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From Beijing to Badlands: how indie director Zhao won over Hollywood

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Chloe Zhao (on screen) accepting the Best Director - Motion Picture award for Nomadland via video from Bryce Dallas Howard onstage at the 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards on February 28. AFP

From Beijing to Badlands: how indie director Zhao won over Hollywood

Born in Beijing but long fascinated by the US West, Nomadland director Chloe Zhao has Hollywood in the palm of her hand with a string of prestigious award nominations and a Marvel superhero film on the way.

The 38-year-old indie filmmaker earned four Oscar nods on March 15, including best director and best picture, for her intimate road movie about semi-retired people living off the grid in dilapidated vans.

She is the first woman ever to land four Oscar picks in a year, and the first woman of colour nominated for the Academy’s best director statuette – barely two weeks after she earned a historic Golden Globe for the film.

“Thank you so much to my Academy peers for recognising this film that is very close to my heart,” Zhao said in a statement to US media on March 15.

Set on the spectacular open road of unfamiliar and sparsely populated states like South Dakota and Nebraska, Nomadland is just Zhao’s latest love letter to her adopted US homeland’s wide and wild spaces.

Zhao’s first film Songs My Brothers Taught Me, about a teen dreaming of a life beyond the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, saw her spend months immersed in the remote indigenous South Dakota region.

She stumbled upon images of the Lakota Indian homeland by chance while at film school in New York, and hoped she could “tell a story to make things better”, according to a recent New York Magazine interview.

The film earned festival prizes but Zhao’s breakthrough came two years later with The Rider, another quasi-Western filmed in Pine Ridge and the nearby Badlands National Park, which she would again return to in Nomadland.

Another common theme of Zhao’s movies is casting non-actors to play semi-fictionalised versions of themselves.

The Rider was conceived after a cowboy Zhao met badly injured himself but refused to quit the rodeo – Brady Jandreau, who stars as “Brady Blackburn”.

For the first time in Nomadland Zhao worked with a bona fide acting superstar in Frances McDormand, but still encouraged the double-Oscar winner and producer to draw on her own life to play “Fern”.

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US-Chinese director Chloe Zhao poses during a photocall. The 38-year-old indie filmmaker earned four Oscar nods on Monday. AFP

“If this means that more people . . . see someone who is not living in a traditional home – who is living an alternative lifestyle – and maybe wave and say hi, it will make their day,” Zhao told AFP after her Globes win.

“The recognition that we’re getting – the awareness that is going to bring to the nomadic community – I think is a great thing.”

‘Strong contender’

Born Zhao Ting to a wealthy Chinese steel company executive, the director left China as a teen to attend a British boarding school before finishing her education in Los Angeles and New York.

While Zhao’s success was initially celebrated in her birth country, with state media calling her “the pride of China,” nationalists have pounced on old media interviews in which she appeared to criticise the nation.

In particular, a 2013 interview in which she reportedly called China “a place where there are lies everywhere” appears to have placed the release of Nomadland there in doubt, with some online users calling her a “traitor.”

If the film itself sounds any political tone, it is directed at the cruelties of unfettered capitalism that has failed to provide any safety net for the elderly in the US.

Zhao told New York Magazine that one speech delivered by a real-life nomad during the film is “the most socialist speech I’ve ever heard – and I’m from China”.

She now lives in rural California’s hippie-inflected Ojai with her British cinematographer husband and two dogs.

While Nomadland is distributed by Disney-owned arthouse label Searchlight, Zhao’s next film is of the mega-blockbuster variety more closely associated with Hollywood’s biggest studio.

She directs Eternals, a gigantic ensemble superhero film which is part of the record-grossing Marvel series, starring the likes of Angelina Jolie and Salma Hayek.

In February, it was also announced that Zhao will be directing a futuristic sci-fi Western version of Dracula for rival powerhouse studio Universal.

How Zhao handles the crossover from indie darling to Tinseltown superstar remains to be seen, but for now the focus is on Nomadland and its bid for Oscars glory.

“I think it’s fair to say she has just had an incredible year,” one Academy voter said. “She’s definitely a strong contender.”


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