Everything Ethnic, Immigrant & Asian, All at Once: Decoding the trends of the Oscar Awards in recent years 

Top left to bottom right: Cast of “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” “RRR” Naatu-Naatu music directors MM Keeravaani & Chandrabose, Kartiki Gonsalves & Guneet Monga directors of “The Elephant Whispers”  Source: Pinterest.

The 95th Academy Awards held on March 13, 2023 took the world by a storm as it conferred Oscars to the eminent works of Asian origin artists like Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan and the entire team of the gripping movie “Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022).” Not just that, Indian filmmakers Guneet Monga and Kartiki Gonsalves won the Academy Award for Best Short Subject Documentary for noteworthy work in creating “The Elephant Whispers (2022).” In fact this was Monga’s second win after her debut Oscar for the documentary film “Period. End of Sentence” in 2019. Even the Indian blockbuster movie “RRR,” was also recognized for its foot-tapping viral song “Naatu-Naatu” as Best Original Song.

The Academy Awards over the years seem to insinuate a trend of uplifting creative works by Asian filmmakers and artists. This was glaringly visible in 2009 when the 81st Academy Awards conferred eight Oscars to the Indian backdrop film  “Slumdog Millionaire (2008),” which also includes the renowned Indian musician A.R. Rahman who is the only Indian to be conferred two Oscars for “Best Original Score” and Best Original Song- “Jai Ho” within that same year. Subsequently “Life of Pi (2012),” which depicts the immigrant experiences and spiritual values of an Indian indigenous society were awarded Oscars in 2013. 

Not just Indian, but also South Korean movies,which over the years have struck a chord with its global audience, have also been recognized by the Academy. Movies like “Parasite (2019)” and “Minari (2020)” have won six awards each in two consecutive years making  history once more.  “Parasite” movie director Bong Joon Ho’s quote, “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films,” encompasses the late but necessary triumph of representation of diverse cinemas at an esteemed platform like the Oscars. 

Top left to bottom right: “Slumdog Millionaire” cast, music director of “Slumdog Millionaire” A.R. Rahman, “Parasite” director Bong Joon Ho, “Minari” Best Supporting Actor Youn Yuh Jung Source: Pinterest.

This heartwarming victory yet leaves us wondering if we have actually made it to the ultimate finish line of fearless storytelling. What brings forth this new wave of acceptance and spotlight, for the genre of films that involve highlighting or celebrating ethnic and immigrant experiences, especially from Asia? This article attempts to annotate the underlying potential perks of boosting pro-ethnic and immigrant based cinematic content, by also illustrating the power of filmmaking as a societal game-changer. 

The power of films in approaching “the immigrant experience”….

What makes film such a crucial portal for tackling the nitty-gritties of celebrating and portraying the immigrant experience? Films provide an opportunity for immigrants to share their quintessential stories and experiences, and for audiences to learn about different cultures, especially by empathizing with immigrant struggles. From a socio-anthropological perspective, films have the power to shape and reflect cultural norms and values, and can help shape our understanding of social issues. As culture and society continue to evolve, films have the ability to both reflect and shape these changes. 

Tina Kubrak (2020) examined the impact of films on young people’s attitudes towards immigrants, through a study conducted in Ukraine which  involved 310 participants aged between 17 and 25. The study highlighted how films can be a powerful tool for shaping attitudes towards immigration, particularly when they portray the immigrant experience in a nuanced and authentic way. Another argument brought forth was that films can help break down stereotypes and misconceptions about immigrants by highlighting their humanity and resilience in the face of adversity. Additionally, the study suggests that exposure to different cultural perspectives through films can promote greater inclusivity and understanding towards immigrant communities.

In the case of the immigrant experience, films have the potential to play an important role in shaping attitudes towards immigrants, particularly among young people. By portraying the immigrant experience in a nuanced and authentic way, films can promote greater empathy towards immigrants, and help break down stereotypes and misconceptions. 

Films and creative work that have gone unnoticed in the past….

Several critically acclaimed movies which focus on the post-colonial era, and Asian or the  immigrant life in the West, seemed to have left a mark in our hearts, but yet not enough to be recognized with the same pomp and glory as “Everything Everywhere All at Once” or “Minari.” These movies explore complex themes of displacement, cultural identity, and the struggles faced by immigrants in adapting to a new society while still holding onto their roots. 

One such movie is “The Namesake (2006) directed by Mira Nair, based on the novel of the same name by Jhumpa Lahiri. The movie tells the story of a Bengali couple who immigrate to New York City and their struggle to raise their children in a foreign land while still maintaining their cultural traditions. The movie has been praised for its exploration of the complexities of identity and the importance of cultural roots. The movie’s themes resonate with many immigrants who have faced similar challenges in adapting to a new country while still retaining their cultural identity. Although the film was nominated for several awards, including the Independent Spirit Award and the BAFTA, it did not receive any Oscar nominations. 

Source: JustWatch.com.

