If you find yourself the subject of a nationwide internet backlash, the most natural reaction might be to lie low for a while. But Chinese filmmaker Chloé Zhao probably doesn’t have that option.
When Zhao won the best director award at the Golden Globes on Feb. 28 — a first for an Asian woman — the moment was as widely celebrated in China as it was in the U.S., with Chinese news outlets and social media users rallying around her success as a source of national pride. Within a day, however, the mood dramatically darkened. Internet sleuths unearthed old interviews in which Zhao appeared critical of her country, and before long, debate and vitriol over her “attitude towards China” was spreading just as fast as the adulation had. Beijing’s internet censors were next to enter the fray, blocking most publicity for Nomadland on social media and deleting many references to the film’s April 23 China release date.
Weighing Beijing’s response so far, Chinese industry insiders tell The Hollywood Reporter that regulators seem to be waiting and watching before making a final judgment on the fate of Zhao’s movie in China. “It will depend on how she and her allies manage the crisis,” says an executive at a prominent studio in Beijing (who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the situation). Being forced to publicly address personal aspects of identity — under the harsh glare of nationalist geopolitics — is a deeply unenviable predicament; but if you ask veteran Chinese film professionals, long schooled in negotiating political risk, they will tell you she has little choice. “She will probably have to say something to reassure the Chinese audience,” the exec adds.
A source close to China’s National Arthouse Alliance of Cinemas, which is handling the theatrical release of Nomadland, says the organization is still hoping to go forward with the release date.
Speaking through a publicist, Zhao declined to comment for this story.
Of the two statements that caused offense in China, one appears easier to smooth over than the other. In a December 2020 interview with Australian news site news.com.au, Zhao was quoted as saying “the U.S. is now my country,” which some Chinese readers angrily interpreted as her saying she had turned her back on China. The situation was further muddled by the U.S. media, which widely referred to her as “Asian American” in coverage of her Globes victory. Zhao’s publicist then began quietly reaching out to press outlets, requesting that she be referred to as a Chinese director (The New York Times issued a typical correction: “An earlier version of this article mischaracterized Chloé Zhao as Asian-American. She is Chinese.”)
The Australian site also has since published a correction, saying it misquoted Zhao, and that she had actually referred to the U.S. as “not my country.” Many appear willing to give her the benefit of the doubt on that point, particularly since the revised statement would better fit her other comments throughout the article, which is all about the creative advantages of her outside perspective on U.S. social issues as a storyteller.
But the second quote that’s caused Zhao trouble in China could be thornier, even though it appeared nearly a decade ago in the small New York quarterly, Filmmaker Magazine. Discussing what drew her into her debut feature, about a Native American teen struggling to find his way on a reservation, Zhao said, “It goes back to when I was a teenager in China, being in a place where there are lies everywhere.” Teenage angst and authority-questioning might be a universal experience from Northern China to North Dakota Indian reservations, but “a place where there are lies everywhere” is an almost perfectly corrosive soundbite to have floating around in an authoritarian state bent on shaping and controlling all national narratives.
Prior to the backlash, Zhao had very little public profile in China, even though her parents occupy a rarified rung of Chinese society. Her father is the former head of a Chinese state-owned steel company and her stepmother is Song Dandan, a beloved TV sitcom actress. Born in Beijing, Zhao left China at the age of 14 to attend boarding school in London, later moving to California to finish high school and on to film studies at New York University. Her first two features, the art films Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015) and The Rider (2017), were acclaimed on the festival circuit but made no mark in China. Now, however, Zhao is rapidly becoming a big star in her own right in her home country — having arrived there via the original and enormously impressive route of first achieving A-list creative success in Hollywood (“You are the legend of our family,” Song posted on Weibo after her stepdaughter’s Globes win).
As her star continues to climb, so will the scrutiny in China. Zhao is widely considered the frontrunner in the best director category at the Oscars, which are closely followed by film lovers in China. As awards season enters high gear over the coming weeks, media appearances will be a required constant. If she becomes the first Chinese citizen to win an Oscar, she will instantly be a household name in China just like her stepmother.
