Chloé Zhao and China: The Nomadland Moment

Gina Marchetti

OSCAR SPECIAL. With the unprecedented success of Chloé Zhao and Nomadland at this week’s Oscars, Film Quarterly here offers a special Quorum edition: Gina Marchetti applies her expertise in Chinese cinema to decipher the influences lurking just under the surface of a film that may just be more Chinese than anyone realizes. In honor of the three Oscars that it won, Nomadland here gets three times the usual Quorum length.—B. Ruby Rich and Girish Shambu, editors of Film Quarterly and Quorum

The story of Su Min, an unhappily married former factory worker from Henan, who became an Internet sensation when she started posting videos of her solo road trip across the People’s Republic of China in a van, may seem like an unlikely way to open a conversation about Chloé Zhao’s US-set film, Nomadland (2020). However, there are similarities between Su Min and many of the women on the road in Zhao’s film that point to a way of looking at Nomadland that takes it outside of the American West. This perspective underscores its connections to a China which, visually and physically absent in the film, nevertheless structures its production, distribution, exhibition, and, arguably, much of its international critical acclaim.

As single, working-class women living frugally in order to have the freedom to live outside the confines of the traditional, patriarchal,  heterosexual family, either nuclear or multigenerational, Fern (Frances McDormand) and Su Min share common ground across continents. For Zhao, her film speaks beyond politics to a universal humanism that is prized by many in the film industry and can resonate with viewers in China:

I tried to focus on the human experience and things that I feel go beyond political statements to be more universal — the loss of a loved one, searching for home…I keep thinking about my family back in China — how would they feel about a cowboy in South Dakota, or a woman in her 60s living in America?…If I make it too specific to any issues, I know it’s going to create a barrier. They’d go, ‘That’s their problem.’

Although unstated, like so much that is absent in the film, Zhao may also be thinking about whether the film will get an official release in China, or not. 

It troubles many US-based critics that so many burning socio-political problems—US race relations, labor activism, abysmal working conditions in Amazon warehouses, the precariousness of casual employment, migrant labor, the border, the inadequacy of the health care system, industrial decline and decay—remain largely undeveloped in Nomadland. If the process of ridding movies of any politically sensitive content in China has been mastered by filmmakers there, and arguably has made their films better able to travel as “universal” testimonies to our shared humanity, then perhaps Zhao has been well equipped to make films about America for audiences who may not be American.

Nomadland had its premiere at the Venice Film Festival and made history by sweeping international awards from Toronto to BAFTA, including the Golden Globe Awards. Yet Chloé Zhao frustrates people who have different expectations for a film based on Jessica Bruder’s account of the van-dweller subculture in her book of the same name. Bruder took to the road as a journalist in order to document the growth of a nomadic subculture of older folks, mostly women, living in vans and working as casual laborers, displaced by the economic collapse of 2008 and living on the edges of an increasingly hostile economy.

Chloé Zhao’s father is an industrialist who made his fortune in the Chinese steel industry. Zhao grew up in privilege in China’s post-Mao economy and was largely educated in the UK and the US, but her ties to PRC culture cannot be denied. (See here for more on why well-to-do Chinese parents send their children to boarding schools overseas.) Zhao’s mother performed in a People’s Liberation Army troupe (as did Xi Jinping’s wife, Peng Liyuan) and her stepmother, Song Dandan, is a very popular comedienne. Zhao herself has a degree in political science from Mount Holyoke and went to film school at NYU. She may claim to be “turned off by politics,” but most certainly is aware of the ways in which the film medium communicates ideologically. 

The back-and-forth in the Chinese media sheds some light on Zhao as a filmmaker, and her need to keep an eye on China, America, and the world market as she advances her career. She has been praised for making films that reveal “the crisis of America’s lower-class citizens and the difficult lives of its people…[which] should strengthen our pride in socialism and our self-confidence in the Chinese way.” However, her off-the-cuff comments on Chinese “lies” and the nature of her identity as “Chinese” (or not) have met with considerable opprobrium from mainland Chinese netizens. Although politics dog her in both the US and the PRC, she studiously avoids direct political references in her films, benefits from powerful connections to the Chinese establishment, and navigates the treacherous currents onscreen and off in ways that link her to the history of filmmaking between China and the West.

