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Chloé Zhao: The education of a Golden Globe-winning director

Chloé Zhao
Chloé Zhao is the first Asian woman to win a Golden Globe for directing. Her expertise? American Westerns. Source: Charly Triballeau/AFP

Chloé Zhao is making waves for her latest accomplishment: becoming the first Asian woman to win Best Director at the Golden Globes. Her movie “Nomadland” (Best Picture) is now being discussed far and wide, as well as Zhao herself, who is a Chinese immigrant director, screenwriter, and producer. Believe it or not, Zhao is only the second woman to receive this award after Barbra Streisand in 1984. Here’s how her education abroad equipped her to become a cinematic visionary.

She attended boarding school in the UK

Chloé Zhao’s first taste of international education came at the age of 15 when she left China to enrol in “one of those Hogwarts boarding schools” in the UK. She knew little English at this point but was always drawn to the west. See, Zhao was somewhat of an outcast — she was not the best in class but was always drawn to art, drawing manga and writing fanfiction. Going abroad meant breaking free of the “ancient culture” where she was expected to fit into a mould to find success.

Chloé Zhao

Chloé Zhao attends the Drive-In Premiere of “Nomadland” in Pasadena, California. Source: Amy Sussman/Getty Images/AFP

She is a PoliSci undergrad

From the UK, Zhao moved to the US and finished high school in Los Angeles. She then enrolled in Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts, where she studied political science for four years. However, she was never truly interested in the field and graduated without much career direction. Zhao tried her hand at party promoting and real estate, but it was through bartending that she discovered her love for people over policy.

“When I was in college, I wanted to understand a lot of the things about America [that] I didn’t quite understand when I first got here. And then it took me a couple of years just doing nothing much in New York, just working odd jobs, to realise that I have to do something with my life. That’s how a lot of people ended up in film school,” she said.

She studied film at NYU

Once she had her heart set on telling stories, Zhao joined the Graduate Film programme at New York University Tisch School of the Arts. This is when she made her first short film “Daughters.” Then she finished her debut feature film “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” during her time as a thesis student — it went on to screen at both Sundance and Cannes film festivals, and rake in Best Feature and Best Director awards at the 33rd Independent Spirit Awards.

Zhao has expressed that she sees filmmaking as “the business of recording time.”I’m always curious about how people would like to be remembered. It’s not about what I think. It’s not about my own point of view,” she said. “As one of her film professors, Gail Segal said, “Chloé has a very warm heart but an extremely cold eye.” Those strengths continue to support her directing niche: telling real, hopeful human stories.

Chloé Zhao’s style reflects her rebellious nature

Through her third feature “Nomadland,” Zhao continues to explore complex relationships between people and place; what it means to belong. Interestingly, you will also find an Easter Egg for her upcoming Marvel movie “The Eternals” (which she explained in the clip above). Let’s not forget, though, that her award-winning streak began from her versions of Old West flicks; she admits her ventures are often met with curiosity, as an Asian woman.

Yet Zhao connects her love for Westerns to her own life story, saying, “Growing up in Beijing, I always loved going to Mongolia. From the big city to the plains, that was my childhood. Spending a lot of time in New York in my mid-20s, I was feeling a bit lost. I always joke that historically, when you feel lost, you go west. And for me, going west is west of New York. It’s just a part of America that I don’t think I knew anything about.”

Zhao is a testament to the power of real-world experience in crafting your artistic niche. Starting as a rebellious teenager, she explored the unknown to become the award-winning director she is today — and it all began with her international student journey.

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