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Chloé Zhao

Best Film and Best Director: Chloé Zhao is the one who picks up two Oscars at once

Chloé Zhao is the big winner of the 2021 Oscars: She has picked up two prizes at the Academy Awards gala with her film Nomadland. The social drama about nomadic laborers in the US wins the Oscar for Best Picture, and Zhao herself is honored for Best Director. In 93 years of Academy Awards, Zhao is only the second woman to win the award for Best Director – and the first to come from China.

Chloé Zhao was born in Beijing in 1982 with the name 赵婷 (Zhào Tíng). Her mother was a trained nurse in the service of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, while her father, Zhao Yuji, profited from the country’s industrialization – first as a top manager at China’s largest steel company Shougang, later in the booming real estate business. However, Zhao’s parents separated early on, and although the young girl barely spoke English at the time, she was sent to boarding school in the UK at the age of 15.

Chloé Zhao is a passionate manga reader. However, her dream of drawing comics herself failed due to her lack of talent. She describes herself as “rebellious and lazy in school”. At 18, Zhao comes to Los Angeles to study political science; in 2010, she moves on to New York, where she learns film production at New York University Tisch School of the Arts. Sometimes she forgets that she is Asian. Yet she describes herself as a typical Northern Chinese: loud, offensive, with big bones.

After initial success with her films Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015) and The Rider (2017), Chloé Zhao has now arrived on the Olympus of the film business with Nomadland. The film was a big winner at the Venice Film Festival and picked up important prizes at the Golden Globes as well as at the British Film Awards Baftas.

While the director is being hailed worldwide, there is a conspicuous silence in her Chinese homeland about the 39-year-old’s historic Oscar win. In view of her successes, Beijing feared Zhao’s possible success in advance: This year’s awards were not even broadcast in China; even the two leading streaming platforms, where the gala evening was usually shown, decided against it. And Hong Kong also decided against broadcasting for the first time in more than 50 years. When the decision became public almost a month ago, the name Chloé Zhao was mentioned behind closed doors. At least in official China, Zhao has been a persona non grata since her success at the Golden Globes.

At first, the Chinese media were celebrating Chloé Zhao. The Global Times newspaper even called her “the pride of China” and referred to the planned cinema release in April. But then internet users came across an interview from 2013 in which Zhao criticized the China of her youth for being a place of pervasive lies. “It felt like you could never find your way out of it. A lot of what I experienced when I was young wasn’t true – and I became quite rebellious of my family and background.” It wasn’t until she was abroad, at a liberal arts college, that she found out what was true, she said. Those words had explosive power – and national pride turned to national official disapproval in no time. China’s cinemas immediately stopped the planned release of her film.

China censors Oscar entries about Chloé Zhao

When users on Weibo (China’s Twitter) celebrated Zhao’s Oscar win on Monday morning, their entries were unceremoniously deleted. The official media, such as Xinhua and CGTV, also ignored the news at first until the Global Times finally got carried away with a poisoned editorial in the course of the day: The social drama was typically American and could in no way be related to the real lives of Chinese people.

To understand these lines, you need to know what Nomadland is about: Based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Jessica Burger, this gentle drama shows a country that can no longer provide for its citizens, or perhaps doesn’t want to. Men and women of retirement age roam the country in RVs. Temporary work and odd jobs keep them afloat financially; the community that the self-declared nomads form provides emotional support. The film is set in the USA – and yet the fate of the millions of Chinese migrant workers who work on the country’s construction sites and thus make China’s economic success possible inevitably comes to mind.

The Global Times wants this comparison at all costs – and adds: Even if the film were shown in China, it would probably not be a success. Instead, the state newspaper hopes that Zhao will finally grow up.

In her Oscar speech, Zhao seemed to allude to these difficulties, saying, “I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to move on when things get complicated.” – And quoted a line from a classic Chinese poem: “People are basically good at birth.”

However, Zhao could also be sending a hidden message to her homeland with these historic lines. After all, the three-character poem in question is recited mainly by Chinese political and business leaders to show their loyalty to China and its traditions. Perhaps official China can rejoice a little over Chloé Zhao’s historic Oscar success after all. Michael Radunski


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