2023 Oscars turns into big moment for Asian representation in Hollywood

The 93rd Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday night featured a significant moment for Asian-American representation on the big screen, with "Everything Everywhere All at Once" winning big.

The film is bringing hope to the Asian-American community, nationally and here in Minnesota, that Asian representation in Hollywood can be more than just limited roles and stereotypical representation. 

Ke Huy Quan embodied that story. He mostly disappeared from Hollywood for more than 20 years in part due to a lack of on-camera work for Asian-Americans, but he returned in a big way with the best supporting actor win. Michelle Yeoh became the first Asian to win best actress. 

Richard Lee, a professor of psychology and the director of the Asian American Studies Program at the University of Minnesota, said Asian-Americans have historically been stereotyped in the media.

"The background characters on the television show M*A*S*H. Then later, it was the John Hughes movies, and the stereotypes of either the nerdy Asian, or the effeminate Asian American. Or the highly exotic and then the martial arts actors. Like, that was the range," Lee said.

Everything, Everywhere All at Once's big wins at the Oscars was a significant moment – the chance to see an authentic Cantonese-speaking immigrant family that resonated with households across America.

"Watching it the first time at the movie theater, I was like, ‘Yeah, there's a lot of things I can relate to being an immigrant to this country.’ There were the same responses from others as well, even for those that are born here in the states. My daughter, for example," said Stephen Lu, director of media technology at Asian Media Access.

Naomi Ko, a writer, director and an actor originally from Rosemount, Minnesota, believes representation starts with having not just Asian-American characters on screen but writers and directors who can understand that experience.

"If it's not coming from that authentic place, viewers and readers know," said Ko, the co-founder of the Asian Pacific Islander American Minnesotan Film Collective.

But for years, she says she's heard Asian stories aren't profitable. Another barrier is filmmaking is a competitive, expensive profession to break into.

"Most of us are children of immigrants or we're from low socioeconomic backgrounds, and we don't have the opportunities and the financial security to pursue such an expensive medium of art making," Ko said.

"Everything Everywhere All at Once" also has ties to Minnesota. It was a big moment for Minneapolis-born and raised James Hong. At 94, he got to attend his first-ever Academy Awards Sunday night.

Ko said in Minnesota, the Asian American filmmaking community is small and made up mostly of filmmakers who are Hmong. 

She said recently, Bing Liu, a New York-based filmmaker who was nominated for an Oscar for "Minding the Gap" in 2019, visited Minnesota to train seven Hmong-American filmmakers in the Twin Cities. 

"While it's really great that there is more Asian American representation, we also need to make sure that our region in our state is also reflected," Ko said. "We’re very diverse in ethnicity, language, and also originality and I'm pretty sure we're ready for Minnesota to be represented in a different way that's not just the Mighty Ducks or Fargo."

Lee also said he was struck by the backlash leading up to the Oscars that centered around how many people were nominated from "Everything Everywhere All at Once."

"Hollywood is still struggling with the recognition of the fact that this country is more diverse than Hollywood," Lee said.

Though the progress has been slow, Ko said Sunday night was a step in the right direction.

"Audiences are really curious and they want to see new things. So there's gotta be a little trust in us because I think we can definitely deliver," Ko said.