Following nationalist backlash, Chloé Zhao finds no place in China for her ‘Nomadland’

Society & Culture

The first female Asian director to win a Golden Globe award is being feted in the U.S. but censored in her native China.

chloe zhao
Danny Moloshok / Reuters

A nationalist backlash to Beijing-born filmmaker Chloé Zhao (赵婷 Zhào Tíng), who recently became the first Asian woman to earn the Best Director prize at the Golden Globes, has led to partial censorship of promotional material related to her award-winning film Nomadland on Chinese social media. The movie’s future in the director’s country of birth is on uncertain ground.

Zhao’s historic victory at this year’s Golden Globes, where she took home two major awards, was initially talked about on the Chinese internet and in mainstream media as a “source of pride” for the Chinese people. By the end of March 1, a day after the ceremony, the main Weibo hashtag celebrating her success — “Zhao wins Golden Globe Awards” — had garnered more than 210 million views on the platform, with comments being predominantly positive and congratulatory.

But the elation was short-lived and the sentiment quickly took a negative turn when Chinese online sleuths unearthed two years-old interviews given by Zhao to foreign news publications, in which the director said things that many critics considered as insulting to China. Seemingly overnight, the doubts about where Zhao stood on China evolved into a full-blown backlash, which prompted Chinese censors to remove publicity about Nomadland from social media.

As of today on Weibo, searches in Chinese for the hashtags #Nomadland and #NomadlandReleaseDate resulted in a message saying that the content had been erased “according to relevant laws, regulations and political policies.” Variety noted that a Weibo post by the government-backed National Arthouse Alliance of Cinemas (NAAC) that had featured a poster for Nomadland no longer displayed the image. Meanwhile, a string of WeChat blog accounts revealed that censors asked them to delete older posts related to Nomadland in the wake of the controversy.

While the censorship was nowhere near a comprehensive ban — some Chinese hashtags related to Zhao are still searchable on Weibo and an English version of the film poster is still visible on China’s biggest movie rating website, Douban — the backlash was fierce enough to throw the prospect of Nomadland’s China release into serious doubt. The film was originally slated for a limited theatrical release in China on April 23, but troubling signs emerged last week when Maoyan and Tao Piaopiao, two of China’s key online ticketing platforms, removed its release date from their listings. Sources told Variety the NAAC is “still hoping to proceed with the release under the radar, keeping a low profile with promotion.”

The backlash against Zhao largely stemmed from two quotes in past interviews. The first is from a 2013 interview with New York-based magazine Filmmaker. When explaining her decision to move to London for school at the age of 14 and the origin of her interest in politics and history, Zhao said: “It goes back to when I was a teenager in China, being in a place where there are lies everywhere.” Archived versions of the webpage showed that in mid-February, around the same time that Nomadland’s China opening was announced, the comment was removed and a note added, saying that the article had been “edited and condensed after publication.”

The second quote came from an interview Zhao gave in December to Australian website The interview was originally published with her saying, “the U.S. is now my country,” but the website updated the article on March 3, writing that it misquoted the director and that what she actually said was “the U.S. is not my country.”

Prior to the controversy, Zhao was best known in China as the stepdaughter of Sòng Dāndān 宋丹丹, a sitcom actress who is a household name. Born and raised in Beijing, Zhao left China at age 14 to attend a boarding school in London, and eventually went to New York to study film. Nomadland is her third feature following critically acclaimed art films Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015) and The Rider (2017).

While Nomadland was not expected to have wide viewership in China due to its specifically American subject matter, the backlash against Zhao does have serious implications for her next big feature film, Marvel Studios Eternals, which stars Angelina Jolie and is supposed to hit theaters in November. 

On Chinese social media, public opinions about Zhao are mixed. Drawing conclusions from her perceived critical comments about China, nationalist commentators accused Zhao of “betraying” her home country and being “two-faced” when trying to access China’s movie market. “You are entitled to say what you please. But you can’t act like you are beyond us when you try to make money off us,” a Weibo user wrote (in Chinese).

Their criticism, however, was met with its own backlash. Many internet users and movie lovers  came to Zhao’s defense, arguing that her talents as a director were indisputable, and that people shouldn’t let their judgement of Zhao’s work be clouded by “petty” politics and conflicts of views. “You talked about her citizenship, her comments, her appearance, and her parents. But you had no interest in talking about her movies and the awards she received. It seems like in the eyes of some people, they only see labels, not real human beings,” a supporter of Zhao commented (in Chinese). 

Hú Xījìn 胡锡进, the high-profile editor of nationalistic state-run tabloid Global Times, said that while he thought the public outrage was to some degree justified, cancelling Nomadland’s Chinese release would be an overreaction to the controversy and unfair to Zhao. “You reap what you sow. The ongoing backlash against Zhao is the price she has to pay for what she said. However, I don’t think it’s necessary to withdraw the film from theaters. To keep China open means to be able to accommodate some conflicts and inconsistencies,” Hu wrote in a Weibo post (in Chinese) on March 8. “Chinese audiences will make their own judgements and decide how they feel about Zhao and her movies. The market will put an end to the issue.”