Chloé Zhao: Her Journey from Beijing to the Heart of Hollywood

How did Beijing-born director Chloe Zhao re-invent the Western drama, and where does she go from here?

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7:34 PM HKT, Fri April 23, 2021 6 mins read

Chloé Zhao is one of the strongest frontrunners for a Best Director win at the Oscars this weekend. Even writing such a sentence feels incredible — Zhao is clearly supremely talented, but for someone who is a relative Hollywood outsider to be on course for one of its biggest prizes so early in her career is remarkable.

Yet Zhao has already secured a number of firsts over the past few months: she became the first Asian woman to win the best director at the Golden Globes, the first woman of color to win the BAFTA for best director, and the first Asian woman to be nominated in the same category at the Oscars.

All eyes are now on her and her film Nomadland ahead of the 93rd Academy Awards.

But who is Chloé Zhao?

Here’s all you need to know about the Beijing-born moviemaker — from her family film links and complicated relationship with China, to how she landed a plum Marvel gig with just a couple of low budget features to her name.

Once Upon a Time in the East

While not formally dabbling in the film world until pursuing a graduate film program at NYU (and becoming a student of Spike Lee), Zhao had an interest in cinema from a young age. Her passion for telling the stories of the American west is also rooted in her childhood.

Born and raised in Beijing to a father who worked at a major state-owned steel corporation and a mother who worked in a hospital and had also previously been in a People’s Liberation Army performance troupe, Zhao left China to go to boarding school in the UK at the young age of 14.

She then lived in a small studio in LA’s Koreatown to finish up high school, before moving to the east coast of the US to further her studies — pursuing a political science degree at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, before eventually landing in New York.

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Growing up, Zhao reportedly enjoyed drawing manga comics, writing fan fiction and watching films. Wong Kar-wai’s 1997 romance Happy Together was one of her biggest early influences however. She would rewatch Wong’s film again and again ahead of making her own productions.

As a child, she also frequently visited areas of Inner Mongolia near Beijing, where she got a first taste of the landscape that would eventually become a feature of her films, albeit in a different country.

After living in New York City for a number of years, Zhao wanted to take a break from the hustle and bustle of city life and decided to head to the American heartland. “I was feeling a little restless because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say, partially because it was too noisy around me,” she told USA Today. “I needed a reset and that’s why I first traveled to South Dakota.”

Way Out Midwest

Nomadland, The Rider and Songs My Brothers Taught Me present enlightening and inspiring views of life in the American Midwest, with each of them all or partially filmed in South Dakota.

The sheer, heartbreaking and soothing beauty of America’s heartland are captured unreservedly and tap into the complicated narratives of the films through Zhao’s lens. Against the backdrop of the evolving landscapes — rugged terrain, bucolic mountains and sun-kissed farmland — Zhao’s protagonists embark on soul-searching journeys.

Another predominant style of Zhao’s films is the naturalistic approach she adopts thanks to a preference for local amateur actors as straightforward storytellers, providing a genuine and interesting blend of characters, as well as a blend of fiction and non-fiction. This also enables the audience to catch a rare and disarming look at the landscapes and lives presented in her films, through these non-professional actors who have real experiences and connections to the land.

In order to select the actors that she felt were right for her films, Zhao would live for months in the areas where these stories take place.

The native American drama Songs My Brothers Taught Me is Zhao’s evocative debut feature. Filmed in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in southwestern South Dakota and produced under a limited budget, the film tells an authentic story of a brother-sister relationship.

The film was first screened at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival in the US Dramatic Competition section, and later included in the Directors’ Fortnight section at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival where it gained a nomination for the Caméra d’Or Award for best first feature film. In addition, it was nominated for Best First Feature at the 31st Independent Spirit Awards.

These awards helped Zhao gain initial recognition as a filmmaker and lay the foundation for her later works.

Loosely based on real young rodeo star Brady Jandreau’s story of rediscovering himself following a head injury, Zhao’s second film The Rider is a tale of happiness, loss, struggles and resilience. Zhao met Jandreau at a South Dakota ranch while she was filming Songs My Brothers Taught Me and wanted to make a film about his life.

The Rider was met with critical acclaim and was named as the Best Picture by the National Society of Film Critics. The film also helped bring her to the attention of Frances McDormand, who after watching it decided to pitch Zhao on making a movie adaption of American journalist Jessica Bruder’s 2017 book Nomadland.

The Oscar-nominated film cements a signature style for Zhao, combining both fictional and non-fictional elements. In Nomadland, real-life nomads including Swankie, Linda May and Bob Wells shape the film by offering an authentic perspective, as lead character Fern, played by McDormand, passes through their lives.

Fern leaves her hometown of Empire in Nevada following the death of her husband and the shutdown of the business at the heart of the community amid the 2008 financial crisis, taking off on a journey of self-discovery as she travels the country in her van meeting others who have been sidelined from pursuing the American dream. Given this context, it feels like a film that would easily make it into Chinese cinemas — but that’s turned out not to be the case.

Mountains May Depart

Chloé Zhao may have been away from her parents and home country for a while, but it’s clear she still has deep connections with her family and roots, including her stepmother Song Dandan, a household name in China thanks to her frequent appearances as an actor on the country’s massive annual Spring Festival Gala.

“I want my family back in China, who don’t speak much English or particularly care about what’s happened here [in America], to watch this movie and to be related to these characters,” she told South China Morning Post in regard to Nomadland. “And to do that, I have to focus on human stories that are universal.”

Unfortunately, things haven’t been that straightforward. Nomadland’s scheduled theater release in China was abruptly cancelled, seemingly after she received backlash for previous comments about the country.

Following her historical wins at the Golden Globes, Zhao’s Chinese identity was weaved into her success as part of celebrations across Chinese social media. Labels emphasizing Zhao’s Chineseness — such as “Chinese Director Zhao Ting [her Chinese name]” — were also included on film posters for Nomadland‘s impending Chinese cinema release.


But it didn’t take long for past comments attributed to the director to cause a social media storm. “It goes back to when I was a teenager in China, being in a place where there are lies everywhere,” the director reportedly told Filmmaker Magazine around a decade ago. That comment quickly became the source of controversy on social media in China.

In another incident, a quote on also made the rounds on social media, before the text was corrected with a significant editor’s note: “A version of this article originally published in December incorrectly quoted Ms Zhao as saying America is ‘now’ her country, it has been updated to reflect she said ‘not’ her country.”

As a result, Nomadland’s previously confirmed scheduling was taken down from official channels and a censorship campaign targeting Zhao’s success took place online. Zhao’s Oscars nominations have increasingly been downplayed across social media, while the Academy Awards have been the source of a national broadcasting ban, though this is also likely due to a short film on the Hong Kong protests being listed in the short documentary category.

Eternal Sunshine?

How this controversy plays out remains to be seen. But this — and her established style for slow-burning, down-to-earth storytelling — make her next release all the more intriguing.

Set for cinemas on November 5, Zhao’s follow up to Nomadland is the Marvel Universe flick The Eternals, starring Angelina Jolie, Kit Harrington, Salma Hayek, Kumail Nanjiani, Brian Tyree Henry and Gemma Chan. Zhao reportedly used her experience shooting in remote, natural settings for the Marvel movie, using little green screen or CGI. Yet it’ll likely be quite different tonally to her previous films.

Helming Eternals makes Zhao the first Asian female director of an MCU film, and she reportedly landed the gig after giving a pitch that Marvel Studios’ head honcho Keven Feige told Rolling Stone was the best he’d ever heard.

The movie stars the MCU’s first LGBTQ+ superhero, as well as its first deaf superhero. It’ll be interesting to see what this means for its reception in China, and whether the issues around Nomadland‘s release resurface for this new movie in one of Marvel’s biggest markets.

As a Chinese female director who has spent her career exploring stories in the United States, Zhao’s star is rising in Hollywood, and regardless of how many Academy Awards she comes away with this weekend, she is without doubt a filmmaker with an exciting career ahead of her.

Cover photo: “Oscar® nominee Chloé Zhao and guest arrive on the red carpet of The 93rd Oscars® at Union Station in Los Angeles, CA on Sunday, April 25, 2021” (Matt Petit / A.M.P.A.S.)

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