Steven S. Drachman on Anna May Wong’s Academy Award

A couple of thoughts on the Oscars and the sweep of the sci-fi Chinese family drama-comedy, Everything Everywhere All at Once, which (if you’ve been hiding under a talking rock for the last year) stars Michelle Yeoh as a late middle-aged laundry owner grappling with daughter problems, husband problems, and tax problems, all while battling an evil force determined to destroy the multi-verse.

Hong Kong Film’s 1980s Heyday

I spent my college years in the mid-1980s watching Hong Kong movies at New York’s Music Palace on Bowery Street in Chinatown, and that other one, the theater that had subway tracks on its roof, which I think was on Mott Street. Both are gone now.

I watched action films directed by John Woo, Ching Siu-Tung’s Chinese Ghost Story movies, Stephen Chow comedies, and on and on.

When I saw Michelle Yeoh’s explosive appearance in Supercop, at the Music Palace, I thought that she should have won a special Academy Award for riding a motorcycle off an embankment and landing on a moving train, with a smile on her face.

At the time, I really lamented the fact that no one in the mainstream media wrote about these movies, and none of them managed a proper mainstream release. Hollywood studios thought the American audience wasn’t ready for Chinese movie stars, and America’s taste-makers definitely wasn’t ready. When Jackie Chan’s Police Story made it into the New York Film Festival in 1987, it did more to damage the festival than to elevate Jackie Chan.

Hollywood’s Blind Eye Was My Gain

But the lack of media awareness of these movies had a silver lining for me. When Hong Kong film festivals finally began to dot the horizon in the early 1990s, almost no film critics (with the occasional exception, such as Dave Kerr) knew enough to write intelligently about these movies, and I stepped into the gap. I eventually interviewed Jackie Chan for Entertainment Weekly, because no one at the magazine had more than a vague idea of who he was.

It was the start of my such-as-it-is writing career. It led to other things. If not for the American obscurity of Hong Kong films in the 1980s, and my propitious knowledge of this industry when one was momentarily needed, I’d have no writing career at all.

Hollywood’s treatment of Asian film was echoed in its cold shoulder to Asian-Americans. For years and years and years, Hollywood infamously rejected any film that would star an actor of Asian national origin. Barry Hughart’s rousing fantasy/action novel, Bridge of Birds, had all the elements of a great movie franchise, and Hughart even found himself in discussions with a studio executive, who, according to Hughart explained bluntly (in what one might call “colorful” language) that the all-Chinese cast meant that the movie would never be made.

Everything Everywhere Deserved Its Oscar Sweep

Some view Everything Everywhere All At Once’s Oscar sweep as something like reparations or affirmative action, an award for all the Asian-themed movies and Asian actors the Academy has overlooked, all the movies Hollywood didn’t make, all the actors it never cast.

This seems to suggest that the movie wouldn’t have won these awards if there weren’t wrongs to be righted. And this is unfair. While not typical Oscar bait, Everything Everywhere could certainly under any circumstances have benefited from what I will call “the Sideways effect.” Generally speaking, the Sideways effect refers to the way a single nasty line in a popular movie depressed the sales of merlot wine. But I use it a different way, to describe an offbeat film that rides just the right wave at just the right time. There can be one, and only one, “Sideways effect movie” in any given year. This is one rule of the Sideways effect.

Everything Everywhere was the Sideways effect movie this year, for reasons that included cultural ones, but it could have been the Sideways effect movie even in the best of all possible worlds.

The actors and filmmakers seemed to acknowledge that they were winning awards for all those who should have won before them; it was not a coincidence that an editorial about the great Anna May Wong appeared in the New York Times the week before the Oscar ceremony.

In accepting her award for Best Actress, Michelle Yeoh called out to “all the little boys and girls who look like me,” in accepting his award for Best Supporting Actor, Ke Huy Quan stated that “I spent a year in a refugee camp and somehow I ended up here on Hollywood’s biggest stage…. This, this, is the American Dream,” and in accepting the award for Best Picture, co-director Daniel Kwan said, “We are all products of our context. We are all descendants of something and someone, and I want to acknowledge my context.”

Recognizing What Came Before, and What Could Have Been

So it was kind of OK, in a way, that Michelle Yeoh’s award recognizes not only the best performance of 2022, and the great performances that she has given for forty years, but also the Oscar that Anita Mui didn’t win for her heartbreaking performance in Rouge and the Oscar that Maggie Cheung didn’t win for her tough and daring turn in Full Moon in New York and her haunting role in Farewell China; that Ke Huy Quan’s award also acknowledges the Oscar that Michael Hui didn’t win for Always on My Mind, that Jackie Chan didn’t win for Little Big Soldier, that Tony Leung didn’t win for Farewell China, and that Leslie Cheung didn’t win for Happy Together. And while we’re at it, maybe Stephanie Hsu’s nomination as Best Supporting Actress can somehow, in some redefinition of karma, recompense Hayley Man, a young actress whom the Academy failed to recognize for Farewell China in 1990.

And maybe it’s also a recognition of the Oscar that Brandon Lee won for his role as Number Ten Ox in Bridge of Birds in some other part of the multi-verse, a hypothetical world in which, in 1988, Hollywood had the foresight to make an action/fantasy film starring a Chinese lead actor.

And, of course, it’s also above all a recognition of the Oscar that Anna May Wong didn’t win for The Good Earth in 1937, because the studios cast Luise Raine in yellow face in the lead role. Image the performance Wong would have given, if she’d only had the chance! Imagine the acceptance speech. And imagine the Hollywood that such a thing would have created and cultivated. Imagine the movies that would have been made, but that weren’t made. It’s a requiem for a world of movies that never existed.

One day, an Oscar will just be an Oscar, and not redress for a hundred years of injustice. But not quite yet.

A Final Thought

I’ve mentioned Farewell China multiple times in this article. It’s a great movie about Chinese immigrants in New York City, directed by the great Clara Law, and you should watch it. I reviewed it for The Boston Phoenix when it played in Boston in the 1990s, and I interviewed Clara Law at the time. It used to be rentable on, but now it’s not; you should add it to your list and keep an eye out.

After The Joy Luck Club, Crazy Rich Asians and, now, Everything Everywhere’s Oscar triumph, I’ve had the same thought — maybe Hollywood will suddenly be so excited by the idea of movies about Chinese women that they’ll reach out to Clara Law and offer her a deal.

Farewell China won a slew of awards, including Taiwan equivalent of the Oscar (and the Hong Kong Oscar nomination) that Hayley Man received for Best Actress, before vanishing utterly into obscurity, apparently.

Clara Law is still alive and well, living and working in Australia.

And One Last Thought

Blake Edward’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a great movie rendered almost unwatchable by Mickey Rooney in yellow face as an old Japanese landlord. It’s not the yellow face per se that is so objectionable, but the horribleness of his acting, the worst performance Rooney ever gave. With today’s special effects technology, Rooney could be surgically excised from the film and replaced with George Takei or Ken Watanabe. Edwards’ widow, Julie Andrews, is still alive and would presumably approve. She is a nice lady, reputation would have it. Wherever he is, I know it’s what Mickey Rooney would want.


Steven S. Drachman is the author of a science fiction trilogy, The Strange and Astounding Memoirs of Watt O’Hugh the Third, which is available in paperback from your local bookstore, Amazon and Barnes & Noble; it is also available as a Kindle e-book.

Image: What if Anna May Wong Won an Oscar?