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Chloé Zhao: the film director capturing life on the edge

In this year’s pandemic version of Hollywood’s awards season, star-studded glamour is constrained by Zoom grids. Yet even by these low-key standards, Chloé Zhao’s worn plaid shirt stood out when she won the Bafta trophy for best director last week for Nomadland. It was a typically understated appearance by the 39-year-old Chinese-born director, whose film-making is known for its naturalism.

Zhao is only the second female director to win this Bafta, and the first Asian woman. Her road movie also won best film, the latest in a garland of awards, including best director at the Golden Globes and the Directors Guild of America. Zhao is now a favourite to pick up the Oscar at next weekend’s ceremony. Such affirmation is all the more incredible given her first feature only came out in 2015.

Nomadland chimes with the coronavirus era, which has shuttered cinemas across the world. Zhao’s sweeping shots of wide skies and rugged terrain feed a desire to escape home confines and nurture fantasies of wanderlust. In showing the recessionary aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, her film also reveals the precarious nature of life on the edge.

The movie is drawn from Jessica Bruder’s 2017 investigative book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century. The protagonist, Fern, is played by Frances McDormand (who also produced). A spiky 60-something widow, Fern leaves her home in Empire, a town devastated by the closure of its mining operations, and packs up her van to travel the Midwest. “I’m not homeless, I’m houseless,” she tells a concerned girl she once taught. As a gig worker, Fern is both free to travel and trapped by low wages, living pay cheque to pay cheque, working at an Amazon warehouse, cleaning toilets at a campsite, flipping burgers at a fast-food restaurant.

Fern finds companionship with older nomads whose lives were also wounded by the crisis. These Boomers are very much not OK. Zhao’s focus on an older female protagonist and her contemporaries is quietly revolutionary in a world where “female characters [are] consistently younger than their male counterparts,” says Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University. In her analysis of films last year, Lauzen found males aged 40 and over accounted for 52 per cent of all male characters. For women it was 32 per cent.

The film also features Zhao’s directorial trademark: non-professional actors alongside seasoned stars such as McDormand. Time spent with those outside the Hollywood bubble leads to fresh stories which she then scripts and films. This naturalistic style is also evident in her portrayal of expansive landscapes. Large amounts of her time are spent figuring out the best time of day and weather in which to film.

Sherry Linkon, author of The Half-Life of Deindustrialization, sees Nomadland as a subtle portrayal of the fractured working-class “where people come together in a kind of mutual aid to help each other survive economic struggles”. The film has, however, attracted criticism for its benign portrayal of Amazon, which some feel ignores controversies around how the firm treats its workers.

Zhao was born in Beijing to a father who worked for Shougang Group, a Chinese state-owned steel company, and a hospital-worker mother. After her parents divorced, her father married comic actress Song Dandan.

As a teenager, Zhao boarded at Brighton College in south-east England, and then went to the US to study political science before attending NYU Tisch School of the Arts. There she was taught by Spike Lee and was in the same year as Shaka King, who is also competing for a Best Picture nomination for his film Judas and the Black Messiah. Professor Michael Casale remembers her as “confident in what she was doing — even before she knew what she was doing”. There she also found a collaborator and partner — British cinematographer, Joshua James Richards.

Nomadland is the third in a trio of films from Zhao that bring a fresh perspective to the American Midwest. Her first, Songs My Brother Told Me, was a coming of age story set in South Dakota’s Pine Ridge reservation and released in 2015. Two years later, The Rider, which followed a cowboy figuring out his identity after a head injury, brought her critical acclaim. 

Richard Aquila, author of The Sagebrush Trail: Western Movies and Twentieth-Century America, sees Zhao’s work as part of a tradition of immigrant perspectives. While Westerns are typically viewed as distinctly American, “from the very beginning, non-US film companies and directors have played major roles in the development of Westerns”. This was most notable in the 1960s with revisionist “spaghetti” westerns from non-US directors like Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars and Sergio Corbucci’s Django

Zhao is now working on Eternals, a big-budget Marvel film, due to be released at the end of the year, starring Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek and Brian Tyree Henry. She has cited Taiwanese film director, Ang Lee, who has moved between small-scale American tales of cowboys (Brokeback Mountain) and action (Hulk) as an inspiration.

World-building, she once said, “is my favourite thing . . . I wanted to enter [the Marvel universe] and see what I can do. That’s exciting to me. It’s not that different [from] me going to the world of rodeo cowboys.”

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