THE pandemic has been a bane for the world, but it's been an odd blessing for Chloe Zhao: Her third film Nomadland (2020) has gained traction in the US awards season precisely because it speaks to the existential despair and financial insecurity much of the world is experiencing.
While Nomadland is now showing in Shaw and Golden Village cinemas, her second feature The Rider (2017) has just reopened at The Projector to capitalise on her newfound popularity.
If you've seen neither film, watch The Rider first. It's the quieter of the two, and its elegiac minimalism will whet your appetite for the more complex and ambitious Nomadland.
The Rider centres on a former rodeo star Brady Blackburn who is recovering from a serious head injury suffered during competition. He now has a metal plate in his skull, and it looks as if he has to give up bronc riding altogether.
His doctor insists he leads a normal life from here on - which, in his case, means a supermarket job stacking grocery shelves. Brady has a best friend, Lane, who is permanently confined to a wheelchair after a tragic rodeo accident.
But Brady is not ready to give up on his dreams of becoming a rodeo champ. He'd rather die proud than live humbly. The men around him, too, assert a kind of thoughtless machismo, telling him to brush off his injuries and get back on the horse. Brady must choose between his life and his dreams.
Blending fact & fiction
By any yardstick, The Rider is a poetic and sensitive film about one man's struggle to live after a near-death incident. But Zhao elevates it by working with an actor whose real name is Brady Jandreau and who really did have a horse stomp on his head in 2016.
Brady's family in the film - including his alcoholic father and autistic sister - are the actor's real-life family members. His paraplegic best friend Lane is former real-life rodeo star Lane Scott who was grievously injured riding a rodeo bull.
The Rider is, in short, both fiction and fact, blended so artlessly that every moment feels entirely honest and true.
During the shoot, Zhao would discard pages of her script when she thought that what Brady and the other cast members were saying were more compelling than what she had written. Other times, she and her tiny crew of five would revise their shot list when they felt what Brady was naturally doing on the set was more authentic than anything they could have envisioned.
When The Rider opened in the United States in 2017, it earned a paltry US$4.2 million at the box-office. But enough critics in the National Society of Film Critics saw it to vote it as their Best Film of 2018 - beating even Alfonso Cuaron's Roma, which would go on to win the Oscar for Best Picture.
Perhaps more importantly, The Rider was seen by Oscar-winning actress Frances McDormand, who loved it so much that she reached out to Zhao about a collaboration. It resulted in Nomadland, which continues on with Zhao's extraordinary blend of fiction and fact.
Elegies of heartache
Nomadland is partly based on Jessica Bruder's 2017 non-fiction book of the same title. It tells the story of Fern, a woman who is left without a home after her husband dies and their company housing is returned. Deciding not to give up on life, Fern renovates her van and drives from place to place in search of work and human connections.
Though Zhao was now working with two famous actors in the lead roles, McDormand and David Strathairn, she insisted they brought elements of their real selves into the story. McDormand brought some plates her father gave her when she graduated from college, and Zhao weaved them into a pivotal scene where Strathairn accidentally breaks the plates.
There are scenes that take place in a real desert gathering of RV dwellers, an Amazon fulfillment centre and holiday campsites, where Zhao asked real people to play small parts alongside the professionals. There are van-dwelling characters like Linda May, Charlene Swankie and Bob Wells who are real-life nomads telling their life stories of hardship and survival.
McDormand and Strathairn are such fine actors that they merge seamlessly with these real-life characters. And Zhao coaxes such honest, unreserved performances from the non-professionals that they almost level up to McDormand and Strathairn's high standards.
Through their real-life confessions of grief and hardship, Zhao frequently finds grace and beauty, transforming their hardened pain into elegies of human heartache. Like The Rider, Nomadland tells the story of death and rebirth - though this time involving more characters than just the protagonist.
And that may ultimately be the biggest reason why Zhao's films have become so relevant for our times - we've seen the deaths and destruction the pandemic has wrought, we're looking for rebirth.
Nomadland won Best Motion Picture (Drama) and Best Director at the Golden Globes in February. It shouldn't surprise anyone if it won the equivalent prizes at the Oscars this April.
- The Rider is playing at The Projector. Nomadland is playing in Shaw and GV cinemas.