Chloe Zhao’s “Nomadland” was quietly swept from the Chinese web Friday, days after nationalist backlash erupted online over questions of her citizenship and a sentence she spoke to a U.S. magazine nearly a decade ago.
The sudden online clean-up signals that the Frances McDormand-starring drama’s theatrical outing is in jeopardy — even though earlier this week, official state media outlets had prominently feted Zhao’s historic Golden Globe best director win Sunday as a point of pride for China. The film was granted approval for an April 23 limited theatrical release via the country’s National Arthouse Alliance of Cinemas (NAAC) in February.
“In the future, Hollywood won’t dare to let Chinese people shoot movies or set foot in Chinese topics anymore — you’ll never be able to guess where the minefields are,” lamented one disillusioned commenter on the popular Douban user review site.
Zhao is the director of the upcoming Marvel superhero film “Eternals,” for which China will be a key overseas market. With a high-profile cast including Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek and Kumail Nanjiani, it is set for U.S. release on Nov. 5.
While many in China cheered Zhao as an inspiration for becoming the first Asian woman to ever win the directing Golden Globe, thousands of others have taken to online blogging platforms since Monday demanding to know her nationality, incensed by the thought that they should celebrate her achievement if she isn’t a Chinese national.
Their fire was further stoked by an interview Zhao, who was born in Beijing, gave to Filmmaker Magazine in 2013. In it, she explained that she was drawn to her early subjects about the American heartland because of her upbringing in China, and “being in a place where there are lies everywhere.” The magazine deleted the section in mid-February, days before the “Nomadland” China release date was announced. The publication has not responded to repeated requests for comment.
On Friday, a wave of censorship of “Nomadland”-related content occurred piecemeal across China’s various film and review platforms.
First, the film’s promotional posters vanished from Douban in the wee hours of the morning. Soon, its listed release date suddenly disappeared.
Next, “self-media” blog accounts found that censors had deleted prior articles related to “Nomadland.” One particularly well-regarded Wechat account posted a screenshot with two messages it had received from censors, stating that its content had, “after examination by the platform,” been found to have transgressed the “Development and Management Rules for Public Information Services on Instant Messaging Platforms” and accordingly had been deleted.
The articles in question were titled “This Film Industry Person Probably Knows Chloe Zhao Better Than Anyone in the World” and the innocuous-sounding “‘Nomadland’ Sets a April 23 China Release; Chloe Zhao Becomes the First Asian to Win the Best Director Golden Globe.”
Later in the day, certain key search topics related the film were blocked on China’s Twitter-like Weibo platform. Searches for the hashtags “#Nomadland” and “#Nomadland Release Date” currently yield the message that “The topic’s page cannot be shown due to related laws, regulations and policies.”
The censors’ selection appears spotty, however — hashtags such as “#Nomadland Movie,” “#Chloe Zhao,” and “Chloe Zhao Wins Golden Globe for Best Director” are still available, the latter of which has been viewed some 350 million times.
Currently, the image of the film’s official poster has been wiped from Weibo as well. This has led to some awkwardness, such as a promotional post by the NAAC celebrating Zhao’s Golden Globe win whose uncensored text ended up floating above a large image that appeared only as a blank gray rectangle. The post appears to have finally been deleted around midnight local time.
A more troubling sign for the film’s China’s prospects came as China’s key online ticketers, Maoyan and Tao Piaopiao, moved to remove the April 23 release date from their listings. The NAAC had not yet responded to Variety’s request for clarification at the time of publication. Sources indicate, however, that they are still hoping to proceed with the release under the radar, keeping a low profile with promotion.
On Douban, a platform that leans more liberal and is more popular among urban youth, users discussing the censorship lamented that Zhao’s art had been so politicized. “They discussed her place of birth, her family, her nationality, and the things she’s said. The only thing they didn’t discuss is the film,” wrote one.
Another wrote with resignation: “The future trend will just be to shut the door and amuse ourselves [in our own market], I guess — in any case, the box office mythically keeps pushing each film higher than the next.
On Weibo, a user posted a black and white image of Zhao with a censorship bar across her eyes, paired with the comment: “In China they don’t consider her Chinese, and in the U.S. they don’t take her as American. She’s truly in ‘Nomadland.”