“Nomadland” was granted approval by China’s National Arthouse Alliance of Cinemas (NAAC) for a limited theatrical release starting April 23, but the film’s opening is now in jeopardy due to a wave of nationalist backlash against writer/director Chloé Zhao. Controversy around Zhao and “Nomadland” erupted after the Golden Globes, where the filmmaker became the first Asian woman to earn the Best Director prize. A comment perceived as critical of China that Zhao made years ago resurfaced on social media, leading to publicity for the film being censored on popular Chinese social media platforms such as Weibo and Douban.
As reported by the Associated Press, Weibo users searching for the hashtag “Nomadland has a release date” or the film’s Chinese title “No land to rely on” are met with the following message: “According to the relevant laws, regulations and policies, the page is not found.” While hashtag pages for “Nomadland Movie” and “Chloé Zhao” still exist, Variety notes the NAAC’s post featuring the film’s poster has been deleted from the platform. The film’s Chinese poster and release date have also been removed from Douban.
Two quotes have been driving the nationalist backlash against Zhao. The first is from a 2013 interview with Filmmaker Magazine, in which Zhao discussed her interest in making films about the American heartland and said, “It goes back to when I was a teenager in China, being in a place where there are lies everywhere.” Per Variety: “The magazine deleted the section in mid-February, days before the ‘Nomadland’ China release date was announced.”
The second quote is from an interview Zhao did in December with an Australian website. The interview was published with the China-born Zhao saying “the U.S. is now my country,” but the website updated the story on March 3 to say it misquoted the filmmaker. What Zhao actually said was “the U.S. is not my country.” Screenshots of the incorrect quote, plus the quote in Filmmaker about “lies” in China,” have circulated on social media and stirred backlash against Zhao.
According to Variety, WeChat blog accounts were also censored as older posts related to “Nomadland” got deleted in the wake of the controversy. Variety reports: “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.’ Two of the deleted posts were items announcing the film’s China release date and Zhao’s Golden Globe win.”
Maoyan and Tao Piaopiao, two of China’s online movie ticket platforms, have also removed the April 23 “Nomadland” release date from their listings. Sources told Variety the NAAC is “still hoping to proceed with the release under the radar, keeping a low profile with promotion.”
While the “Nomadland” opening was always designed to be a limited theatrical release in China, the backlash against Zhao could pose even bigger problems for Disney. Zhao is the director of the upcoming Marvel blockbuster “Eternals,” scheduled for release in China on November 5. IndieWire has reached out to Zhao’s representatives for further comment.