They won big, but why were we not elated?
Michelle Yeoh, in Dior, accepting her Oscar. Photo: Getty Images
To be sure, the continent of Asia is, as we post this, deliriously proud of Michelle Yeoh Choo Kheng (杨紫琼), not merely her small hometown of Ipoh. Malaysia is, of course, lauding their daughter, who has never starred in a single Malaysian film production, as their “大马之光 (damazhiguang or Malaysia’s glory)”. Just hours ago, Tan Sri Yeoh became the first Asian to win an Oscar for best actress, and only the second non-white to be awarded the title after Halle Berry for her role in 2001’s Monster’s Ball. She went on stage, resplendent in bridal Dior Couture, to accept her award and encouraged “all the little boys and girls who look like me watching tonight, this is a beacon of hope and possibilities (sic).” And like so many other recipients, she thanked her mother: “I have to dedicate this to my mom, all the moms in the world, because they are really the superheroes and without them, none of us will be here tonight. She’s 84 and I’m taking this home to her.”
We have no doubt that the Yeoh family was over the moon. Matriarch Janet Yeoh, decked in matching bridal white, was watching the telecast live with her family in Kuala Lumpur, in a cinema at the Pavilion mall. “I’m proud of my daughter. My daughter is a hardworking girl,” she said in a video circulating online. Those unable to attend the family viewing, such as nephew Justin Yeoh, who resides in Singapore, sent good wishes through their Facebook pages. Even Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim congratulated the Oscar winner with a honorific, saying she “carries the hopes of Malaysians”, the New Straits Times reported. BH (Berita Harian) enthused that her win “menepati ramalan ramai (met many predictions)”. Ms Yeoh’s triumph was, therefore, not surprising. Backstage at the Oscars press room, Ms Yeoh said, “This is something we have been working so hard towards, for a very long time… I’m still here today. Finally after 40 years I get this.” Forty years is a long wait. Other actresses have waited longer, and have not won. She found gold at first strike. The cheers she has garnered are expected.
But we, on the other hand, are not as thrilled as we thought we’d be. Michelle Yeoh’s performance in EEAAO as Evelyn Wang is credible. But was it a great one? Was it a tour de force? We are not able to say with confidence. Nothing Mediacorp’s Aileen Tan (陈丽贞) or Chen Liping (陈莉萍) can’t play. Surely the Academy should award exceptional performances? EEAAO, also the Best Picture, is not easy to understand, even to sit through (an unnecessarily lengthy film of 142 mins). It’s been called messy just like the private-quarters-behind-the-laundromat of the Wangs, but some messes are just that: 乱七八糟 (luanqibazao) or disorderly. And getting the multiverse involved—in which unfunny sausage fingers exist—is just pretext for throwing everything everywhere at the manic film and already convoluted plot, made worse by the inexplicably garish overproduction. It’s all a bit too keh kiang (假腔, Hokkien for hollow or unconvincing cleverness). Many Western critics had called EEAAO “original”, but just because such absurdist excess, bordering on the puerile, had not made it to the big screen before—or, gasp, Oscars—did not necessarily make it good.
Of the four acting awards, three went to EEAAO. From left, Ke Huy Quan, Michelle Yeoh, Brendan Fraser, Jamie Lee Curtis. Photo: ABC
Michelle Yeoh is one of those actresses who is okay to watch if she wasn’t aiming for film-making’s top award (e.g. her turn in Crazy Rich Asians). Her performance in EEAAO as the too-much-to-do Asian-American wife gunning for, well, too much, which The Star delightfully called a “complex take”, is not exactly to-be-studied character acting for acting class. She could have imagined herself as an auntie type back in Ipoh. The long-suffering wife is nothing novel or groundbreaking. What newness, indeed, did she bring to Evelyn Wang? We felt that we were watching Michelle Yeoh, still as feisty (even OTT?) as Inspector Ng in 1985’s Yes, Madam (皇家师姐) or Inspector Yang in 1992’s Police Story 3: Super Cop (,警察故事三：超级警察). Her Evelyn Wang sounds exactly the same as her Mameha (Memoirs of a Geisha, 2005) and Eleanor Sung-Young, the later slightly more posh-sounding. Cate Blanchett inhabiting her role in Tár did not bring along her Australian accent. Ms Yeoh, even in the AAEEO’s Asian-American household, was unable to shake off sounding Anglo-Malaysian.
It, too, is hard to understand why directors insist on her speaking Mandarin when she, by her own admission, is not proficient in the language. She was criticised for her 普通话 (putonghua) in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Chow Yun Fatt, too) despite, reportedly, having received training from an accent coach. That shaky Mandarin was repeated in EEAAO. But what was ironic is that the characters Evelyn and Waymond Wang are supposed to be from China. (The casting of Ke Huy Quan, a Vietnamese-American with his American English, too, was bizzare.) Add to that, Evelyn Wang speaks Cantonese! And only moderately better than her Mandarin. The communication in English between she and the people around her rings with an FOTB inflection, just in case you needed to be reminded that the Wangs are immigrants. The do-not-sound-alike husband and wife are seemingly not from the same part of China, which are not identified when we know their laundry business is in California.