The Politics of the “West” on Chinese (American) Screens

Frances McDormand approached Zhao to direct a film adapted from Bruder’s nonfiction bestseller based on the strength of seeing her earlier film, The Rider (2017). Set at the Oglala Lakota Sioux Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, The Rider and her earlier Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015) featured local people playing versions of themselves. Given the long history of the Chinese in America—the Gold Rush, the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, the growing importance of laborers from Asia after the end of the Civil War, the racist backlash of the Page Act of 1875 (eliminating immigration of Chinese women) and the 1882 Exclusion Act that stopped most entry from China—filmmakers as diverse as King Hu (the unproduced Battle of Ono) and Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain, 2005) have been attracted to the American West. 

Brady Jandreau as Brady Blackburn in “The Rider”

Zhao may follow Ang Lee (another NYU alum) in this tradition but she may have his martial arts epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) more in mind when she says, “In our culture, [there is] the idea of the journey to the west, to go to the horizon: get on a horse and just go.” That journey lies at the core of China’s classic novel Journey to the West in search of Buddhist scriptures in India, but, now inevitably conjures up associations with such ethnic minority groups as the Uighurs.     

In interviews, Zhao talks about similarities she sees between the Sioux of the Dakotas and the inhabitants of the steppes of Inner Mongolia in the People’s Republic. Growing up in Beijing with winds sweeping in from the Gobi Desert, the steppes felt near. However, in the imaginations of Chinese filmmakers, Inner Mongolia provides the locations for stories about the harsh conditions of the grasslands and the exoticism of inhabitants who trace their ancestry back to the empire of Genghis Khan.  During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), urban youth from cities such as Beijing were “sent down” to remote areas such as Inner Mongolia to “learn from” the people. 

When the Beijing Film Academy produced China’s Fifth Generation of filmmakers in the post-Mao era, many graduates drew on their experiences in the countryside for their debut features. Tian Zhuangzhuang’s On the Hunting Ground (1985), set in Inner Mongolia, stands out for its observational style and immersion in the local culture.  Although set in Tibet rather than Inner Mongolia, Joan Chen’s Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl (1998), based on a short story and with a screenplay by Yan Geling, resonates with these other films set among the herders, hunters, and horse cultures of China’s West. In this case, told from a young woman’s perspective, the harsh environmental conditions of the grasslands parallel the incessant sexual harassment and rape suffered by the story’s protagonist.

Li Xiaolu in “Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl”

With this cinematic legacy of desert, plains, horses, and hardship in mind, Chloé Zhao’s decision to send herself down to the Dakotas to immerse herself in Native American culture connects what she can say in American film with what cannot be said about minorities and poverty in Chinese cinema. (Joan Chen’s film still cannot be screened in the PRC.) The observational style perfected by filmmakers such as Tian Zhuangzhuang, the striking cinematography of the Chinese countryside associated with filmmakers such as Zhang Yimou, and the ability to balance controversial subject matter with narrative precision in films such as Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine (1993) are elements of the Fifth Generation’s legacy that can all be felt in Nomadland.  

Nomadland and Jia Zhangke’s 24 City

While Zhao’s first two features have much in common with films about China’s ethnic minorities, Nomadland arguably has more in common with the work of post-1989 directors, the so-called Sixth Generation, such as Jia Zhangke. Indeed, like Nomadland, Jia’s 24 City (2008) blends fiction and documentary with people playing versions of themselves as they interact with established actors such as Joan Chen.

In “24 City” Joan Chen plays a working-class character displaced from her factory job to the service sector as a hairdresser

Nomadland begins and ends in an actual place, Empire, Nevada, an abandoned company town where the fictional character played by Frances McDormand, Fern, lost her subsidized home and her livelihood when the US Gypsum Corporation pulled out in 2011. Jia’s 24 City, set in the Western city of Chengdu in Sichuan, traces the impact of the closure of an actual factory on its displaced workers who lose their homes and their livelihoods when the state-owned plant gives way to a real estate development called “24 City.” Both films deal with similar themes of deindustrialization, displacement, neoliberal privatization, the erosion of government services, generational divides, the consequences of consumerism, the denigration of the value of labor and respect for the working class, and the emotional toll this takes on families—particularly on women. Fern walking through the abandoned town of Empire and through the ruins of her home in Nomadland shares the visceral feeling of loss and abandonment experienced by the workers in the vacated factory at the center of 24 City.

The abandoned factory town of Empire, Nevada in “Nomadland”

Geopolitically, Nomadland and 24 City function as two sides of the same neoliberal coin. Under Deng Xiaoping, the move from state-owned and operated factories to private holdings of capital and real estate coupled with an opening to outside investment made China the “world’s factory.” The workers in Amazon’s CamperForce, displaced by the closure of factories in the US, are cogs in the same economic mechanism that transformed the lives of the people in Sichuan. The workforces on both sides of the world suffer from the substitution of skilled labor by lower-paying jobs, gentrification, and the pressures that follow. The older workers in China and the US express considerable pride in their work history and in their personal stories of overcoming hardships in order to make a contribution to the building of prosperity in their respective nations. However, the new economy of flexible, just-in-time production and rapid consumption has left them behind.

