Asian American actor Steven Yeun, left, and director Chloé Zhao, right.
Academy Awards

Steven Yeun, Chloe Zhao's Oscar Noms Are a Long Time Coming

Zhao is one of a handful of high-profile female filmmakers in contemporary Hollywood and among the few female directors of color with a growing presence on the studio circuit.

It was a historic, and painfully long overdue, morning for the Academy Awards Monday as Steven Yeun and Chloe Zhao both netted Oscar nominations. Yeun got the nod for his performance in “Minari,” which made him the first Asian American to be nominated in the lead actor category. Zhao netted a nomination for her direction of the critically-acclaimed "Nomadland."

Other notable nominations was the Best Actor nomination for Riz Ahmed for his role in "Sound of Metal," making him the first Muslim actor nominated in the category. Mahershala Ali has previously won in the supporting actor category for "Moonlight" and "Green Book." Also Lee Isaac Chung, a son of Korean immigrants, picked up a Best Director nomination for his work on "Minari."

While Yeun is the first Asian American to ever receive a lead acting nomination at the Academy Awards, there have been two other actors of Asian heritage to get nominations in the Best Actor category before him. Yul Brynner, who was part Buryat (Mongol), won the trophy for 1956's "The King and I." In 1982, Ben Kingsley, who is half Indian, won Best Actor for 1982's "Gandhi." 

Director Chloe Zhao

Zhao, the Chinese director of "Nomadland," was one of two female directors nominated in a category that has notoriously overlooked the achievements of women. Zhao was joined by Emerald Fennell who directed "Promising Young Woman." In all "Nomadland" was nominated for a total of six Academy Awards – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography and Best Film Editing.

Yeun, 37, is known by fans across the globe for his earlier work on "The Walking Dead." The Seoul-born actor has spoken much in recent weeks about his work on "Minari," saying that he pulled from his own personal experience playing Jacob, a Korean father who moves his family to a rural Arkansas farm during the 1980s. Yeun's family emigrated when he was 4 and ultimately settled in Michigan.

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The Golden Globes spawned a controversy by limiting “Minari” to its foreign-language film category. But the movie has racked up awards elsewhere, including multiple nominations from the Screen Actors Guild.

“This movie is a feeling for me. The feeling is the thing that keeps it connected to everybody,” Yeun told the Associated Press in a recent interview. “I don’t know how it’s getting its way out there, specifically. But I just do know the feeling is getting out there.”

The same could be said of Zhao's much-acclaimed "Nomadland," which depicts a woman (Frances McDormand) traveling the American West while living in her van. Zhao recently became the second woman to ever win Best Director at the Golden Globes, and the first woman of Asian descent.

Zhao, who earned acclaim for the neo-Western drama “The Rider” in 2017 and will make her Marvel universe debut with the upcoming “Eternals,” is one of a handful of high-profile female filmmakers in contemporary Hollywood and among the few female directors of color with a growing presence on the studio circuit. In an analysis published in January 2020, USC’s inclusion initiative found that just 13 of the 1,300 top-grossing movies released between 2007 and 2019 were directed by women from underrepresented racial or ethnic groups.