Casey Juanxi Li

May 17, 2021

What is worth censoring? A tale of two Chinese film-makers

Immigration is a weapon in the cold war for talent, and the CCP’s censorship of Chloé Zhao’s Oscar was an ineffective defense.

Rumour has it that she said something unflattering about China a few years ago, but that seems like a red herring. As Sonny Bunch hypothesized in The Washington Post, the censorship of her award for directing Nomadland indicated graver concerns.

Nomadland is a deeply individualist movie. It tells stories of people who insist on living freely and brightly, despite being written off by state and society. The movie is often framed as an indictment of American capitalism, but the characters never actually blame anybody for their situation. It simply is what it is, and they solve within the constraints of reality. Money. Heat. Food. A place to sleep. And they do it without despair or bitterness. Frances McDormand's character sums it up aptly:

"I’m not homeless, I’m just houseless. Not the same thing, right?"

Cathy Yan's Dead Pigs, on the other hand, is self-aware Chinese vignette at its best - and it plays well within the party lines of acceptable criticism. We meet a foolish pig farmer whose animals die from tainted feed. We meet his morose son, who works a lowly restaurant job, and lies to his father about finding success in "the big city". And we meet Candy Wang, the farmer’s business-savvy sister, who refuses to sell her family home to make way for condos. She goes viral on social media for standing up to the money-hungry sons of bitches at the development company, but eventually relinquishes the house to help her bankrupt brother. Everyone is happy in the end.

A friend marveled to me that Dead Pigs was allowed to be distributed in China, while news of Nomadland's Oscar was not. After all, isn't Dead Pigs a critique of modern China, as much as Nomadland is a critique of modern America?

Hardly. If you've ever watched the CCTV Spring Festival Gala, or this heart-warming Peppa Pig commercial, you know that Dead Pigs follows the formula of Wholesome CCP-Approved Human Interest Skit 101. Show some funny old village folks who don't want to get with the times, chew out the urban businessman who has lost sight of family values, have them reconcile, and then resolve everything with a singalong.

Dead Pigs is a charming admission that the CCP's modern China stumbles on some edge cases, much the same way that we are charmed when a CEO pokes fun at themselves in public. They make themselves look relatable, without any real relinquishing of power.

Nomadland, on the other hand, is a real indictment of the American social fabric. Families fail. Economies fail. The government fails. The heroes of Nomadland are left with a van, YouTube, and each other.

I think Zhao's Oscar win was censored because she achieved it by showing up as a stranger in a strange land, holding a mirror up to America, and showing it the ugliest bits of itself. Contrast her story of immigration with the architect in Dead Pigs: a soggy white guy who failed his architecture exams back home, and has now fled to China to cash in on the social premium of having a Caucasian face. He's a sad joke.

Chloé wasn't a cultural sideshow. She took the Hollywood machine head on, and came out stunningly uncompromised in both humanity and artistic vision. She took Swankie and Linda May - non-professional actors who really did live in vans and work seasonal Amazon warehouse jobs - as her plus-ones to the Oscars. She played the real game - and won.

For all the flack that we give American politics, valuing the individual drive to flourish above social cohesion is a deeply American ideal. Nomadland is a quiet tribute to all who choose this difficult and sometimes lonely path. It is such a powerful story that an immigrant - an outsider - was able to see it, understand it, and tell it in a way that garnered the highest possible praise from the very heart of the American film-making establishment.

Forget trade deals and tensions in the South China Sea. The most devastating thing that one state can do to another is to steal the hearts of their best and brightest. America has been winning this game for decades, and if they play their cards right they can continue winning it for many more. To the CCP, Cathy Yan's Dead Pigs is a welcome foil to Zhao's story. Yan is an immigrant who found success in America's most prestigious institutions (Princeton, Tisch, the WSJ, director of a DC film), but still chose to return home to tell a deeply Chinese tale.

Nomadland is a story that could not have been told in China. Government can be corrupt, greedy, or flawed: but it cannot be irrelevant to human striving.

Allowing the latter would drive a stake straight through the CCP's conception of society and nationhood. And no matter how prestigious Zhao’s awards are, that simply won't do.

Censoring Zhao's achievement was short-sighted, not to mention that the best way to bring attention to something is to try and hide it. Zhao has made it clear that she is a person who transcends national identity, and cares deeply about the human being underneath. I'll end with the full version of the poem she recited at her Oscar acceptance speech:

人之初 (rén zhī chū) People at birth,
性本善 (xìng běn shàn) Are naturally good (kind-hearted).
性相近 (xìng xiāng jìn) Their natures are similar,
习相遠 (xí xiāng yuǎn) (But) their habits make them different (from each other).

- 三字经 (Three Character Classic)

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Much thanks to Ben Parry for revising a draft of this essay, and Tom Essl for asking the interesting question of why Dead Pigs wasn't censored.