“The Lunchbox (2013)” directed by Ritesh Batra tells the story of a mistaken delivery in Mumbai’s famously efficient lunchbox delivery system, which leads to a relationship between an unhappy housewife and a lonely man. The film received critical acclaim for its portrayal of Mumbai’s bustling culture and the bittersweet romance between the main characters. Although it was India’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film category, it was unfortunately not nominated for an Oscar.

“Columbus” is a 2017 American drama film directed by Kogonada. The movie follows a Korean-American man named Jin, who returns to his hometown of Columbus, Indiana to be with his sick father. The movie is a meditation on the idea of home, identity, and the spaces that shape us. Critics have praised the movie’s exploration of the immigrant experience and the way it portrayed the cultural divide between Jin and his father. It poignantly reflects the perplexities of identity, grief and relationships. 

Why the Spotlight? And Why Now? 

Asian films have been gaining momentum in international film festivals and box offices for years. So an obvious rationale for such a prominent recognition at the Oscars can be attributed to the growing influence and popularity of Asian cinema in the global film industry. This article also elucidates the monetary impetus that is potentially fueling this outcome. 

Additionally, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) has made efforts to diversify its membership and voting body, which historically had been dominated by white men. Back in 2015, when Ava DuVernay didn’t get an Oscar nomination for directing the 2015 Martin Luther King Jr. biopic “Selma,” critics across the United States condemned this. This disdain, combined with the glaring parity of all minority actors’ failure to earn nominations in any of the  four major performance categories that year, sparked the #OscarsSoWhite campaign. In fact, in a 2014 survey by the Los Angeles Times, of the 6028 voters surveyed, 94% of the panelist members were reported to be white and 76% were male. In response to criticism for a lack of diversity in its nominations and awards in 2021, the AMPAS invited 395 new members of a more diverse group of filmmakers and professionals to join its ranks, including a 46% representation of women and about 39% of people of color. When synergized with the precedent attempts of diversification, the overall panel eventually reflected in a 33% representation of women and 19% of ethnic/racial communities. This has allowed for a wider range of perspectives and stories to be represented at the Oscars.

Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the film industry, with many productions and releases being delayed or canceled. This has led to a greater reliance on international films to fill the gaps in theatrical releases. As a result, the Oscars have recognized more foreign language films in recent years, including Asian films.

The Numbers Game: An economic perspective

One of the primary economic motives for rewarding Asian films and artists is the potential for increased revenue. Asian countries, especially India and South Korea have large and growing film industries catering to a significant market audience,  both within their respective countries and internationally. The international box office market amounted to $16.8 billion while the US/Canada box office market was valued at  $4.5 billion as per a 2021 Motion Pictures Association (MPA) report. Up until 2019, the Asia-Pacific region accounted for nearly 42% of global box office revenue at a whopping $17.8 billion US dollars. In 2020, owing to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, despite a general decline in the global box office,  the Asia-Pacific region still continued to enjoy the largest market share at $5.8 billion US dollars and in 2021 gradually increased by 89% to $10.9 billion US dollars.

By awarding Oscars to Indian and Korean films and artists, the Academy can help increase the visibility and appeal of Asian motion pictures, and can ignite cross-border interests positively influencing the box office. 

Another capitalistic factor that cannot be ignored is the lucrative opportunity for increased investment and partnerships. The film industry is a highly competitive and capital-intensive business, and many studios and investors are constantly looking for new and innovative projects to invest in. By awarding Oscars to the Asian film industry, the Academy can help showcase the talent and creativity of Asian filmmakers and artists, potentially leading to increased investment and collaboration opportunities.

It is also economically prudent to reward Asian films and artists in this time and age. In recent years, there has been a growing demand for diversity and representation in the industry. By recognizing the talent and achievements of Asian filmmakers and artists, the Academy can help promote diversity and inclusivity, potentially leading to increased public support and positive brand recognition.

Finally, it is important to note that the film industry is a highly profit-driven business, and the Oscars are no exception. The ceremony itself is a highly publicized and lucrative event, with millions of viewers tuning in from around the world. By awarding Oscars to Indian and Korean films and artists, the Academy can help increase the international appeal and profitability of the ceremony.

In closing : 

In this backdrop, the recent Oscars 2023 awards linger as a bittersweet reminiscence. The incessant battle between “process and results” can leave us skeptical on welcoming this change. While the fruits of such encouragement and appreciation would definitely go a long way in inspiring a new generation of budding filmmakers to fearlessly narrate their indigenous stories; nonetheless, the cost of its ulterior intent still raises an eyebrow on whether the due purpose is being served in paying tribute to diverse cultures, ethnicities and eventually in impacting the immigrant experience positively. 

Shweta Ravi
About Shweta Ravi 12 Articles
Shweta hails from Mumbai, India and is pursuing her Masters in International Trade Finance and Management at Yonsei GSIS. Her prior background in Psychology coupled with vast travel experiences and interest in languages, intrigue her to explore the dynamics of human interaction in diverse socio-economic canvas. Shweta has also worked as a professional Language Interpreter in Mandarin (Chinese) & Korean for both the Indian-Korean Government and for several Global Corporates. She is also a Latin dance aficionado with specialized training in various styles of Salsa, Bachata and Afro-Cuban dance forms.