When Sandra Oh took the stage on Sunday to co-host the Golden Globes with Andy Samberg, she acknowledged the sea change in Hollywood that led to her being the first person of Asian descent to host a major U.S. awards show.
“I said yes to the fear of being on this stage tonight,” she said, her voice quivering, “because I wanted to be here to look out into this audience and witness this moment of change.”
Later, she made history again by winning best actress in a television drama for Killing Eve—and became the first woman of Asian descent to win multiple Golden Globe Awards.
In a sense, Oh had been working toward this moment her entire career.
Before she was Cristina Yang, the role on Grey’s Anatomy that made her a bona fide star (and delivered her first Golden Globe), before she was the eponymous MI5 spy in Killing Eve, Oh appeared in several small Canadian productions that focused on Chinese immigrant stories, though she herself is Korean-Canadian.
It reflects her early commitment to screen diversity. Over the years, she has worked with several women of color directors, including Shonda Rhimes, Mina Shum, and Diana Son, and carefully selected projects that she only felt passionate about, which meant sometimes only working a few months out of the year early in her career.
Here are five essential movies that helped shape Oh’s path to stardom.
The Diary of Evelyn Lau (1994)
Oh’s first feature-length film was a biopic based off the real-life story of Evelyn Lau, and to this day, it remains one of her favorite roles.
Lau is a Canadian poet and writer born to Chinese immigrants from Hong Kong. Her parents wanted her to become a doctor, but her interest in the arts clashed with their demands, and she subsequently ran away from home.
For several years, Lau wandered around homeless in Vancouver, sleeping in shelters and on the street, while writing poems and entries in her diary.
Oh’s empathetic portrayal of Lau earned her a nomination from the Gemini Awards, the Emmys of Canada, and a best actress award from Cannes’ multimedia festival.
Double Happiness (1994)
Double Happiness marked the beginning of a long and fruitful partnership between Oh and Chinese-Canadian director Mina Shum. Oh observed in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter that she had worked with Shum on one film in each decade of her life.
Here, a 22-year-old Oh plays Jade Li, an aspiring actress in a traditional Chinese home. Her parents have already disowned her older brother, and she hopes to avoid the same fate while staying true to herself, the so-called “double happiness” in the film’s title.
It was a breakout role for Oh, who won the Genie Award, Canada’s equivalent to the Oscars, for best actress.
Last Night (1998)
A product of Y2K hysteria, when people feared computer glitches would send the world into chaos on the first day of 2000, Last Night envisions what might happen when everything goes haywire.
Oh is part of an ensemble cast that must navigate through a post-apocalyptic world. Relationships are formed out of need for survival—and then quickly fall apart.
The film won awards at the Cannes and Toronto film festivals, and Oh once again earned accolades for her performance, adding another Genie Award to her shelf.
Long Life, Happiness & Prosperity (2002)
In Oh’s second partnership with Shum, she plays a single mother struggling to make ends meet.
But the film’s real star is 12-year-old Valerie Tian, who plays the spirited daughter hoping to find her mother a suitor to improve their financial situation.
Chinese mysticism has a huge role in the film. The daughter, Mindy Ho, tries to use Taoist charms to spark relationships between her mother and different people in their tight-knit immigrant community.
Sideways was arguably a career breakthrough for Oh, who went onto Grey’s Anatomy a year after the film’s release.
The plot follows two men in their 40s on a bachelor’s road trip to Santa Barbara’s wine country.
Oh plays Stephanie, a pourer at a vineyard who enters into an affair with the bachelor, Jack, who’s eager to sleep with another woman before committing to marriage. Let’s just say it doesn’t end well.
The film won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay and had a slew of other nominations, including best picture.
Fun fact: Oh was married to the director, Alexander Payne, at the time of the shooting, but they divorced three years later.
Bonus: Meditation Park (2017)
I mentioned earlier that Oh has worked with Shum three times over the course of her career. The third and most recent project was Meditation Park.
If Double Happiness was about the vicissitudes of Chinese-Canadian youth and Long Life, Happiness & Prosperity showed the struggles of single parents, then Meditation Park captures the golden years of an immigrant’s life.
The main character is Maria, a 60-year-old grandmother played by Cheng Pei-pei, who discovers her husband is cheating on her and strives to create an independent life without him.
She develops bonds with her daughter, Ava, played by Oh, and embarks on shenanigans with other retired women in the Chinese community.
The film is available on Netflix in the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia.