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China takes back praise of Nomadland

Nationalists slam director Chloé Zhao for criticizing the communist government

Chloé Zhao (right) with actor Frances McDormand on the set of Nomadland Associated Press/Searchlight Pictures

China takes back praise of <em>Nomadland</em>

Chinese state-run media regaled Chloé Zhao as “the pride of China” for becoming the first Asian woman to win the Golden Globe for best director. But the same media turned on her when they discovered she had spoken critically of her homeland.

Zhao grew up in China but finished high school, attended college, and studied film in the United States. In a 2013 interview with Filmmaker magazine, she said China was a place “where there are lies everywhere.” An Australian entertainment website reported Zhao said in a December interview: “The U.S. is now my country, ultimately.”

Both original interviews are now unavailable, and the Australian site says it misquoted Zhao and she actually said “not my country.” But the correction didn’t stop Chinese censors last week from pouncing, blocking the hashtags #Nomadland and #NomadlandReleaseDate on Weibo, a Chinese social media platform, Variety reported. Other articles related to Nomadland also disappeared from the Chinese web, though some references and related hashtags remain. It is uncertain whether the film will open in China on its original April 23 release date.

Earlier last week, posts on Weibo praised Zhao’s Golden Globe win for the film about a grieving homeless woman traversing the American West in her camper van during the Great Recession. Many observed Zhao never could have made such a realistic movie about China because of its censorship environment. Several Weibo posts highlighted the irony of censoring a film that shows American lower-class hardships, saying watching it should increase Chinese pride.

It wasn’t the Chinese government, but a horde of young Chinese nationalists online, known as “little pinks,” who first denounced Zhao for her remarks. Others quickly joined in, questioning whether her win was really a victory for China: “Congratulate her on the prize, but just don’t promote her in China by sticking the ‘Chinese person’ label on her—it’s revolting!” said a Weibo post.

The outcry shows how many potential minefields American entertainment companies must navigate to reap rewards froshm the profitable Chinese market. Although Nomadland garnered positive reviews in the United States, producers never expected it to gain wide popularity in China. But Zhao’s next film, The Eternals, produced by Disney’s Marvel Studios, is a $200 million superhero blockbuster slated for U.S. release in November. Disney hopes to repeat the financial bonanza of its 2019 Avengers: Endgame, which grossed $614 million in China alone. Big profits for The Eternals may be in doubt if Chinese nationalists let Zhao’s past comments influence their support.

Hollywood must walk on thin ice to ensure its movies get seen in China. The communist government blocked the release of Disney’s Christopher Robin in 2018 because of activists’ past references to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s resemblance to Winnie the Pooh. It banned World War Z in 2013 for depicting zombie wars originating in the country, and it forbade references to prostitution in Macau in the 2012 James Bond movie Skyfall. In 2006’s Mission Impossible III, censors cut a scene showing laundry hanging on a line, believing it reflected badly on China.

Adding to Hollywood’s woes, China’s domestic film industry is thriving. As COVID-19 numbers drop, Chinese film lovers are rushing to theaters to attend more local language productions. And amid U.S.-China political tensions, they are looking for positive portrayals of China. In 2017, a pact requiring China to import a certain number of U.S. films expired, putting additional pressure on Hollywood to figure out what will sell there.

(Editor’s Note: This article has been corrected to reflect the correct spelling of Chloé Zhao’s name.)

Sharon Dierberger

Sharon is a correspondent and reviewer for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute and Northwestern University graduate. She has served as a university teacher, clinical exercise physiologist, homeschooling mom, businesswoman, and Division 1 athlete. She resides in Stillwater, Minn., with her husband, Bill.


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