Pride before the fall

Chloe Zhao’s Golden Globe win sparks joy in China – and then derision


Zhao: not the pride of China anymore?

The first woman to win a Golden Globe for directing was Barbra Streisand, who took the award for Yentl in 1984. Only four other women (Sofia Coppola, Jane Campion, Ava DuVernay and Kathryn Bigelow) have been nominated in the best director category and none of them took home the award.

The under-representation of female filmmakers certainly has not gone unnoticed. Actress Natalie Portman quipped “here are the all-male nominees” when she presented the Golden Globes’ award for best director in 2018.

Apparently hoping to remedy the situation, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association – the voting body behind the Golden Globes – nominated three women for the top award this year: Chloe Zhao for Nomadland, Emerald Fennell for Promising Young Woman and Regina King for One Night in Miami. They were up against David Fincher for Mank and Aaron Sorkin for The Trial of the Chicago 7.

In the end, Zhao, 39, won the best director gong – making her the first Asian female filmmaker to receive the prize and only the second woman. Needless to say, the Beijing-born director’s motherland was quick to celebrate her win. The Global Times called the filmmaker “the Pride of China” and other state-run newspapers also declared the victory of the “Chinese director” as a “historic win”.

Actress Zhang Ziyi, too, jumped on the bandwagon: “Congratulations Zhao Ting [her Chinese name]! Looking forward to the Oscars!” (implying she may win the same category at the Academy Awards).

Zhao’s stepmother, Song Dandan, a famous comedic actress, quickly published her own congratulatory message on weibo. “From a 16 year-old girl who left the country to study overseas, choosing a path we were not optimistic about but we still respected. But today, winning the biggest award in the other people’s homefield… You are our legend. I believe your story will inspire countless children in China,” Song wrote.

According to a report by Vogue in 2018, Zhao was sent to “one of those Hogwarts boarding schools” in the UK, despite knowing almost no English. But she “dreamed of living in the US” and she eventually she was enrolled at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, before studying film production at New York University.

However, as Chinese netizens began to dig deeper into Zhao’s previous interviews with media outlets, the jovial mood over her Golden Globe victory began to take a dramatic turn.

Some pointed to a 2013 interview with American magazine Filmmaker in which Zhao described China as “a place where there are lies everywhere”. Others were outraged to find an Australian media interview in which Zhao referred to the US as “now my country”.

The Australian news site later added a note saying that it had misquoted Zhao and that she had actually said “not my country”. But the damage was done. “Don’t be in such a hurry to praise Chloe Zhao,” warned a social media post by the State Cultural Security and Ideology Building Centre. “Look at her real attitude toward China.”

More online vitriol quickly followed. Zhao was called a “traitor” and an “embarrassment to China”. Others also questioned Song’s parenting. “I’d like to know what kind of family would raise Zhao Ting to think that China is a place that is full of lies,” one netizen responded to Song’s weibo post.

Well-known writer Lu Guoping also reckoned that Zhao didn’t want to be associated with China: “Can’t you see, she’s never regarded herself as Chinese at all. But the Chinese media were quick to celebrate, fanning the excitement of netizens. How is this different from putting gold on your own face [a Chinese idiom about self-congratulations]? And besides, Nomadland is a story about the American culture. Can this be any clearer?” he wrote in a post.

Before long, searches in Chinese for Nomadland were being blocked on social media platforms. Promotional material and references to the film’s April 23 release date also vanished overnight, suggesting that it may have been pushed from the schedule or cancelled. That said, most critics doubted that Nomadland would be a blockbuster hit as the arthouse film, which tells the story of an American woman (played by actress Frances McDormand) leaving everything in Nevada to go on the road and explore a life outside of conventional society, is unlikely to appeal to Chinese cinemagoers.

Noting the strong backlash online, Zhao’s camp quickly went into damage control mode, highlighting a recent profile in New York magazine in which she referred to northerners in China as “my own people” and described herself as being “from China”. Disney, the studio behind Zhao’s next film The Eternals, also stressed that she is a Chinese national. The Eternals is a big-budget superhero film from Disney’s Marvel Studios, starring Angelina Jolie and Salma Hayek. It is scheduled to debut in the US in November although its release date in China has not yet been announced.

Tencent Entertainment detects a monetary motive. “[The reason] that the foreign press is working so hard to clear the image of Zhao Ting is probably because her new film The Eternals is going to release in November. The studio can’t resist the temptation of China’s lucrative box office,” the news portal suspected.

Nonetheless, it should be noted that Zhao herself has not released a statement about the controversy.

And at least a few critics also reckon that the furore seems blown out of proportion. “How she [Zhao] perceives China and how she chooses her nationality is her own personal freedom. But winning a foreign award and calling her the pride of China’s film industry is over-hyping her achievement and also, frankly, irrational,” concluded one of the more dispassionate observers.

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