Mulan was the major topic of conversation among Chinese film fans this weekend, after the controversial movie hit cinemas in the country on Friday. Though many have been watching the Disney film’s star rating on Chinese social platform Douban like some people watch the stock market — at time of writing, it’s rebounded from a low of 4.6 to 4.9 out of 10 — another female figure in film has also been garnering significant attention.
Beijing-born director Chloé Zhao — an indie film darling who will helm Marvel’s forthcoming Eternals blockbuster — picked up a Golden Lion for Nomadland at the Venice Film Festival on Saturday night. The Hollywood Reporter is among those tipping it as an “early Oscar contender,” while The Guardian suggests that Academy Award winner Frances McDormand gives what “may be the best [performance] of her career” in the movie.
Inspired by the nonfiction book of the same name by Jessica Bruder, Nomadland follows Fern (McDormand) across the American West as she lives “a life outside of conventional society” out of a van, after the economic collapse of her small hometown in Nevada. As with Zhao’s previous work, the film features non-professional actors — in this case, “real nomads” — whose stories are woven into its plot.
Zhao, who went to school in London and LA before studying filmmaking in New York, won critical acclaim for her first two feature films, 2015’s Songs My Brothers Taught Me and 2017 drama The Rider, both of which were filmed in South Dakota.
Her Venice triumph received a warm reception in China, where the hashtag “Chinese director Zhao Ting [her Chinese name] wins biggest award in Venice” leapt onto microblogging site Weibo’s hottest topics list, attracting over 300 million views by Sunday evening. In its summary of the trending topic, Weibo describes her as “the first Chinese woman to win [a Golden Lion].”
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Some initial comments raised the issue of Zhao’s citizenship, given her films’ focus on stories in the US, where she now lives. A handful of posts attempted to draw parallels with Liu Yifei, the Chinese-born Mulan star who is now an American citizen.
However, there was also pushback against such statements, and most comments under the hashtag are full of praise, with users celebrating Zhao not just as Chinese, but also as someone from the post-’80s generation (Zhao was born in 1982) and as a female filmmaker.
“Regardless of nationality, at this moment, I am happy for her because she is a woman, and I hope that more female directors and female creators can display their talents in the future,” reads one of the most-liked comments on the platform.
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Interestingly, in an interview with IndieWire about Nomadland, Zhao points to her relatives in China as part of the reason for focusing on human stories and universal statements. “I keep thinking about my family back in China — how would they feel about a cowboy in South Dakota, or a woman in her 60s living in America?” she says. “If I make it too specific to any issues, I know it’s going to create a barrier. They’d go, ‘That’s their problem.’”
The director goes on to say that while she “didn’t encounter ‘any kind of racism or bias during the time [she] spent on the road,'” her perspective has changed somewhat in recent months: “Now, during the pandemic — and coming from China — I feel for the first time since I started living in America that I’m not sure I want to hit the road for a while.”
Nomadland is due out in US theaters on December 4.
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