Chloe Zhao: Asia’s reason for ‘happy tears’ | Sunday Observer
Golden Globe 2021: First Asian woman to win Best Director award

Chloe Zhao: Asia’s reason for ‘happy tears’

7 March, 2021

It is indeed a ‘moment of happy tears’ for Asians around the world as Chloe Zhao made history at the Golden Globe 2021 Awards, becoming the first Asian woman to ever win the prize for Best Director early this week.

Many praised her online for being a “huge inspiration for young Asian girls”, adding that it was a “win for women everywhere”. Chloe is the director of the feature film ‘The Nomadland’, her third feature film. Zhao is only the second woman in the world to win the award. The first was Barbra Streisand in 1984.

This year also marks the first time more than one woman has ever been shortlisted for the title of Best Director. Regina King and Emerald Fennell were also in the running.

Born and bred in Beijing, China, to a middle-class family, it’s been a long road for Zhao, 38, who worked on two films more or less concurrently for the better part of two years, starting in the fall of 2018. Chloe grew up drawn to influences from Western pop culture at the New York University Tisch School of the Arts, where she got the opportunity to study film production after acquiring a bachelor’s degree in political science at Mount Holyoke College.

Debut film

Chloe is known for her work in independent US films and she stepped into the realm of filmmaking with her debut feature film ‘Songs My Brothers Taught Me’ in 2015. The film depicts the relationship between a Lokota Sioux brother and young sister and it was filmed on location at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

She was able to premiere her debut at the Sundance Film Festival. Her film was able to claim and earn a nomination for the Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature at the festival and later the film was screened at the Cannes Film Festival as part of the Director’s Fortnight section.

Being an aspiring filmmaker, Chloe’s second feature film ‘The Rider’, a contemporary western drama which follows a young cowboy’s journey to discover himself after a near-fatal accident ends his professional riding career, was critically praised and received nominations for the Independent Spirit Award for Best Film and Best Director in 2017 at the Sundance Film Festival.

Similar to her first feature, ‘Songs My Brothers Taught Me’, Chloe used a cast of non-actors who lived on the ranch where the film was shot.

Before her recent achievement at the Golden Globe Awards 2021, Chloe garnered success with her internationally acclaimed third feature film ‘Nomadland’ in 2020 including the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival.

The theme of Nomadland, created waves in the film industry because of its highly political and timely topic. The international media reported that the movie was a stirring portrait of an American underclass of older, itinerant workers who live out of vans and chase after seasonal jobs to survive. With its breathtaking views of the American West and nuanced depictions of men and women left behind by the global economy (Chloe being a non-actor driven director), all of them real-life nomads besides Frances McDormand and David Strathairn — the film is a uniquely poignant diagnosis of, and an antidote to, the current cultural moment.

Desperate for connection

“It’s a vitamin shot,” McDormand once told the international media of the movie. “This period of time has cracked open people’s empathic natures, because everyone needs society so badly, we’re so desperate for connection. People who’ve seen it (tell me) it’s been cathartic. It’s taken them outside of their tiny selves, and made them wonder what the whole world’s doing.”

Speaking about her aspiration behind filmmaking to a foreign press she said, “I have my own political opinions — strong opinions. But as a storyteller, it’s not really my place to convince other people about my opinions. I would do that over the dinner table. But when I become interested in a world and the people in it, I’m more interested in creating an experience as authentic and truthful to that character as possible.”

Explaining her process of developing the script of ‘Nomadland’, over four months, Zhao cast and scripted on the move as they travelled in their own vans through South Dakota, Nebraska, Arizona, Nevada, and California, layering the film with the stories of those they met.

McDormand worked side by side with her nomadic counterparts, packing boxes at an Amazon warehouse, harvesting beet for sugar processing, cleaning toilets at a desert campground. There is no pity or manipulation in their portrayal. As McDormand puts it to the foreign media, “She draws a razor-sharp line between sentiment and sentimentality.”

“We all go through our own personal apocalypse at some point,” Chleo says of the film’s subjects. “We’re forced to fight and sometimes to redefine ourselves, because everything that defines who we are is gone. The ability for perseverance, to find a new life and a sense of self — that, to me, is the human spirit.”