Ten minutes into Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland an itinerant Amazon packer hoists up her shirt-sleeve to show off her tattoos. Her favourite, she says, is a lyric from Morrissey’s song Home Is a Question Mark: “Home – is it just a word or is it something you carry within you?” This question echoes through the story that follows, as Nomadland trails its band of ageing, displaced RV and van-dwellers across the midwest from one seasonal gig to the next. Quite likely it resonates with the film’s director as well.
“My life has been so transient and fast-moving,” Zhao told the Mexican film-maker Alfonso Cuarón, summing up a path that has led her ever-westward, first from Beijing to a UK boarding school, then from New York via New England to her current base near LA. This weekend, barring a shock upset, the 39-year-old film-maker will make history as the first woman of colour to win the best director Oscar (and only the second woman ever, after Kathryn Bigelow in 2010). Hailed for her soulful, clear-eyed studies of marginalised communities in the US, she’s the vibrant outsider ushered into the fold, living an immigrant dream that is causing political headaches back home.
Chinese state media – in the form of Communist party tabloid the Global Times – was among the first to congratulate Zhao when she triumphed at the Golden Globes in March, dubbing her “the pride of China” in a front page headline. But almost immediately it began back-peddling, stung by the discovery of a 2013 interview in which the director described her birthplace as “a place where there are lies everywhere” and by a recent misquote that initially had her saying: “America is now my country” (actual quote: “America is not my country”). In the run-up to Oscar night, the shutters have come down. Nomadland posters were scrubbed from social media platforms; showtimes removed from the nation’s ticketing sites. The film’s scheduled Chinese release now hangs in the balance.
The sense of betrayal, one suspects, is compounded by Zhao’s elite family background. Her father is a former steel executive and a reputed billionaire (a claim Zhao denies); her stepmother a successful comedy actor and household name. But from 14 she has largely been in flight, a gilded interloper from the east, studying first at a Brighton boarding school (which she likens to Hogwarts), then at Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts, and the Tisch film school in New York. “I’ve always been an outsider,” she has said. “I’m drawn to outsiders.”
Specifically, she is drawn to twilight tales of the American west – of lost pioneers and wounded millennial cowboys. And while Zhao treads her own path, she’s part of a loose subset of female directors who offer a different perspective on what was once a ruggedly male preserve. The past year alone has also seen the release of Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow (about grifters and drifters in the Pacific north-west) and Mona Fastvold’s The World to Come (spotlighting an illicit love affair between two settlers’ wives). Fastvold, perhaps tellingly, is another newcomer to the US: a Norwegian film-maker currently based in New York.
In preparing her first feature – 2015’s Songs My Brothers Taught Me – Zhao spent 17 months with the Lakota Sioux tribe in South Dakota, writing 30 separate drafts of a screenplay until she settled on the story of a teenage bootlegger who dreams of a fresh start in LA. While staying on the reservation, she met Brady Jandreau, a young rodeo star who taught her how to ride. Jandreau, facing an uncertain future after a crippling head injury, would later become the subject of her 2017 film, The Rider.
Zhao cites the films of Terrence Malick and Wong Kar-Wai as influences and there are glimmers of both in her poetic framing and gossamer plots. But she combines these elements with an anthropological rigour, the research of lived experience and a preference for non-professional actors playing versions of themselves. While Nomadland throws the Oscar-winning actor Frances McDormand amid its cast of van-dwellers, it remains at heart a poignant, embedded account of the country’s zero-hours underclass, forced on to the road by stagnant wages and spiralling housing costs. In previous years, Nomadland might have been too modest and downbeat to connect with Academy voters. But in this upside-down Oscar season, Zhao’s the woman to beat.
“She’s a Chinese director who’s made a profoundly American movie about a difficult subject,” says Justin Chang, a film critic at the LA Times and an early champion of Zhao’s work. “Perhaps that in itself is no great shocker, because the Academy is looking abroad more and more and there’s an openness to films that are smaller and more hand-crafted, like Moonlight or Parasite. But the deeper resonance is that Nomadland feels like a Covid-19 movie. It’s about isolation and about learning to overhaul your life. That’s the sort of story we can all find a place in, because we’ve all had to do it. We’re all having to find new communities and new ways of living. There’s something about this movie’s understanding of loss that especially resonates this year.”
While Chang refers to Zhao as a Chinese director, he worries whether the term is reductive. “My sense is that she doesn’t care for labels. I don’t know she’d personally describe herself that way. At the same time, she’s never described herself as American, either. She prefers to exist in a space where she is not categorised in terms of nationality, race or culture. She knows what it’s like to be adrift in America, adrift in the world, and that obviously serves Nomadland, which is an outsider’s perspective on an outsider’s subculture.”
Hollywood, as the cliche would have it, was a town built in the desert by immigrant stock; an industry sustained and replenished by new blood from abroad. All of which makes Zhao part of a long-running tradition, the natural descendant of Chaplin, Wilder and Hitchcock. Like her illustrious forebears, she has been accepted and feted, garlanded with awards. Hollywood is now home, assuming she wants to stay put.
Tellingly, the next film brings her out of the margins and into the mainstream. Zhao recently completed work on Eternals, a Marvel comic blockbuster about an immortal race of superheroes, starring Salma Hayek and Angelina Jolie. This, undeniably, is a far cry from the itinerant labourers of Nomadland, a whiplashing change of course for a director drawn to small human stories from America’s dusty corners. But it may also be the logical next step for a film-maker who has forged a career out of treading into unfamiliar terrain. “What’s interesting to me is the quest for something grander,” she says. “The mystery of the unknown, whether that’s God or spirits or aliens or whatever. I’m interested in what lies beyond the horizon.”