Home / Opinion / Views /  What Everything, Everywhere, All At Once's Oscar haul means for Asian Americans

America’s soft power is in full, electric flow across the world when the Oscars are awarded every year. People all over the world rejoice when a film or actor with links to their collective identity receives an award. Indians are happy that RRR received the Oscar for the best original movie song for its dance sensation Nattu Nattu. But their joy pales in comparison with that of Asian Americans for the honours showered on Everything, Everywhere, All At Once, which received 11 nominations and won seven Oscars – for best film, best actress, best director, best original screenplay, best actor in a supporting role, best actress in a supporting role, and best editing.

This is the first time the same movie has won the best film, best actress, best supporting actor and best supporting actress awards. It is also the first time an Asian-American person has won an award for a leading role, and the second time ever a woman of colour has won the best actor award at the Oscars in their 95 years of history.

Asian Americans are 6.2% of the US population and one of the highest achieving communities. Yet their representation in popular culture has been both stereotyped and exotic, quite outside the mainstream. Michelle Yeoh recently recalled being asked if she could speak English. Screenplay writer and co-director Daniel Kwan as well as producer Jonathan Wang are Asian-American.

Seven Oscars for Everything, Everywhere, All At Once goes some way towards correcting this imbalance. (Meanwhile, in China, the official Xinhua news agency has taken pains to clarify that Michelle Yeoh is a Chinese-Malaysian actress.)

The film’s core theme — the conflicts that attend on relations between parents and children, in particular those between mother and daughter — is universal, but it is explored in a typical Asian-American setting. It tells the story of a middle-aged woman who runs a laundromat, struggles with tax returns, and has a troubled marriage and a daughter with ideas about life that are vastly deviate from tradition.

Naturally, many members of the cast are Asian-American, including Chinese-American and Vietnamese American. Yeoh, who plays the lead character, walked away with the best actress Oscar for a portrayal totally bereft of the usual trappings of Asian-American picturisation in mainstream American movies, usually laden with exotic sexualisation in the case of women.

The movie has been described as a sci-fi film because its lead characters are transported to multiple universes. That is a superficial reading of both the movie and of science fiction. The multiverses in the movie are not spatially separated places that science allows humankind to traverse. The movie explores the potential consequences of each of the myriad choices that confront a person at any key moment of her life, each choice creating a universe different from the one built by the ones not taken.

It explores these realms in a unique way, with a heady mix of kung-fu fighting, magical transportation between universes, bureaucratic mazes, and references to iconic movies of the past, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Ratatouille. It is magic realism taking wing as film, exploring the multiple artistic possibilities the medium offers. It evokes mirth at the pace of a Formula One race and is, at the same time, one of the most tender movies of recent times.

The seven Oscars it won have the potential to add to the culture wars raging in American politics. On one level, the awards enhance America’s appeal across the world as a diverse culture strengthened by each slice of diversity, an example of human solidarity cutting through cultural differences. At the same time, it underlines that exaltation of a homogeneous, white Anglo-Saxon culture as the quintessentially American exemplar is a thing of the past. It could well rile those who pine to ‘make America great again’.

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