WHM: Chloé Zhao

Justin Peters, Entertainment and Arts Editor

Let’s try something. Name a director. Simple enough right? You probably said Steven Spielberg or Quentin Tarantino or even Michael Bay (what’s wrong with you?). Let’s make it a little more difficult. Name a female director. Okay, okay, not so easy but you probably pulled it off. So you probably said Greta Gerwig or Ava DuVernay or Patty Jenkins. Fair enough, they are masters of the field with acclaimed works beloved by most film buffs. Now, for your final challenge: name an Asian female director. Exactly. Many male Asian directors have found immense success in the American film industry like Bong Joon-Ho (Parasite [Oscar-winner for Best Picture], Snowpiercer), Ang Lee (Life of Pi, Brokeback Mountain) and Jackie Chan (Police Story, Drunken Master), very few Asian female directors have been in the spotlight of the American film industry. So few, that you probably don’t know the name of a single Asian female director. Well there is one name you should know. And that name is Chloé Zhao. 

Chloé Zhao is a Chinese director, writer, producer, and editor. Zhao was born in Zhao Ting, Beijing, China in 1982. Growing up, she was drawn to influences from Western pop culture. She described her younger self as “a rebellious teen, lazy at school,” which I’m sure we could all relate to. She loved films growing up, especially Happy Together by Wong Kar-wai. When she was 15 years old, despite knowing nearly no English, her parents sent her to a boarding school in the United Kingdom. Zhao studied at Mount Holyoke College earning a bachelor’s degree in political science. She studied film production at New York University Tisch School of the Arts.

Zhao’s filmmaking is incredibly unique, as she usually casts non-actors that live in the area she’s filming in to play her characters, many of which have unchanged names, while others have slightly changed names. She then builds the story, pacing, and overall atmosphere around the location and people that inhabit the area they live in, and the rest is history. Her filmography consists of three films, each of which capturing beauty of exact reality: Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015) which depicts the relationship between a Lakota Sioux brother and his younger sister, The Rider (2017), a contemporary western drama which follows a young cowboy’s journey to discover himself after a near-fatal accident ends his professional riding career, and the most recent feature (and the feature that finally put her into the acclaimed director zeitgeist Nomadland (2020), which features a woman in her sixties who, after losing everything in the Great Recession, embarks on a journey through the American West, living as a van-dwelling modern-day nomad.

When it comes to awards and acclamations, Zhao is stacked with Screenings at Sundance, Cannes, and TIFF, prestigious awards such as the Golden Globes (Best Director for Nomadland), multiple Independent Spirit Awards, and many more. In fact, On February 15, 2021, Variety reported that “with 34 awards season trophies for directing, 13 for screenplay and nine for editing, Chloe Zhao has surpassed Alexander Payne (Sideways) as the most awarded person in a single awards season in the modern era.”