Thank you, Michelle Yeoh

March 20, 2023 11:09
Photo: Reuters

And so, she did it.

Michelle Yeoh became the first Asian to win the Best Actress award in the history of Oscars. “Everything, Everywhere All At Once” also swept six other awards this evening - a crowning achievement for a remarkable genre-bending film that turned absurdism into something relatable and easily understandable.

Between the hotdog-sausage fingers and the forays into queer and inter-generational love, the Asian-American family was finally - for perhaps the first time in cinematic history - the center-piece to a smashing blockbuster.

In her acceptance speech, Yeoh said, “For all the little boys and girls who look like me watching tonight, this is a beacon of hope and possibilities.”

The past few years haven’t been easy on Asian-Americans, or, more generally, Asians in the West. Swept up in the commotion of geopolitical tensions, a world-shattering pandemic, and surging racially motivated vitriol and hate crimes, Asians have had to bear the brunt of the world’s woes as nations become increasingly inward-looking, and America and the West precipitously divided along ethnic, class, and political lines.

In many ways, “Everything” was an ode and tribute to the resilience of the Asian migrant in the West. Unlike “Crazy Rich Asians”, there’s nothing glamorous about the Asian protagonists in the movie, who must fight their way through obstinate IRS bureaucracy and implicit racism, the inanities and banal troubles associated with running a laundromat in a small town, and the intergenerational tensions as traditional values clash with the urge of younger generations to forge a path ahead for themselves. We do not hear of, or see their struggles, in mainstream parlance.

Indeed, the movie reliably relates to us that to be seen is a challenge. It is a challenge for the lesbian teenage daughter (Stephanie Hsu) trying to make her case to a sympathetic mother nevertheless limited by her horizons of understanding; for the ailing grandfather (James Hong) who is coming to terms with a foreign place and a daughter that does not live up to his expectations, but also for a husband (Ke Huy Quan) who finds himself trapped in a loveless and fruitless marriage. Not only are Asian-Americans invisible qua their ethnic and migrant status; they are also invisible because they come to internalise the narrative that ‘talking it out’ is subpar to ‘bottling it up’ and tucking it all in.

Holding the masterpiece together - beyond the above characters - is the one and only Michelle Yeoh. A legendary martial arts and action star in her own right, Yeoh has long been amongst the most renowned and recognisable Asian faces in Hollywood. For a long while in the early to mid-stages of her career, she would be known as the ‘fighting’ Bond girl (Mai Lin), the fierce punisher and enforcer in Johnnie To movies (in the Heroic Trio, for instance).

It was not until her portrayal of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi that we came to see Yeoh for whom she truly can be - a class, powerful, and elegant actress with capabilities that stretched far beyond the realm of action blockbusters. In Eleanor Young (Crazy Rich Asians), Yeoh gave a performance that turned her into a regal, demanding, yet ultimately forgiving, upper-class Asian mother presiding over an eclectic family.

And in Everything, we came to see every face of Yeoh - the possible worlds device seamlessly weaved into the plot the incredible range and plurality of characters that Yeoh has played, can play, and shall come to continually play in the years to come. From the chef in the world with ‘Raccoon-atouille’ to the hotdog-fingered lover of the character played by the terrific Jamie Lee Curtis, Yeoh - as Evelyn - can indeed have it all, do it all, and prove it all.

Yeoh has nothing to prove. She is a sturdy and exceptional reminder to us all, that no matter how difficult the odds may be, no matter how treacherous the world may be to us, we - as Asians living in the West, as Asians, as people… we matter. Our voices matter. Our choices matter. The best antidote to absurdism, as Camus reminds us, is to embrace it, and then to live life as if it were indeed filled to the brim with meaning. Yeoh has perfected the craft of the anti-absurd, and proven to us all that Asians deserve to speak. That we deserve to be seen.

Finally, as if to put to rest the ongoing squabble concerning her roots, Yeoh’s thank-you speech gave an explicit nod to both her family back home in Malaysia, as well as her extended family in Hong Kong, where her career first started. As a Hong Konger, there is all the more reason for us to take pride in her splendid accomplishment.

So Michelle, thank you for inspiring generations of young boys and girls, and for breaking down barriers and through ceilings. Your victory tonight demonstrates that not only can Asians do it, they can do it better than us all, too. Thank you, Michelle Yeoh -- for everything!

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Assistant Professor, HKU