Editor’s Note: Hanna Pham is a former CNN Opinion intern and an MA international journalism student at City University of London. The views expressed here are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.
While most Oscar nominees in years past have morphed for me into one big monolithic mix of majority-White faces, a record-breaking number of this year’s nominees resemble my Asian-American family. I see my auntie in Hong Chau’s portrayal of tough-loving nurse Liz in “The Whale.” I see my well-meaning father in the laundromat co-owner Waymond Wang, played poignantly by Ke Huy Quan in “Everything Everywhere All At Once.” I even see myself in the anxious, overachieving, but loving Meilin “Mei Mei” Lee, voiced by Rosalie Chiang, in “Turning Red.”
This year’s Oscars have the highest number of Asian nominees. Ever. The last time there was more than one Asian actor nominated was nearly 20 years ago in 2004. While Asian nominees still feel like an exception rather than a norm, in the past few years there’s been more ground-breaking recognition of the slew of Asian talent in the film industry. In fact, multiverse thriller “Everything Everywhere all at Once” – co-directed by and starring actors of Asian descent – grabbed the most nominations this year at a whopping 11.
But what most stood out to me about these nominated Asian-centric films was the kind of stories they told about the Asian diaspora in the West. The relationship between Asian moms and their daughters in particular is amplified through “Turning Red” and “Everything Everywhere All at Once.”
As an Asian-American girl, I’m seeing a mother-daughter dynamic on-screen that resembles the one I have with my own mom for pretty much the first time. Domee Shi’s “Turning Red,” nominated for best animated feature film, explores 13-year-old Mei Mei’s struggle to overcome her family’s generational curse of turning into a red panda when expressing her emotions. This is a skill that Mei Mei finds difficult as she often lets her emotions get the best of her. And it’s a curse that only affects the women in the family so Mei Mei’s mom Ming Lee (voiced by Sandra Oh) and a host of colorful aunties try to teach her to suppress her emotions in order to control the red panda that comes out.
In the Daniels’ (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, co-directors) “Everything Everywhere all at Once,” middle-aged laundromat owner Evelyn, Michelle Yeoh, fights to save her daughter Joy, Stephanie Hsu, from Joy’s violent, multiverse alter-ego Jobu Topaki. I’m no fan of superhero movies, but I am now a convert – if they explore the mother-and-daughter dynamic of immigrant Asian families like this film does.
Too often in the history of American film, Asian women have been portrayed one-dimensionally – think of “Full Metal Jacket” and the notorious “I’m so horny” line. That iteration was pretty much the only line any Vietnamese woman had in a film about Vietnam. And I’ve had the unfortunate experience of hearing this line spewed at me in public, simply because I’m Asian.
So, it’s heartwarming and inspiring to enjoy films that explore the nuances of inter-generational differences between diasporic Asian women – instead of the average sexualized monolith from largely White male directors.
I watched both of these films with my mom. These movies, and our individual therapy sessions, have given Asian-American girls like me an opportunity to talk to our moms about our emotions. Though my mom wasn’t brought to an uncontrollable sob like I was while watching them, it felt rewarding to explore our differences, instead of butting heads when our varying levels of emotional intensity clash.
My mom was born in the Philippines and eventually got naturalized as an American citizen before I was born. While obviously, we have our generational differences, the starkest distinction between us centers on emotion. Like Mei Mei and Joy, it’s impossible for me to suppress my emotions, often much to the chagrin of my mom. Whether I’m happy, angry, or sad anyone around me can instantly tell. Though I wouldn’t describe my mood swings as omnicidal as Joy’s or destructive as Mei Mei’s, these characters are a poignant metaphor for the difference in how my mother and I feel and express our emotions, a theme that other Asian-American families can relate to.
Like Ming Lee, my mom is stoic and believes it’s a critical value to emulate for her children. Though she won’t turn into a red panda if she expresses strong feelings, like Ming Lee does [spoiler alert!] near the end of “Turning Red,” holding her feelings back is a self-preservation tactic. I know now that she learned from her mother, who grew up poor in the Philippines, that to survive is to suppress. There’s no time to wallow or discuss your feelings when you need to worry about your next meal or if your husband will return from war. And while my mom tried to pass that ability on to me, it’s a genetic characteristic I’ve broken with my own embrace of emotional intensity.
Another important theme in both films was the delicate balancing of a mom’s expectations and the individuality of their daughters. Like Joy and Evelyn, I haven’t fulfilled all my mom’s wishes, but she still cherishes me (though there may be other versions of me in the multiverse who are the perfect daughters).
Just like these on-screen moms and daughters, my mom and I are working to break our own generational curse of suppressing our emotions. Our willingness to understand and listen to each other more feels as paramount as saving human existence from the chaos of the multiverse.
What an important gift to see these themes unfold so forcefully on screen for a mainstream audience. While a lot of the cultural references in these films are firmly rooted in the Asian immigrant experience, the elevation of these dynamics aren’t unique to Asian mothers and daughters. Based on the numerous nominations and widespread celebration of them, these films resonate for other moms and daughters, too.
This powerful, foundational relationship is deserving of the creativity and exploration these films showcased so beautifully. May this year’s Oscars be only one crucial step toward more, and still more, nuanced and diverse storytelling about mothers and daughters.