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Chloé Zhao, director of “ Nomadland ”, meets a backlash in China

When Chloé Zhao won the Golden Globe for Best Director for her film “Nomadland”Last Sunday, becoming the first asian woman to receive this award, the Chinese state news outlets were jubilant. “The pride of China!Read a headline, referring to Ms. Zhao, who was born in Beijing.

But the mood quickly changed. Chinese online detectives unearthed a Interview 2013 with an American movie magazine in which Ms. Zhao criticized her homeland, calling it a place “where there are lies everywhere.” And they focused on another more recent interview with an Australian website in which Ms Zhao, who did much of her education in the United States and now lives there, reportedly said, “The United States is now my country, ultimately. “

The Australian site subsequently added a Note saying that she misquoted Ms. Zhao and actually said “not my country”. But the damage was done.

Chinese nationalists have leapt online. What was his nationality, they wanted to know. Was she Chinese or American? Why should China celebrate its success if it is American?

Even a research center supervised by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences affiliated with the government has weighed in. “Don’t be in such a rush to praise Chloe Zhao,” read a post posted on social media by the academy’s State Cultural Security and Ideology Building Center. “Look at his real attitude towards China.”

On Friday, the censors burst in. Chinese searches for the hashtags “#Nomadland” and “#NomadlandReleaseDate” were suddenly blocked on Weibo, a popular social media platform, and promotional material in Chinese was also missing. References to the film’s scheduled April 23 release in China have been removed from prominent movie websites.

It wasn’t a total blackout. Many stories about the film were still online on Saturday. And so far, there has been no report that the film’s release in China is in danger. (China’s National Alliance of Cinemas Arthouse, which will oversee the theatrical release, did not immediately respond to a request for comment, nor did Searchlight Pictures, the Hollywood studio behind “Nomadland.”)

But online censorship has been the latest reminder of the power of growing nationalist sentiment in China and increasingly complex political minefield that businesses need to navigate there.

For years the central government has been the only major goalkeeper for films in China, determine which foreign films have obtained the official stamp of approval and ultimately gain access to the country’s booming box office. Increasingly, Chinese patriots online can also influence the fate of a movie or business.

In many cases, winning – or at least not offending – these patriots, sometimes referred to in derogatory terms “small rosesHas become another crucial consideration for companies looking to enter the Chinese market.

“There’s a lot more room to hit characters like Chloe Zhao,” said Aynne Kokas, the author of “Hollywood made in china. “

The reaction against “Nomadland” was somewhat unexpected. Aside from Ms. Zhao, the film, which stars Frances mcdormand in a sensitive portrayal of the lives of homeless Americans, has little or no connection to China. Although he is considered a serious Oscar contender, he shouldn’t attract a large Chinese audience, given his limited theatrical release and slow pace.

But the patriotic frenzy could become a big issue for another film directed by Ms. Zhao, “The Eternals,” a big-budget superhero film for Disney’s Marvel Studios starring Angelina Jolie, Kumail Nanjiani and Salma Hayek. It is expected to debut in the United States in November, but the China release date has not been publicly announced.

Experts say that while Ms. Zhao’s track record would likely have been a major selling point for ‘The Eternals’ in China, it could now become an Achilles heel – a potentially devastating blow to the film and to Marvel, which reaped huge rewards in the Chinese market with films like “Avengers: Endgame”.

Such a scenario would be particularly damaging this year, with the pandemic having decimated box offices in almost all major markets except China, where the virus is largely under control and the the national film industry is booming.

“The blocking of references to ‘Nomadland’ underscores China’s new position of power,” Ms. Kokas said, referring to online censorship, which was previously reported by Variety. “As the largest market in the world, there is much less need to market Hollywood studio films.”

Until recently, few people in China had heard of Ms. Zhao, 38.

Born in Beijing, she went to boarding school in London, high school in California, and eventually film school at New York University. Prior to “Nomadland,” Ms. Zhao was recognized for her critically acclaimed art films.Songs my brothers taught I“(2015) and”The horseman“(2017).

In China, however, she was best known as the daughter-in-law of famous comic actress Song Dandan, who in 1997 married the father of Ms. Zhao, a former head of a Chinese state-owned steel company.

Ms. Zhao spoke about what she sees as her changing identity, a product, she said, of years spent traveling the world. She described her Chinese heritage as part of that identity.

In a recent profile in New York magazineMs. Zhao called the people of northern China “my own people” and described herself as “originally from China.” Global Times, a nationalist tabloid supported by the Chinese state, written on twitter on Wednesday that Disney said Ms. Zhao was a Chinese national.

The quote in which Ms. Zhao said there were “lies everywhere” in China first appeared in 2013, in an article in New York-based Filmmaker magazine. He was still in the article as recently as October, according to archived versions of the web page. But by mid-February, the quote had been removed and a added note, saying the article had been “edited and condensed after publication”. The quote is not in the last version of the article, although it appears elsewhere on the magazine’s website.

Filmmaker Magazine did not immediately respond to a request for comment, and neither did Disney. Ms. Zhao could not be reached for comment.

Amid the nationalist outcry, many Chinese have rushed to defend Ms. Zhao and despise the “little roses” for being too sensitive. “Nomadland” was a beautiful film, many said, a film that transcended the ugliness of politics and national borders.

Nothing like his steadfast portrayal of the struggles of construction workers and the rampant US social safety net could have been achieved in China, others said. On Douban, a reviews website popular with relatively liberal Chinese, the film has nearly 66,000 reviews and a high rating of 8.4 out of 10.

Some commentators have also pointed to the irony that Chinese nationalists want to crack down on a film that seemed to fit so well with the narrative official propaganda outlets had recently touted of a rising China and a declining United States.

“Chloe Zhao’s ‘Nomadland’ deeply reveals the crisis of lower-class American citizens and the difficult lives of its people,” Qiao Mu, a former professor of communications at Beijing Foreign Studies University, wrote on Weibo. “It should strengthen our pride in socialism and our self-confidence in the Chinese way.”

“She is the pride of the Chinese people,” he added, “not someone who insults China”.

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