TIn minutes at Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland, an Amazon itinerant packer lifts her shirt sleeve to show off her tattoos. His favorite, he says, is a lyric from the Morrissey song. Home is a question mark: “Home, is it just a word or is it something you carry inside of you?” This question is echoed throughout the story that follows, as Nomadland follows his band of displaced and aging RV and truck residents across the Midwest from one seasonal concert to the next. It is very likely that it resonates with the director of the film as well.
“My life has been so transitory and fast”, Zhao said Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón, summarizing a path that has always led her west, first from Beijing to a boarding school in the UK, then from New York through New England to her current base near Los Angeles. This weekend, barring surprise, the 39-year-old filmmaker will make history as the first woman of color to win the Oscar for best director (and only the second woman in history, after Kathryn Bigelow in 2010). Hailed for her poignant and clear studies of underserved communities in the US, she is the vibrant outsider who enters the fold and lives an immigrant dream that is causing political headaches at home.
Chinese state media, in the form of the communist party tabloid Global Times, were among the first to congratulate Zhao when he triumphed at the Golden Globes in March, doubling it “The pride of China” in a cover headline. But almost immediately he began to back away, upset by the discovery of a 2013 interview in which the director described her birthplace as “a place where there are lies everywhere” and by a recent misquote that initially caused her to say.: “America is now my country” (actual quote: “America is not my country”). In the run-up to Oscar night, the shutters have been lowered. Nomadland posters were removed from social media platforms; Show times removed from the nation’s ticketing sites. The film’s scheduled Chinese premiere is now up for grabs.
The feeling of betrayal, one suspects, is compounded by Zhao’s elite family background. His father is a former steel executive and a reputed billionaire (a claim Zhao denies); her stepmother, a successful comedy actress and a household name. But since the age of 14 she has been largely on the run, a golden intruder from the east, studying first at a Brighton boarding school (which she compares to hogwarts), then at Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts, and the Tisch Film School in New York. “I’ve always been an outsider,” she has said. “Outsiders attract me.”
Specifically, she is drawn to the twilight tales of the American West, of lost pioneers and wounded millennial cowboys. And while Zhao goes her own way, she is part of a subset of female directors who offer a different perspective on what was once a male preserve. In the last year alone, Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow (about scammers and tramps in the Pacific Northwest) and Mona Fastvold’s The World to Come (which highlights an illicit love story between the wives of two settlers) also premiered. Fastvold, perhaps tellingly, is another newcomer to the US: A Norwegian filmmaker currently living in New York.
In preparing his first feature film, 2015’s Songs My Brothers Taught Me, Zhao spent 17 months with the Lakota Sioux tribe in South Dakota, writing 30 separate drafts of a script until he settled on the story of a teenage smuggler dreaming of a fresh start in LA. While on the reservation, he met Brady Jandreau, a young rodeo star who taught him to ride. Jandreau, facing an uncertain future after a crippling head injury, would later become the subject of his 2017 film, The Rider.
Zhao cites the films of Terrence Malick and Wong Kar-Wai as influences and there are glimpses of both in his poetic framing and chiffon plots. But it combines these elements with an anthropological rigor, the search for lived experience and a preference for non-professional actors who interpret versions of themselves. While Nomadland casts Oscar-winning actress Frances McDormand in the midst of its cast of truck dwellers, at its core it remains a poignant and embedded tale of the country’s zero-hour underclass, forced to take to the streets for wages. stagnant and spiraling housing costs. In previous years, Nomadland may have been too modest and pessimistic to connect with Academy voters. But in this reverse Oscar season, Zhao is the woman to beat.
“She is a Chinese director who has made a deeply American film on a difficult subject,” says Justin Chang, chief film critic for the LA Times and an early proponent of Zhao’s work. “Maybe that in itself is not a big surprise, because the Academy is looking abroad more and more and there is an opening towards films that are smaller and more handmade, like Moonlight or Parasite. But the deepest resonance is that Nomadland feels like a Covid-19 movie. It’s about isolation and learning to reform your life. That’s the kind of story where we can all find a place, because we’ve all had to. We all have to find new communities and new ways of life. There is something about the understanding of the loss of this movie that resonates especially this year. “
While Chang refers to Zhao as a Chinese director, he worries if the term is reductive. “My feeling is that she doesn’t care about labels. I don’t know that she would describe herself personally that way. At the same time, she also did not describe herself as American. It prefers to exist in a space where it is not categorized in terms of nationality, race, or culture. She knows what it’s like to be adrift in America, drift in the world, and that obviously serves Nomadland, which is an outsider’s perspective on an outsider’s subculture. “
Hollywood, as the cliché would say, was a city built in the desert by immigrants; an industry sustained and renewed by new blood from abroad. All of which makes Zhao part of a long tradition, the natural descendant of Chaplin, Wilder, and Hitchcock. Like its illustrious ancestors, it has been accepted and celebrated, adorned with awards. Hollywood is home now, assuming you want to stay.
Tellingly, the next movie takes her off the margins and into the mainstream. Zhao recently completed her work on Eternals, a Marvel comic book blockbuster about an immortal race of superheroes, starring Salma Hayek and Angelina Jolie. This, without question, is a far cry from Nomadland’s itinerant workers, a dizzying turnaround for a director drawn by little human stories from the dusty corners of America. But it can also be the logical next step for a filmmaker who has built a career without venturing into unfamiliar terrain. “What interests me is the search for something greater,” he says. “The mystery of the unknown, whether it’s God or spirits or aliens or whatever. I’m interested in what’s beyond the horizon. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism