Opinion & Analysis

Chloé Zhao's Oscar Win: Can China Claim Victory?

OPINION: Asian filmmakers made history at this year’s Oscars. 73-year-old Youn Yuh-jung won Best Supporting Actress, and Chinese filmmaker Chloé Zhao took home Best Director and Best Picture for her Nomadland, which also won Best Actress and dozens of other accolades at major international film awards.

Zhao has become the second woman and the first woman of colour who has been crowned Best Director at the Oscars, at a time when resurged anti-Asian sentiment and Sinophobic attacks in the US have caught global attention as the pandemic continues. Zhao herself is also caught up in China’s rising nationalism, whose historic win is censored in China and has received mixed responses.

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Zhao wins both Best Director and Best Picture Oscars this year | Photo: AP

In the post-award interview, Zhao was repeatedly asked about her success in breaking through the ‘glass ceiling’ in the male-dominated and sometimes misogynous film industry (we in New Zealand may remember last year’s Weta Digital saga). Zhao said she’s a fan of Kathryn Bigelow, the first woman who took the accolade over a decade ago, and cited the influence of her parents for her to ‘stay true’ to herself as the inspiration for filmmaking.

For viewers in China, where she is known by her Chinese name Zhao Ting, she is part of the post-1980 generation who were born in China’s Reform and Open-Up under the one-child policy and grew up during the country’s economic miracle and dramatic social change. Zhao has described herself as a rebellious youth who, like many in her generation, has turned to internal self-discovery and soul-searching after the high-socialist collectivism—hence her Oscar speech and interview on the innate ‘truth’ and ‘goodness’ in people that we should uphold.

Chinese audiences also know her stepmother, Song Dandan, an iconic TV star and comedian who has been a household name for over thirty years. Song is openly pro-gay and seen by China’s queer youths as a superstar ‘rainbow mum’, a rare figure in her generation of older Chinese. This echoes Zhao’s remark that she chose a film career after watching Happy Together, an iconic gay movie by Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai, and would re-watch it for inspiration before shooting her own films.

Zhao’s rebellious past, ‘being-honest-about-yourself’ upbringing, personal experience as a migrant to the UK and the US, and inclusive attitude towards minorities have made her the perfect person to make Nomadland a successful film, featuring nomadic Americans on the periphery of society who live in campervans and travel regularly for seasonal work without stable housing and income.

On one level, this is a deeply American story that doesn’t look ‘Chinese’ at all. However, the nomads remind us of China’s large floating population and internal migrants who travel regularly for work, while the underlying issues such as economic slowdown, unaffordable housing, and the exclusion of vulnerable people from social welfare arguably have an impact in China as much as in the US. That said, it’s unimaginable for Zhao to make a similar film in China, as the topic would be deemed sensitive.

But that’s not the reason that Zhao has become controversial in China. When Nomadland earned Best Motion Picture and Best Director at the Golden Globe Awards in February, another historic win for a woman (let alone a woman of colour), Zhao was praised as a hero who had earned pride for China. Soon after, some of her earlier interviews with Western media were discovered and seen as critical of China. Questions were also raised about whether she’s still a Chinese citizen (China doesn’t allow dual citizenship and Zhao moved to the US during her high school years) and whether she and her films could represent China.

This soon became a censored topic on social media, and discussions of her Oscar win were promptly removed. The scheduled release of Nomadland in China also appears in jeopardy. Besides, Chinese filmmakers have been trying since the 2000s to score an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Film category (recently renamed Best International Feature Film) but have long been overshadowed by the Taiwan-born Ang Lee, while Zhao has become the second Chinese-speaking director after Lee to have won the Golden Lion, the Golden Globe, and the Oscar based on a film that cannot represent China.

Zhao’s historic win comes at a troubled time in the escalating superpower competition between China and the US when national pride matters and nationalism surges. Although many Chinese viewers have been calling for keeping an open mind, Zhao’s landmark win has gone sour and divided Chinese audiences. However, what matters is that Nomadland is about ‘shared humanity and shared human experiences’ to bring us together rather than tearing us apart. That, at any rate, is more important than ever in our troubled time to keep close to heart.

- Asia Media Centre