hong Kong protests which was shortlisted for Best Short Subject Documentary.

In the history of the Oscars, only two dozen Asian women have been recognised for their talents. Each time, these women are pigeonholed into less-than categories of winners. Youn Yuh-jung was no exception this year.

Youn Yuh-jung, the beloved grandma from Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari”, achieves the first acting win for a South Korean in the Academy Awards’ history, with Best Supporting Actress.

Youn Yuh-jung accepts her award for Best Supporting Actress. Source: Reuters

Beyond the astounding disregard for generations of South Korean acting talent, perhaps the most shocking event of the night was post-ceremony. An interviewer grossly asks Youn, as she wields her award, what Brad Pitt smells like.

Distasteful. Disastrous. With a wry smile and coy are-you-really-asking-me-this-now? flare, Youn responds: “I didn’t smell him. I’m not a dog.”

The reactions to this event were understandably frigid, as many pointed out that there were a number of valid, important things to ask an Oscar-winning actor.

Some poignant reactions are below:

In true Academy fashion, the industry created and used martyr in the form of the beloved late Chadwick Boseman, who was nominated posthumously for his role in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”, for their embarrassing advertising game. The winner of the prize for Best Lead Actor went to Anthony Hopkins, who didn’t even attend the Awards, but offered to Zoom in (which the Academy declined).

The Oscars moved the awards announcement to very last, leaving the show to end on a very sudden, silent note. The distasteful red-herring nature of the hype created around a possible meaningful homage to Boseman left many-a-fan feeling validly affronted and confused, more many reasons.

This is what Twitter users had to say:

Overall, the event was a miss and you didn’t miss anything if you didn’t manage to catch it. With no host, no transparency, no sincerity, the question is begged: is the Academy Awards, like the Grammys, losing its relevance?

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