‘Nomadland’ Director Chloe Zhao Now Needs to Win Over China
Chloe Zhao at the 93rd Annual Academy Awards on April 25. (Photographer: Chris Pizzello/Pool/Getty Images)

‘Nomadland’ Director Chloe Zhao Now Needs to Win Over China

Chloe Zhao just became the first Chinese and Asian woman to win an Oscar for best director. Some movie buffs are now pondering if the prestigious award will help her smooth Beijing’s feathers ruffled by controversial comments she made almost a decade ago.

The screening of her critically acclaimed film “Nomadland,” which was originally scheduled for a theatrical release in China on April 23, is in limbo. The reason for the cold shoulder is attributed to a 2013 interview in which Zhao, 39, is said to have described her home country as “a place where there are lies everywhere.” State-backed Global Times, in a commentary last month, said she needs to face the consequences, but also sounded conciliatory by arguing against a ban.

‘Nomadland’ Director Chloe Zhao Now Needs to Win Over China

At the awards ceremony on Sunday in Los Angeles, Zhao alluded to her Chinese and Confucian roots that kept her “going when things get hard” and for her belief that “people at birth are inherently good.”

“This is for anyone who has the faith and the courage to hold on to the goodness in themselves, and to hold on to the goodness in each other,” she said.

Born in Beijing, Zhao is the biggest name in entertainment to have emerged out of mainland China, after director Zhang Yimou and actresses Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi. Her “Nomadland,” a quintessentially American film about people living in camper vans chasing seasonal jobs from state to state, has already received many other awards including the Golden Globe for best drama film and director, and the Golden Lion for best film at the Venice Film Festival.

Authoritarian System

The top Hollywood honor could soften Beijing’s stance, said Stanley Rosen, a China politics and film specialist at the University of Southern California. The country has tried “so desperately to show that it can nurture creative talent under its authoritarian system,” he said, adding the government also expects Zhao to clarify her remarks. She hasn’t commented on the controversy yet, at least not in public.

The uncertainty surrounding the much-acclaimed film’s screening in the world’s biggest movie market is the latest example of the difficulties businesses face in China. As China clashes with the West, its increasing sensitivity to perceived slights and criticisms is forcing companies to walk a fine line. Those who ran afoul earlier include the National Basketball Association over a deleted tweet on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests, and giants such as Hennes & Mauritz AB and Nike Inc. over reported forced labor in the Xinjiang region.

Critical Market

For Walt Disney Co.’s Searchlight Pictures -- the distributor of “Nomadland” -- China is a critical market to boost the movie’s worldwide ticket sales, estimated by Box Office Mojo at $5.5 million since its January U.S. release. With cinemas fully open and operating unlike many parts of the world, the Asian country’s box-office receipts are set for another record year: ticketing platform Maoyan Entertainment estimated collections of 20.3 billion yuan ($3.1 billion) as of April 26.

Zhao also directed Marvel Studios’ “Eternals,” a big-budget superhero movie expected to be released in the U.S. in November, boosting the stakes of her acceptance in China. These tentpole films that cost hundreds of millions to make “need the Chinese market” where she will be required to actively promote it, said Rosen.

“It’s super unfortunate considering Zhao’s tremendous film making expertise, but her China problem will need fixing before studios consider her for global franchises again,” said Chris Fenton, an American film producer and trustee of the U.S.-Asia Institute.

‘Pride of China’

The buzz around Zhao, whose Chinese name is Zhao Ting, started when she became the first Asian woman to win the Golden Globe for best director at the end of February and shot into the international limelight. She was lauded by state media as “the pride of China,” and her fame spread across the country overnight. Once the old comments surfaced, the accolades soon turned into insults on social media.

“Double-faced American dog Zhao Ting, never come back to China,” a Weibo user who goes by the name “yiyicherry” said on March 10. “We resolutely boycott the movie Eternals. Stay in your American homeland with no lies and never come back.”

China’s censors quickly moved in, with social media platform Weibo temporarily removing some hashtags related to the film including #Nomadland. Douban, a major Chinese film review platform, removed all promotional posters of the movie.

“Such fury and change in attitudes are normal,” Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of Global Times, wrote on March 8. “You reap what you sow, and what happens now is the cost she needs to bear.” He also added the country “should be able to tolerate divergences” and Chinese people should be allowed to make their own judgment on Zhao and her films.

British School

Zhao was born in 1982. Her father was a top executive at one of China’s largest state-owned companies, Shougang Group Co. He later got into property development and equity investment, according to a New York Magazine interview with Zhao in February. Her step mother, Song Dandan, is a famous comic actress in China.

At the age of 14, Zhao went to a boarding school in the U.K. In 2000, she moved to Los Angeles to finish high school before studying political science at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. She then attended film school at New York University, according to the magazine interview.

Her first film, “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” in 2015, is about a Lakota Sioux Native American teenager’s dilemma whether he should leave his younger sister and home for a new life in Los Angeles. The movie was screened the same year at Sundance Film Festival and Cannes Film Festival. Her next feature, “The Rider” in 2017, about the life of a rodeo rider, was acquired by Sony Pictures Classics for distribution from Cannes and made into Barack Obama’s list of favorite movies in 2018.

Claiming Credit

Ticketing platforms Maoyan and Taopiaopiao still don’t show any information on a new release date for “Nomadland.” Disney declined to comment while its China distributor, the National Alliance of Arthouse Cinemas, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

“As in many other areas, there’s a basic contradiction between wanting to claim credit for someone born in Beijing who has succeeded in the West in a creative field and wanting to control the message about how great and successful China is,” said University of Southern California’s Rosen. “I think so long as her ‘crime’ is not extreme or continuing, she should be able to recover in China.”

When authorities last month instructed local media to avoid live telecasts of the Oscars so they could filter out politically charged moments, they likely also had this one in mind: “Do Not Split,” directed by Norwegian journalist Anders Hammer, about the 2019 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

Not Trending

Neither Sunday’s Oscar ceremony nor Zhao’s win was trending on Chinese social media, though there was some buzz among individual Weibo users. “Why can’t the news of Zhao Ting getting best director for Oscars become trending and why haven’t media reported about it?” one asked.

Despite all the negative comments and criticism targeted at Zhao, “Nomadland” -- a movie that has nothing to do with China or any of its political red lines such as Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong or Taiwan -- still has many fans in China eagerly waiting to watch it.

”There’s nothing sadder than to hear Nomadland has been pulled,” a Weibo user under the name NNNatural wrote on April 23. “Kicking up a storm out of it. Why politicize the arts and culture sector? She hasn’t said anything out of line. No freedom of speech.”

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