Appearing virtually at the ceremony, Zhao, who also wrote and edited the film, thanked fellow nominees for making “beautiful, beautiful movies” before giving shoutouts to her “Nomadland” team.
The director then went onto quote Bob Wells, one of the real-life nomads who appeared in her film, saying, “Compassion is the breakdown of barriers between us. A heart-to-heart bonding. Your pain is my pain is mingled and shared between us.”
She added, “This is why I fell in love with making movies and telling stories, cause they give us a chance to laugh and cry together and they give us a chance to learn from each other and to have more compassion for each other.”
The Chinese-American filmmaker triumphed in a historic year for the category, which for the first time in the Globe’s history was dominated by women. Emerald Fennell of “Promising Young Woman,” and “One Night in Miami” director Regina King also picked up nods, alongside David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin, who were recognized for their films “Mank” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” respectively.
Zhao, who previously helmed 2015’s “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” and 2017’s “The Rider,” now stands as the second woman to ever pick up the prize. Barbra Streisand won in the category for “Yentl” in 1984.
Based on the nonfiction book of the same name, “Nomadland” follows Fern (Frances McDormand), a woman who, after the economic collapse of her hometown and death of her husband, decides to traverse the American West in her mobile home, finding short-term jobs and befriending fellow nomads along the way. Like Zhao’s previous projects, the film cast mostly nonprofessional actors, many of whom were real-life nomads, to play versions of themselves.
“Nomadland” garnered immediate critical praise upon its debut in September, becoming the first film to ever win the top prize at both the Toronto and Venice film festivals. HuffPost’s own film critic, Matt Jacobs, said the film was “so full of emotion that no single word can capture its power” describing McDormand’s leading performance as one that “ranks high in her already impressive career.”
The recognition guaranteed that “Nomadland” would become a force to be reckoned with in the coming awards season, as it went on to be honored by the National Society of Film Critics, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the New York Film Critics Circle before landing a slew of Globes nominations for Zhao in the directing and screenplay categories, as well as for McDormand in the best actress race.
Besides this year’s nominees, only five other women have been nominated for best director at the Globes: Ava DuVernay, Jane Campion, Sofia Coppola, Kathryn Bigelow and Streisand.
Aside from its abysmal track record of honoring female directors, the Globes have also often overlooked filmmakers of Asian descent. The organization has come under fire for forcing films like Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell” and this year’s “Minari” from director Lee Isaac Chung to compete as foreign-language films, while not recognizing their work in the best director category.
Taiwanese American filmmaker Ang Lee has previously won two best director Golden Globes ― for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” in 2001 and “Brokeback Mountain” in 2006 ― while Bong Joon Ho and Shekhar Kapur have also been nominated.
In addition to directing the much-anticipated Marvel tentpole “The Eternals,” which boasts a cast including Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek, Gemma Chan and Kumail Nanjiani, Zhao will next tackle a science-fiction Western spin on Dracula for Universal Pictures.