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“Better Days” Gets Surprise Oscar Nomination as Chloé Zhao Makes History with “Nomadland”

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School bullying drama Better Days, which survived some major interference before going on to become one of the biggest films in China in 2019, has made the list of nominations for Best International Feature Film at 2021’s Academy Awards, with Disney’s much-maligned Mulan remake surprisingly getting a nod in two categories.

As expected, Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland — the subject of a nationalist controversy in China — has come away with a number of nominations, including for Best Picture and Best Director. That latter nomination makes history, with Zhao the first Asian woman to officially be in the running for the award. Nomadland‘s star Frances McDormand is also nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role, an award she’s won twice before (for Fargo in 1997 and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri in 2008).

In other China-related Oscar nom news, Over the Moon is nominated in the Best Animated Feature Film category. Unfortunately, Hao Wu’s Wuhan-focused film 76 Days missed out in the documentary category.

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Better Days, starring Jackson Yee and Zhou Dongyu, was submitted to the Academy Awards as Hong Kong’s entry. HK director Derek Kwok-cheung Tsang’s disaffected youth drama was abruptly pulled from competition at 2019’s Berlinale film festival due to “technical reasons,” an issue which seems to afflict a disproportionate number of films from China.

The movie was then forced to postpone its scheduled domestic release in June that year just three days before it was due out. It was then given the same period of notice for a rescheduled release in October 2019, after which it leapt to the top of China’s box office.

Mulan may have been largely derided in China, but the Disney production has still earned two Oscar nominations, for Best Visual Effects and Best Costume Design. We’re going to assume that’s thanks to the bits with Gong Li in.

Gong Li Mulan 2020

Gong Li in Mulan

And Shanghai’s Pearl Studios will likely be, err, over the moon at the announcement of this year’s nominations. They helped co-produce Netflix hit Over the Moon, which is nominated for Best Animated Feature Film.

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Chinese Co-Production “Over the Moon” Becomes Netflix’s Most-Streamed Release

As widely predicted, Nomadland is among the frontrunners for the 2021 Academy Awards, with Beijing-born filmmaker Chloé Zhao securing a historic Best Director nomination as the film battles it out for six statuettes in total. What that means for the movie’s chances of release in China, where a proposed run was seemingly derailed shortly after it was announced, remains to be seen.

On Chinese social media, Better Days‘ nomination appeared to be getting much of the early attention after the Academy’s announcements, though naturally Nomadland‘s six nominations were difficult to ignore, even after hashtags and searches related to the film appeared to be limited on some platforms earlier this month. Although a number of comments referenced the controversy that has hit the film in China, the majority of initial posts on film-related accounts were celebratory, with many tipping Zhao to win Best Director when the awards take place on April 25.

Jake Newby
Jake Newby is a Shanghai-based writer and editor with more than a decade's experience living and working in China. Previously managing editor of RADII and Time Out Shanghai, he's also written for the Associated Press, The Wire, the Financial Times and more.