By Diana Cheng
AAP Film and Arts Writer
The 93rd Academy Awards took place at Union Station in Los Angeles on Sunday night. Beijing born Chloé Zhao made Oscar history by becoming the first woman of Asian descent to win Best Director. She is only the second woman to garner this award in the ninety-three-year history of the Oscars.
Kathryn Bigelow was the first woman to win the directing Oscar with “The Hurt Locker” which won Best Picture in 2008. That was a notable moment as she broke the celluloid ceiling, a term to denote the invisible boundary limiting women to rise in the film industry.
Zhao’s win on Sunday could be seen as the smashing of what some had termed the bamboo ceiling, referring to the invisible barrier blocking filmmakers and talents of Asian descent in Hollywood.
Zhao’s film “Nomadland” won Best Motion Picture of the Year, first time a feature directed by a woman of color to take home that honor. Frances McDormand who plays the main character Fern becomes the first actress to win Oscars for acting and producing for the same film. This is McDormand’s third Oscar win.
This year’s Best Director category also made history in having two women nominated at the same time, Zhao and Emerald Fennell for “Promising Young Woman.” Fennell won Original Screenplay.
The 93rd Academy Award telecast was unprecedented due to the pandemic. A limited number of nominees were seated at socially distanced tables inside Union Station. The Red Carpet took place outdoor in a garden setting. The five nominated Best Song were performed on the roof top of the newly constructed Academy Museum which will open later this year. Other nominees participated from London’s BFI theatre and other world cities.
Last year’s Best Director winner Bong Joon Ho (“Parasite”) presented this year’s directing award from Seoul, South Korea, announcing Zhao’s win. Two real-life nomads from the film “Nomadland”, Linda May and Swankie, were in attendance with Zhao at the Oscars.
In her acceptance speech, Zhao said she and her father used to take turn reciting the three-character classics when she was young. One verse in particular had motivated her during hard times, and she said it in Mandarin: “人之初,性本善.” In translation: “people at birth are inherently good.” She went on to say that “I have always found goodness in the people I met, everywhere I went in the world.”
With her golden statuette in hand, she said, “this is for anyone who has the faith and the courage to hold out to the goodness in themselves and to hold out to the goodness in each other, no matter how difficult it is … You inspire me to keep going.”
Zhao has been enjoying a winning streak ever since “Nomadland” premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2020. She has won best director at the Golden Globes, BAFTA, Directors Guild Awards, and Critics Choice Awards. These accolades catapult her to reach the most wins for any filmmaker in this awards season.
Another bright spot of the night that generated some laughs was when South Korean Yuh-Jung Youn won Best Actress in a Supporting Role for playing the eccentric grandma in Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari”. Youn’s modest acceptance speech was an affable nod to all her fellow nominees, especially Glenn Close. Receiving the award from Brad Pitt had added excitement on top of the honor. She also credited her sons for getting her out to work.
The major flaw of the telecast would have to be the ordering of the awards presentations. Contrary to Oscar tradition, the finale was not to highlight the Best Picture, but Best Actor, and that was after revealing the Best Actress. The highest honor, the Best Picture, was the third last presentation.
Anthony Hopkins (“The Father”) claimed the Best Actor upset win, as the predicted frontrunner was a posthumous award for Chadwick Boseman (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”). However, since Hopkins was not there in person, presenter Joaquin Phoenix accepted the award on his behalf and brought the show to a quick end. Another major award, Best Director, was placed close to the beginning, after Costume Design. These awkward sequencing and the anti-climatic wrap would likely remain as an unfortunate impression of the 2021 Oscars telecast.