The factory in “24 City”

Neither film makes any direct statement about state policy, politics, globalization, or labor rights. However, the winners and (mainly) losers of neoliberalism populate the screen. Beneath the sanguine optimism of a young woman working as a buyer in the retail sector who concludes 24 City on a hopeful note, the history of China’s ambivalent relations between its proletariat and the Communist Party puts the promises of the new economy in perspective. The young woman’s dream is to purchase an apartment for her displaced working-class parents in the new residential development built on the site of their former factory. 

Passed by the state censors, Jia had mastered a formula for blending the actual and the virtual, the observational with the conversational, the aesthetic with the accessible, and the critical with the sentimental in a way that allowed 24 City to travel to European film festivals such as Cannes as well as movie theatres in China. Chloé Zhao takes up a similarly indirect style that observes without directly condemning, fictionalizes with a ring of authenticity, mesmerizes with graceful camerawork, draws on sentiment without being saccharine, and manages, above all else, to travel without being stopped by government censors, financiers nervous about box office, or programmers concerned about the aesthetic quality of the work.

Zhao and Jia at the Venice Film Festival

When Zhao made history with her win as an ethnic Chinese woman at Venice, she was not breaking any new ground for Chinese filmmakers. Taiwan’s Hou Hsiao-hsien took the top award there in 1989 with A City of Sadness, and Ang Lee received the honor for Brokeback Mountain (2005) and Lust, Caution (2007). Along with Zhang Yimou’s win for The Tale of Qiu Ju (1992) and Not One Less (1999), mainland Chinese director Jia captured the prestigious Golden Lion with his feature Still Life in 2006 after showing Platform (2000) and The World (2004) at the festival earlier. (Even though the festival has been criticized for the dearth of films by women in competition, several women filmmakers have won the Golden Lion over the years including Mira Nair for Monsoon Wedding in 2001.)

Marco Mueller took the helm at Venice in 2004 as an established champion of Chinese-language cinema who had helped inaugurate interest in film from the People’s Republic of China in the 1980s, even serving as Venice’s consultant on East Asian films in 1980-1995. With a doctorate in Chinese, Mueller brought the first major European retrospective of Chinese film classics to Turin through the “Electric Shadows” initiative in 1982. He also opened doors for mainland Chinese filmmakers in Pesaro, Rotterdam, and Locarno, before serving as Venice’s director for a record-breaking seven years (2004-11). Mueller left behind a legacy that continues his commitment to East Asian cinema, and he went on to set up a film festival in Pingyao with Jia Zhangke in 2017, which they recently left. 

Started under Mussolini in 1932, the Venice Film Festival moved away from its fascist roots by nurturing Italian neorealism after the end of WWII, showcasing neorealist directors who perfected location shooting, use of non-actors, long shots, long takes, and soundtracks peppered with Italian dialects, English, and lavish scores. Jia and Zhao have both had their films linked to Italian neorealism, a style long championed by the festival in which they have been given premieres and which Lúcia Nagib has identified as the new global standard.

While observational realism allows Zhao and Jia to take a good look at the terrible conditions and actual environments in which they place their fictional narratives and non-fiction subjects without any direct commentary on underlying socio-political structures, in this case, the hybrid realist aesthetic provides Nomadland with a stylistic gravitas as well as an eclecticism that gives it a fresh currency. Making a film in conversation with Italian neorealism, Fifth Generation lavish location cinematography, Sixth Generation observational aesthetics, and the power of a serious star, Frances McDormand, made Nomadland an ideal choice for Venice.

Venice’s interest in Zhao’s film likely goes beyond any commitment to updating Italian neorealism through a Chinese lens, though.  Alberto Barbera, who took over from Mueller in 2011, has faced criticism in the wake of #MeToo for failing to program more films by women. As the story of Harvey Weinstein’s crimes extended beyond American shores, the Venice Film Festival came up in Rowena Chiu’s detailed account of Weinstein’s sexual harassment, attempted rape, and aftermath. In 1998, Chiu had accompanied her employer Weinstein to Venice, where he assaulted her. 

