When the time comes for you to choose divergent roads ahead, which one would you take?
Many artists who have released their work since 2020 admitted that they had not expected the advent of a global pandemic when drafting the work. Coincidence aside, maybe the woeful time we are simultaneously living in embodies the exact weight to test out the quality of a piece of art: what is the answer artists give to the question raised ahead?
And the women in Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland choose the difficult one.
Fern, the protagonist of the film,is a middle-aged woman who has lost nearly everything at the beginning of the story before becoming a nomad: a stable job, a permanent house, the company of friends, and her husband. Her tragedy is largely a result of the adversities in her life that she has no control over—the spread of the Global Financial Crisis, the demise of a corporate empire, and the fate of her loved ones.
At the starting point of her imminent nomad journey, the only thing belonging to Fern is a shabby van in white. Yet, as the story starts to unfold slowly, her van turns out to be the place where, from scratch, she builds a home from within.
The director of Nomadland Chloé Zhao, or Zhao Ting (赵婷), is a Chinese filmmaker who resides in California. Akin to millions of Chinese youths born after the 1980s, Zhao left her home in Beijing as a teenager and initially became an international student who pursued her study overseas. Her journey spread across the two sides of the Atlantic, from the UK to the US, while her root was at least one Pacific away. Echoed the experience of many “outsiders,” Zhao has a calm and observational eye that could acutely capture the essence of what it means to be human: the invisible connections that bind us together while surpassing the surface of manufactured labels of culture, language, race, even gender.
But Zhao always reserves her tender eyes for the women of Nomanland.
The sun rises and sets, all under the infinite sky. In the film, Fern’s road trip often progresses as minor circulations via the choices she makes one after another: to compromise on a Christian’s offering or to defend her pride and integrity at the expense of enduring the freeze solely throughout the grave night; to accept other adult’s definition of her as homeless or to explain to a young girl that a house does not equal the true meaning of a home; to settle down for comfort and protection of something appealing yet distant or to turn down the invitation as her husband still lives in her mind albeit he’s gone.
Struggles after struggles, brief or long, Fern chooses all the latter that do not offer her instant material security for she never gives in. But as she makes all the unflinching and heartfelt decisions against the cruel reality covered with the piling snow, the beam of a yellow light warms up the inside of her little van.
In the world neighboring the nomad land, Fern’s choice does not always appeal to many “winners,” including her sister—Dolly. Unlike Fern, Dolly has all the shelters she needs—a house, a husband, money, and connections. She does not make the same “unrealistic” decisions as her sister. But it is the absence of her sister by her side, that Dolly confesses when the two were “exchanging the heart,” makes her feel there’s something precious missing in her life. “You are braver and more honest than everybody else,” Dolly says to Fern, which prophesizes Fern would choose to live in a way separated from her sister’s.
Although the depiction of women in the film is centered around Fern, the encounters she has had with other women characters not only drop the clues for the audience to figure out Fern’s decision-making, but they also shed light on the authentic complexity of the relationship between women.
As opposed to a more nuanced and sophisticated sisterhood, the comradery between Fern and other female nomads is more straightforward. The generosity of these nomads she meets sporadically on the road often accompanies and sustains her.
Such as Linda, who chooses to live by opening her arms to share.
Such as Swankie, who chooses to lend a hand while sacrificing her own needs because of her ailing body.
Against the melancholic mood easily drifting across the screen, Fern and the nomads create a tale where women with little at hand are able to make their own decisions. Upon the veneer of lifelessness, their resilience and kindness emerge when the firm choices are made. In turn, they offer the world warmth and strength in the midst of poignancy.
Towards the ending of the film, with the soothing melody of Ludovico Einaudi’s piano flowing in, a wise man is sharing his vulnerability to ensure Fern an eternity.
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