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“Don’t Tell Me I Can’t Do It”: Two Female Chinese Filmmakers on Awkwafina’s Oscar Shut Out

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Lulu Wang’s The Farewell was an unexpected smash in the US. The film is loosely based on Wang’s personal experiences, delivering a poignant story of Asian and Asian-American identities at a near-unprecedented rate of success (with lead actress Awkwafina banking a Golden Globe in the process).

But as we move into Oscar season, some film fans were confused when Awkwafina was overlooked as a nominee for Best Actress, and Lulu Wang for Best Director — indeed, the movie failed to receive a single Academy Award nomination.

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The reaction comes as #OscarsSoWhite, a hashtag that has returned each year since 2015, continues to be relevant, with calls for a greater diversity of nominees from the Academy. Awkwafina’s performance earned glowing reviews from critics and audiences, and her nomination would have been the first time an Asian woman was nominated since 1935. In a strong year for female directors, meanwhile, women like Wang remained completely absent from the list of Best Director nominees, an award which only one woman has won in the event’s 92-year history.

The absence of The Farewell at the Oscars is only the latest touchpoint in the fight for greater diversity in film. Here, we speak with two directors on the challenges for women and people of color in film.

Behind The 90 Diaspora Camera

Tian Liu is a 90后 (aka China’s “born after 1990” generation) cinematographer and photographer currently based between New York City and Los Angeles. Her portfolio spans documentaries and short-form storytelling, such as The Best Date Ever and His Pain. Now, she’s shifting her focus to “the female portrait,” showcasing the feminine side of powerful women, and portraying power as a beautiful, sexy thing to possess.

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Yang Xinlei, another post-’90s producer and documentary filmmaker currently based in Los Angeles, is in the midst of developing a documentary that zooms in on the trend of “leftover women” — single, often highly-educated Chinese women in their thirties — traveling to the US to have their eggs frozen.

What did you think about this year’s Oscar nominations, and the absence of The Farewell from the list?

Liu: I personally do feel The Farewell was a standout movie, and Awkwafina performs well in it. As a bonus, and definitely speaking as a female Asian filmmaker here, I’m also very proud of what [Wang] has achieved here in terms of telling a story relevant to her experience.

But, as far as Awkwafina’s performance in this movie is concerned, it’s still rather different from general Oscar-level performances — that’s just my opinion. Art should be fair, and one might argue the Academy overlooked the “art” side on this one.

When an artist’s work is on the international stage and faces audiences and judges of different cultural backgrounds, it will naturally be perceived and evaluated differently depending on the audience.

Yang: Everyone has their own opinions, preferences, and interpretations when it comes to film. Art shouldn’t be limited by race or culture — but it can be a reflection of an artist’s experience. So when an artist’s work is on the international stage and faces audiences and judges of different cultural backgrounds, it will naturally be perceived and evaluated differently depending on the audience.

It’s a shame that The Farewell wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award this year. But every film festival and award competition has its own distinctive characteristics, because the programmers and judges are people with different tastes. Even though The Farewell is an excellent piece of work, its subject matter isn’t particularly mainstream.

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Since the #OscarsSoWhite controversy began in 2015, the Academy has made a necessary effort to diversify, aiming to double female and minority membership. And yet, today 68% of members are male, and 84% are white. What effect do you think those numbers have on the Academy’s selections?

Liu: I think this may be a reasoning known only to those “white judges” you mention [laughs]. But if Awkwafina is included in the nomination shortlist simply because she represents a non-mainstream culture, that’s just a bit one-sided, isn’t it?

I personally don’t think we can say that her absence from the nominee list was definitely a matter of racial discrimination. That would be too easy. I will say that, for me, in the instance of The Farewell, the “art” side of things was overlooked because of politics or… well, who knows what the Academy thinks behind closed doors.

Yang: It’s definitely improved a lot in the past decade, but the truth is that women and people of color are still struggling. One in thirteen directors is female, and one in thirteen is a person of color. To me, equality equals diversity.

One in thirteen directors is female, and one in thirteen is a person of color. To me, equality equals diversity.

Both of you have experienced the film industry in the US as well as in China. What is that like, for an Asian woman making films?

Liu: I really think I get the same opportunities as men here in the US, and that’s exactly why I have to stay here. In China, though, I don’t think I would get those same opportunities, and I’ve had my fair share of moments when I was taken less seriously because of my gender.

With The Farewell, opinions among older white filmmakers and native Chinese people who watch the movie will definitely be different. It’s not that anyone will unquestionably understand and appreciate this movie, but that the viewing experience and perception of it will surely be limited by the audience’s background.

When it comes to China, because of censorship mainly, Chinese film festivals draw a lot of attention — from every direction, above and below, so to speak.

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Yang: China has a great deal of factors playing in its favor: huge and swift development potential, an almost unparalleled market scope, abundant resources, and an immense audience. But China doesn’t have a true content rating system — in order to release in theaters, films must be “suitable for all.”

The US market gives filmmakers more freedom to pursue any theme of their choice, but as a newcomer, especially an Asian woman, choices of development and directorial scope are admittedly small-scale, because the market has already matured based on the old precedent. Now it’s relatively saturated. But hey, what can I say? Don’t tell me I can’t do it. Don’t tell me it can’t be done!

What about the independent scene?

Yang: Aside from the Asian nature of the film itself, The Farewell is an excellent example of a solid independent production. The market for independent films has been shrinking, and budgets are crunched.

There aren’t a lot of precedents to look at or learn from. It takes us much more effort to gain recognition from the audience, let alone from the Academy.

I myself want to be an independent film maker, and I want to rely on independent films to succeed in my career — a very challenging goal in itself, and, truth be told, one proving even more difficult for a woman of color. There aren’t a lot of precedents to look at or learn from. It takes us much more effort to gain recognition from the audience, let alone from the Academy.

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Elsbeth van Paridon
Sinologist Elsbeth van Paridon is an aficionada of fashion and urban culture. Deeply devoted to China’s urban underground scene, van Paridon also reports on trends in her own publications “The China Temper” and “China Under The Radar“.