The hope, of course, is that one day we won’t have to mention the how remarkable it is – for a woman to win Best Director at the Oscars. And that she’s a woman of colour. But that day has yet to come. So it’s history: Chloe Zhao is only the second woman to win Best Director and the first woman of colour. A woman of colour has directed a film that won the Best Picture Oscar. And for two years in a row, an East Asian filmmaker has won both Best Director and Best Picture. Chloe Zhao and Nomadland succeed Bong Joon-ho and Parasite. To see Bong Joon-ho (joined by a familiar face – the incomparable Sharon Choi making her return to award season!) present to Chloe was a sight indeed, and there’s another reason we can add to the list of billions, to be mad at COVID, because it would have been that much sweeter had it been in person.
It was especially powerful, for me personally, to see a Chinese woman speaking in Chinese while winning one of the most high profile awards at the Oscars.
"I have always found goodness in the people I met everywhere I went in the world. So this is for anyone who has the faith and the courage to hold onto the goodness and themselves, and...in each other."— ABC News (@ABC) April 26, 2021
Watch ChloÃ© Zhao's Best Director acceptance speech: https://t.co/sdgeoBK7lX pic.twitter.com/Q7oQYJgjh5
I wonder how many layers there are to Chloe’s speech about goodness, inspired by classic Chinese poetry. Many Chinese consider the lines she quotes to be the heart and soul of Confucius teaching – they are lines familiar to Chinese people everywhere because like Chloe they are taught to us as children. Because the rhythm of the three characters makes it easy to memorise: People at birth, are naturally good. That’s the English translation. As you heard her say though, each word in Chinese is one syllable so it’s even punchier – tap, tap, tap/tap, tap, tap.
Chloe explained that these lines comfort her in hard times, and that may be the case for her in these times. Not that it’s a real struggle, obviously, to be the Oscar frontrunner and celebrated for months on end. But then again, how many Oscar Best Director frontrunners are shunned by their countries? As you may have heard, following her Golden Globe win, there was a lot of excitement in China… until an old magazine quote came up from a decade ago from an interview about her first film, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, a story about an Indigenous teenager. It was a broad conversation, touching on many themes and inspirations. But the quote that has been recontextualised now and made controversial is this one: "It goes back to when I was a teenager in China, being in a place where there are lies everywhere."
And then the censorship kicked in. Nomadland is not supported in China. That’s not to say that Chinese people in China don’t support her. It’s just that you can’t even talk about Nomadland or Chloe on social media in China without your posts getting deleted. Chloe’s monumental win last night is being snubbed by Chinese media. Nobody wants to risk punishment by celebrating her achievement. The Oscars didn’t even air in real time in China. The Chinese woman who accepted her Oscar in part by using a Chinese expression was ignored by her country of birth. And this is all happening at a time when anti-Asian racism has been surging dangerously in the west. So the director of Nomadland is a nomad herself.
But she chose to focus on goodness and on kindness instead. She chose to go back to the Chinese lesson she learned with her Chinese father while reading Chinese poems based on the teachings of the OG Chinese philosopher. In spite of the rejection, Chloe Zhao is modelling the best of her culture. So I hope she went to bed last night, or this morning, knowing that a government’s response is not the people’s response. There are so many Chinese people, including this Chinese person, who see her as an example of the best that we can be.
And we don’t have to wait long for more of Chloe’s best quality work. Because she’s chasing her Oscar with a blockbuster. Chloe, remember, is the director of Marvel’s Eternals, scheduled to open November 5. It’s going to be really, really interesting to see what happens with Eternals and China. Disney is hoping for that box office. But it’s a big question mark whether or not China will allow the movie to screen and whether or not they’ll still be mad at Chloe in six months. Blocking Nomadland from release is one thing – it’s a small film that may not have found a wide audience in China anyway. Eternals is a different story. Chinese audiences LOVED Avengers. Infinity War and Endgame combined for a billion dollars in China alone for Disney. How will Chinese audiences react if they’re cut off from Eternals?