Winning director Chloe Zhao makes Oscars history, but honor censored in China

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Updated: April 26, 2021 10:28 AM

Filmmaker Chloe Zhao has scripted history at the 93rd Academy Awards by becoming the first woman of colour and only the second woman in the Oscars' history to win best director trophy.

Chloe ZhaoFilmmaker Chloe Zhao gets best director award at Oscars 2021 (Photo: Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)

Chloe Zhao made history as the first Asian woman and second woman ever to win best director at the Academy Awards, but her big moment was blacked out from live television in her native China. Zhao, 39, cemented her reputation as one of the most acclaimed directors in film with “Nomadland,” the story of financially stretched van dwellers that also won best picture and captured a best actress Oscar for Frances McDormand.

It was the first Oscar for Zhao, who cast real-life nomads alongside McDormand to show the lives of older Americans who travel from job to job trying to scrape together a living. Zhao was also nominated for best film editing and best adapted screenplay but did not win.

“I am extremely lucky to be able to do what I love for a living, and if this means more people get to live their dreams, I’m extremely grateful,” she said backstage afterwards. Zhao was born in China and lived in Beijing until age 14, when she went to boarding school in London and later finished high school in Los Angeles.

But China did not get to see her triumph live on television, as it was not offered. Chinese media regulators also decided in March not to air the Oscars live on its streaming platforms, the Washington Post reported. Zhao has become controversial in her native land, where commentators on social media said she has insulted China in some of her past comments.

Hong Kong TV audiences were also unable to watch in real time because free-to-air broadcaster TVB declined to air the Academy Awards for the first time in more than 50 years. TVB, which has broadcast the Oscars every year since 1969, said it would not carry the ceremony for “commercial reasons.”

The decision not to air the Oscars has raised concerns about dwindling freedoms in Hong Kong, which has taken an authoritarian path since China imposed a sweeping national security law last year in response to the financial hub’s pro-democracy protests of 2019.

In Shanghai, a livestream of the awards show hosted by Zhao’s alma mater New York University ran into China’s Great Firewall, as the organizer’s access to his virtual private network (VPN) service was blocked for nearly two hours. “They cut the VPN,” event organizer Kevin Ke said, adding his WeChat account was shut down after he wrote a post praising Zhao.

But Zhao’s comments upon winning were apolitical and evoked fond memories of her childhood in China, recalling a game she played with her father trying to memorize classic Chinese poems. She recalled one entitled, “Three Character Classic,” in which a character says “people at birth are inherently good,” Zhao said, an apparent reference to her casting non-actors in her films.

“I still truly believe them today,” Zhao said of the letters in the poem. “Even though sometimes they might seem like the opposite is true, but I have always found goodness in the people I met everywhere I went in the world.” Casting everyday people adds a realism to her films, which tell real and somewhat simple stories with an understated feel.

That is why there is great anticipation in Hollywood about her upcoming films including the Marvel Studios big-budget action flick “Eternals,” scheduled for release in November, and a sci-fi Western version of “Dracula.” After attending film school in New York, Zhao won acclaim for independent movies “Songs My Brothers Taught Me,” about the bond between a Native American brother and sister, and “The Rider,” the story of a young cowboy recovering from a serious head injury.

Zhao went into the Oscars ceremony as the front-runner after picking up trophies from the Directors Guild of America, the Golden Globes, BAFTA, and multiple film critic groups.

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