Because the coronavirus pandemic produced a year in which many films were held back from release, 2020 provided Venice with a perfect opportunity to make amends by highlighting women in the industry. Ann Hui made history as the first ethnic Chinese woman to be honored with Venice’s Lifetime Achievement Award, Tilda Swinton also received a career award, and a jury headed by Cate Blanchett gave top honors to Chloé Zhao’s film. The Venice premiere and Golden Lion put Nomadland on the road to other historic wins. 

The Star Power of Older Women

In addition to Joshua James Richards’s stunning camerawork—likened to Terrence Malick but equally reminiscent of Zhang Yimou and Yu Lik-wai in its fluid use of long shots, long takes, handheld shots, ambient lighting, photographic depth, and ability to move from the intimacy of interiors to the expansive drama of the landscape—critical acclaim centers on Zhao’s ability to script and direct non-actors alongside professionals like McDormand. 

Nomadland focuses on Fern as part of a community of women on the road. The strengths of Bruder’s book are clear: Nomadland highlights older, working-class, single, itinerant women seldom seen on screen.  Fern (McDormand) listening to Swankie Wheels (who did not die) or working alongside Linda May (who did get off the road) offers insight into stories about women marginalized by their age, gender, and class. Nomadland emphasizes their tales of loss primarily through the fiction of Fern, who, as a childless widow in good health, takes to the road in her own way. 

Linda May and Fern take a break for an outdoor spa day in “Nomadland”

The fictionalized versions of Swankie, Linda May, and the women who gravitate to Bob Wells’s real-life Rubber Tramp Rendezvous in Quartzsite, Arizona, have their own reasons for being on the road as well. Some of these women have YouTube channels with an Internet presence similar to Su Min’s in China that provides insight into why older women take up this nomadic lifestyle. Some of the whys and wherefores behind these women’s decisions find their way into the film in greatly altered forms; however, Bruder’s book and the women’s own videos tell stories that differ from Zhao’s script.

Zhao makes the choice to have Fern’s sister (Melissa Smith) explain why her sibling lives in a van: that Fern has always been self-reliant, individualistic, and somewhat of a loner, and therefore must be truly happy living solo and unencumbered on the road. Fern does not deny this, but the film gives clues to other explanations.  Fern may prefer not to be part of her sister’s household—likely, living as the poor relation expected to do domestic chores and contribute her meager income to the family coffers. She turns away from conversations about real estate investment and the settled life where older, single, childless, working-class women have little value. Living frugally on the road, enjoying national parks, and finding some relief from the demands of patriarchal domestic life together balance out the drudgery and exploitation of the Amazon warehouse, the beetroot harvest, and latrine duty at public campsites. Fern’s ambivalent relationship with a potential mate Dave played by actor David Strathairn (and his subsequent offer to settle down) indicates a somewhat skeptical attitude toward heterosexual romance that could also be interpreted as unresolved mourning for the loss of her husband. 

The ending of Nomadland has been compared to the concluding elegiac shot of John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) in which John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards walks out into the Western wilderness framed by the closing door of the homestead symbolizing the establishment of civilization in a savage land. Both Fern and Ethan walk out into a vanishing environment, where frontiersmen and unionized industrial laborers face their own inevitable sunsets, but the similarities stop there. Nomadland’s citation of Ford’s film provides a dialectical rejoinder to that concluding image: not a rugged frontier loner like Wayne, Fern/McDormand walks out into a world populated by actual women, whose conversations spotlight the political issues so studiously avoided by the film itself and whose voices have become part of the publicity surrounding the film.

“The Searchers”/”Nomadland” (Image Credit: The Wrap.)

Chloé Zhao joins a sisterhood of independent ethnic Chinese American female filmmakers interested in stories about aging women. Alice Wu cast Joan Chen as Hwei-lang Gao, an older single mother in a new romance, in Saving Face (2004). Biracial Sasie Sealy’s Lucky Grandma (2019) showcases the commanding Tsai Chin in the titular role.  Zhao Shu-zhen lights up the screen in Lulu Wang’s The Farewell (2019). On the other side of the world, Ann Hui, another 2020 Venice winner, has a reputation for films featuring complex older women, including Song of the Exile (1990), Summer Snow (1995), The Postmodern Life of My Aunt (2006), The Way We Are (2008), and A Simple Life (2011), which also had a Venice premiere. These films look at the intersection of race, class, gender, (dis)ability, and generation and provide a platform for an expanded repertoire of stories about women’s experiences told from a female point of view.