Her Oscar win is, to us, an alignment of the stars. The year 2022, as it eased out of the pandemic, has been good to Michelle Yeoh. Time named her ‘Icon of the Year’. EEAAO arrived when there was (and is) demand for minority “representation” in Hollywood, including, in the case of EEAAO, the immigrant experience. The film is repeatedly hailed as “a breakthrough for Hollywood diversity”. In other words inclusive, purposely inclusive. Imagine how Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (卧虎藏龙) would have fared if it is a work of the present. This is the year for Asians actors and film-makers to shine. EEAAO’s award season success attests to that. And the Academy wanted to ensure that a win for the Michelle Yeoh vehicle will keep them in line with the overall mood and drive in the US. Ms Yeoh’s controversial Instagram post last Tuesday, just hours before Oscar voting closed, in which she shared—and then quickly deleted—a Vogue think-piece wondering if Cate Blanchett needed another of the gold statuette since she already has two, was overlooked. The Malaysian appeared to share Vogue’s sentiment—at least initially—until someone from her team probably reminded her that she could have violated Academy Awards guidelines. One of them states that “any tactic that singles out ‘the competition’ by name or title is expressly forbidden”.
The cast and crew of EEAAO receiving the Best Picture award. Photo: Getty Images
To us, Michelle Yeoh won the Oscar, not because of her exceptional, moving performance (some Malaysians, including those from Ipoh, shared with SOTD, that her part in EEAAO “说不上演技 (shuobushang yanji)” or isn’t about acting skills. It is possible she is surrounded by the right people to ensure that her time, although forty years late, would come. It is also tempting to consider the influence of the recently elected—last August—president of the Academy of Motion Arts and Sciences Janet Yang Yanzi (杨燕子). She is the organisation’s first Asian-American female president and it is possible that the born-in-Queens, New York film veteran wanted to make her mark at the Academy by witnessing Michelle Yeoh become the first Asian to get the best actress nod. What is also interesting is that she and the Malaysian Oscar winner share the same maiden name. We are not suggesting that there were improper behind-the-scenes arrangements. But everything—and everyone—everywhere just fell into place all at once for Michelle Yeoh.
It is hard to imagine that EEAAO, even if entirely spoken in Mandarin, would even be considered for the Golden Horse Award (金马奖), yet they made a staggering sweep at the Oscars, winning a total of seven awards out of 11 nominations: three acting awards, best editing, best original screenplay, best director, and best picture. The best is, of course, not always the best. Not since 2005’s Slumdog Millionaire (with eight awards), has there been EEAAO’s enviable haul. As they made more gains later into the award season, more pundits believed that the US$25 million movie (compared to another best film nominee Avatar: The Way of Water’s estimated US$250 million!) would dominate at the Oscars. The film’s success is thought to speak for Asians but we think that’s too grandiose an ambition to consider. EEAAO is intensely Asian-American in its leaning and narrative; doubtful, therefore, that it is, laundromat et al, a “beacon” for Asia, even if the Asian experience could be that multiversal. Asia is huge and it is diverse, possibly more than what is experienced or seen in California. Surely even Michelle Yeoh cannot profess to be the archetypal Asian actress.
She may have won an Oscar, but it can’t be said that Ms Yeoh scored big in the style stakes. We have often thought that Dior on the red (or champagne) carpet is frequently anti-climatic for even the most seasoned presentation attendee. For the grandest award ceremony (and the most watched), she placed her trust in Dior and it turned out to be the weakest of all her red carpet looks of the past months. Decidedly underwhelming (perhaps intentionally, in case she had to leave empty-handed), the gown could have passed off for one from any of the bridal shops along Tanjong Pagar Road. It seemed that it could have originally been a strapless number, but turned out to be something else—the tiered, feathered bustier-gown, for some reason, had to be attached to a sheer upper bodice. We weren’t quite able to make out the silhouette either: was it a tented dress or was it meant to be waisted? A safe bet to avoid the puzzlement that followed her choice of that Schiaparelli dress at the SAG awards? She was not, of course, the first to don bridal wear to an award ceremony. K D Lang wore one at the first-ever Juno Award in 1985. Michelle Yeoh has come a long way from the time of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, when she attended the Oscars in Barney Cheng. These days, Hong Kong qipao is no longer on her mind. She has walked on various red carpets in Gucci, Schiaparelli, Chanel, and Dior. When an Oscar win beckons, only European names will do, even if it could pass off as anyone’s wedding dress.