Then comes The Eternals, her Marvel tentpole for Disney starring Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek and Kumail Nanjiani, which has been set for a U.S. release on Nov. 5 but awaits its China date. Commercial expectations for Nomadland in China were always quite limited, owing to the film’s slow pacing and culturally remote themes. But Marvel is Hollywood’s most successful franchise in the Middle Kingdom, and the stakes are higher than ever for The Eternals now that China has usurped North America as the world’s largest theatrical market (not to mention the still-uncertain post-pandemic outlook for U.S. cinemas). As a director, Zhao will naturally be expected to help market the movie in China — and what once had probably seemed to Disney like an advantageously heartwarming return tour now risks becoming a gauntlet.
By the time of Zhao’s backlash, explosive and unpredictable nationalist outrage had already become a recurring phenomenon to China market watchers — particularly since U.S.-China relations began deteriorating several years ago. The same internet-driven patriotic outrage was behind the NBA’s moment of crisis in China after former Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey tweeted support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement in 2019. And a similar force was at work in the scandal that engulfed last year’s big-budget video game adaptation Monster Hunter, which was pulled from Chinese cinemas just one day into release after an ambiguous but unfunny joke was deemed overtly racist, causing a wave of online furor. Disney’s China-set tentpole Mulan, which bombed in China, suffered its own internet-fueled scandals, although most of the political blowback erupted outside of China (Chinese netizens’ complaints about Mulan tended to center on issues of cultural inauthenticity, but were no less scathing).
In all of these instances, government censorship and regulatory actions trailed the explosion of outrage on social media, rather than the other way around. In the Monster Hunter case, some online patriots even openly scolded the censors for failing to “catch” the offending dialog. Hollywood’s biggest content-related risk to market access in China used to be the possibility of getting ensnared in Beijing’s censorship process; these days, falling afoul of online nationalists, derisively referred to as “little pinks” by their critics, has become a bigger, and much more unpredictable, concern.
Some worry that the succession of recent political scandals involving China has created a perverse inversion of the studios’ and streamers’ usual logic for courting international markets — that you win a foreign audience by creating locally themed content, made by local talent and stars. The fear is that studio executives will come to see hiring Chinese talent, and telling Chinese-themed stories, as a source of outside risk — in the world’s largest potential market — rather than an intrinsic virtue.
“It’s a very legitimate concern,” says Aynne Kokas, the author of Hollywood Made in China and a nonresident scholar in Chinese media at the Baker Institute of Public Policy at Rice University. “I definitely think that it will make studios think twice — and that’s the last thing you want when they have only just begun to make very modest progress in addressing the structural racism embedded in their businesses.”
In Zhao and Nomadland‘s case, the bitter ironies are particularly acute. China has long coveted the kind of artistic recognition in the West that the Oscars represent, but the Chinese Communist Party also remains hellbent on closely controlling the narrative. Thus, the counter-intuitive predicament of a Chinese-born director whose father has close ties to state-owned enterprise, on the brink of Oscars glory for a film that’s actually implicitly critical of the American social system, not China’s, finding herself at risk of censorship and rebuke.
“There’s a Chinese idiom, ‘Picking up a stone only to drop it on your own feet,’ notes Stanley Rosen, a professor of Chinese studies at USC who specializes in the film industry.
Much like the social media response, which featured both fierce criticism of Zhao and fervent defense of her, the official reaction so far has remained uncharacteristically fuzzy — a partial online blackout of Nomadland and Zhao, rather than a complete expungement. Her admirers in the Chinese film industry are taking comfort in that fact. Asked what might be next for Zhao, a producer in Beijing said: “If people can’t dig up more dirt on her, I think she’ll be OK — her movies will get released.”
Staunch nationalist Hu Xijin, the editor of the influential state-backed tabloid Global Times, recently floated a middle-ground take. “The ongoing backlash against Zhao is the price she has to pay for what she said. But I don’t think it’s necessary to pull the film from theaters. To keep China open means to be able to accommodate some conflicts and inconsistencies,” Hu wrote in a widely shared Weibo post. “Chinese audience members will make their own call and decide how they feel about Zhao and her movies. The market will put an end to it.”
Says Rosen: “As a little more time passes — and especially if she can find a way to explain herself that smooths the waters — I think [the officials] will see that there is much more to gain by riding on her coattails than coming down hard on her.”
“I certainly hope so,” he adds. “Because she makes very creative, nuanced movies, and anything else would be quite a shame.”