Concluding Thoughts on the Present Absence of Politics in Nomadland

Some critics blame Nomadland for not directly addressing race, labor, immigration, or partisan politics on screen. Despite a conscious effort not to be political, Nomadland still invites critical contemplation of these very issues. Without mentioning the Democratic-Republican chasm that divides America, Zhao’s film about older, white, working-class, displaced workers in the precarious gig economy speaks to what Marx and Engels would call “false consciousness,” echoing in every word about individual responsibility, autonomy, flexibility, and self-sufficiency that comes out of the mouths of the people on screen.  

Off-screen, enough reportage about unionization at Amazon (and the recent failed attempt to unionize an Alabama warehouse) exists to allow the scenes inside the warehouse to illustrate why the company prefers seasonal labor forces of retirees with their own accommodation to settled employees paid a wage that could support a family in decent housing with health benefits. The brief scenes at the beetroot processing plant tell a similar story of the profitability of this nomadic source of seasonal labor without spelling out racism at the US border and its impact on agriculture. The van dwellers talk frankly about their economic insecurity, and the film shows the impact of lack of proper healthcare on the homeless.

Zhao’s own presence off-camera as a Beijing-born woman frames this story within the context of neoliberal globalization, deindustrialization, consumerism, transnational trade, and the evisceration of workers’ rights in the United States as well as China. Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s Oscar-winning documentary American Factory (2019) spells this out, but Nomadland is not that film.

Anyone familiar with the case of Sandra Bland understands the reluctance of Black women to be alone on the road in America at all.  Bruder duly notes the whiteness of the subculture in her book and calls out police violence and selective enforcement as a cause. Zhao shows American racial segregation only through absence. Jia Zhangke uses similar techniques in his films, referencing Mongolia through popular songs, weather reports, and mentions of Mongolian cities while studiously avoiding any political questions.

Nomadland circulates outside the United States as something more than an American indie feature about a subculture in the Wild West of the 21st century. Much like Ang Lee, Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro González Iñárritu, and Guillermo del Toro, as an immigrant filmmaker Zhao maintains a conversation with global film aesthetics through what Hamid Naficy has termed an “accented” cinema. Her approach, then, places Nomadland in the company of the Italian neorealists and China’s Fifth and Sixth Generations as well as the contemporary “festival film” that walks a fine line between aesthetic daring and transnational emotional accessibility. 

In the case of contemporary mainland Chinese filmmakers and Hong Kong directors that work in the PRC—such as Derek Tsang, whose Better Days was also nominated for an Academy Award this year—government limitations push them to avoid but not completely eliminate references to controversial issues because of the box office impact. Chinese directors observe rather than comment, a stance which also serves them well in film festivals where there are no details of activism or local politics to interfere with the “universal” dimension of the story. Nomadland illustrates this strategy. Surely Zhao left China and decided to make films in America for a reason, but expecting her to be more direct politically than she would have been had she stayed in China may be asking too much.

Normally, the nominations of films by Chinese directors would be cause for much fanfare in the People’s Republic. (Even though Zhao received some minor criticism for some early remarks, she seems to be out of hot water now.) However, the Academy also decided to nominate a short film, Do Not Split by Anders Hammer, for an award.  This documentary about Hong Kong’s 2019 Anti-ELAB protests has been condemned in the mainland Chinese press. Because of its nomination, the Oscars will not be broadcast in Hong Kong for the first time since 1969.

References to China in Nomadland remain oblique, seen only through the goods distributed via the Amazon warehouse, but these indirect connections do allow viewers to glimpse the consequences of global capitalism on screen. Zhao leaves the rest to her audiences to piece together. The director remains careful for a reason: surely, she hopes to show her films (including Marvel’s The Eternals, currently in production) back in China.  Minority unrest, border politics, land rights, and labor unions are subjects which, even if confined to the American West, may go too far, under current circumstances. Zhao knows the rules but, given China’s reaction to her historic Oscar win, that may no longer be good enough.


Although the views expressed here are entirely my own, I want to thank B. Ruby Rich for pointing out the article on Su Min and for encouraging me to write on Nomadland. Also, I am grateful for the support of Girish Shambu and his generous help in preparing this article. Some of these ideas developed on Facebook in conversation with Ralph Litzinger, Barton Byg, Susan Doll, Tony Williams, Mary Stephen, Earl Jackson, Caren Kaplan, Calvin Hui, Madeline Hsu, and others. Many thanks to all my social media friends and colleagues. 

Gina Marchetti is the author of several books including Romance and the “Yellow Peril”: Race, Sex and Discursive Strategies in Hollywood Fiction (1993) and The Chinese Diaspora on American Screens: Race, Sex, and Cinema (2012). Her current research interests include women filmmakers in the HKSAR (Hong Kong Special Administrative Region), China and world cinema.

Header image credit: Variety.

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