With his sprawling gangster epic melodrama Ash Is Purest White opening this Friday in New York, Jia Zhangke, the master chronicler of changing China, was in town and I was lucky enough to snag an interview.
Spanning 17 years, Ash is a culmination of all of Jia's work, once again, starring his wife/muse, the great Zhao Tao in a performance that gathers more power and poignancy as the story goes along. The film ended up near the top of my favorite list for 2018 and everyone needs to see it. So without further ado:
Screen Anarchy: It seems you are going back to long-form storytelling with ASH IS PUREST WHITE, harkening back to your old films like PLATFORM or UNKNOWN PLEASURES, rather than episodic storytelling of your past two films, A TOUCH OF SIN and MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART.
Jia Zhangke: So first, thinking about doing a film about underworld (Jianghu), not only as a subject but as a genre. What attracted me about those jianghu films, is about the philosophy and their codes of conduct into personal relationship, cultivation of sense of loyalty. These are the values that I wanted to examine but did’t want to somehow pinpoint one particular era or one particular time pertaining my youth or contemporary time.
What I wanted to examine was how these values and philosophy of the underworld evolved and changed and eroded in these long stretch of time, so I can explore the connections between these: how it had changed and shifted to pursue wealth and power in the mainstream society. That’s the reason why I decided to not only narrate this particular underworld genre and motif but also to consider a long time-span of 17 years in order for me to do so.
And another point of departure is I remember that when I was young and growing up in Shanxi Province, there was a big brother character, like a Brother Bin (Liao Fan of Black Coal Thin Ice) in the film in my own neighborhood. I remember that he was strikingly handsome and very masculine and well versed in cultivating that kind of personal bond and resolving conflict. He made a huge impression on me growing up.
Later when I went back home from College I saw him middle aged, squatting by the street eating a bowl of noodles. All his underlings and brothers were gone. So I think that not only examining this particular underworld genre portrayal of how they evolved and how the values have been eroded, I also wanted to see how time change and change an individual such as this particular case the head of the gang and how this person changed internally but also externally in terms of appearance. How this face aged through time. Those are the two elements I wanted to examine.
It’s interesting you say that, because the big part of the film belong to Zhao Tao’s character. In some strange magic she hasn’t changed, not only physically but she also had this inner strength and it’s her who goes to jail for and rescues Brother Bing at the end. She was the only one who was loyal to him all throughout those years. How did you come up with that character?
I wanted to make a comparison gender-wise in jianghu and also society in general. China is a very male oriented society and that kind of principles we used to have have changed.
Male population seems to be more inclined to pursue those wealth and power and lose themselves in it. And on the other hand, the female population ironically are the ones holding on to those traditional values and cultures and those principles they didn’t lose. I wanted to create those contrast in current society.
I’m not saying that the past was better. I‘m just showing what is changed in society.
The film is a French co-production. How was working with the French crew?
In terms of collaboration with my French partner MK2, the distribution company which I worked with past three films, so I do think that gave me more options in terms of finding the talents and the people I can work with from the French side.
For this particular film, the cinematographer was Eric Gautier collaborating with me for the first time. Sound mixers and also the hair and makeup were all French artists.
In the past I tend to have a very close-knit crew from China. It was not so much about the funding and investment on the film that was important. It was more to do with creative team that I can pull from French side. I enjoyed a lot more that collaboration.
Was it a challenge to create that period in terms of production design?
The challenge was how to recreate this period that was seen in 2001. Because the people back in the day the way they look and their faces were completely different from how people look now. When doing the casting process I needed to make sure that I find the faces that had a bit of wear and tear, that show the ravages of time and hard work. They tended to have darker complexion and so on.
Today’s young people, even if they are from the same province, same county, same hometown, they have a lighter skin tone with smoother surface -- hamburger face that I constantly joke about -- well-fed, well- nurtured and well protected in terms of sunblock and all that. So how I’m going to choose the right faces, actors and actresses and extras?
When I was actually positioning my main characters with all the makeup and movie magic, I was very concerned about how they would look believable, so people will say, yes these are indeed from 2001. So restaging of it was pretty challenging.
What’s interesting to me is that you are retracing your steps of your previous films, be it Shanxi Province or Three Gorges Dam. How much have they changed since then?
In terms of revisiting those places I previously shot my films in, instead of change of scenery that I witnessed that astonished me, it was how much it hasn’t changed for 17 years. For example, a lot of public spaces that were there are still standing, shockingly, compared with most of the 1st tier and 2nd tier mega cities, which tend to demolish everything and restart completely.
So the skyline would be completely different. Places like Datong and Three Gorges Dam, 17 years ago and when I made Still Life, many of the buildings and public spaces are still there and still very much the same. So many feels that as a country, China is a fast changing society and of progress.
At the same time, it’s not balanced in urban city and in rural areas. So a lot of people are left behind and they never had a chance to catch up with mainstream progress that’s been so visible to the world.
Qiao (Zhao Tao’s character) in the first part of the film, when she bid farewell to her father at the train station and also the worker’s dormitory in the background; those were already there when I made Unknown Pleasures in 2001, so I was so shocked. You see it a little weathered and can see the traces of time, but they are still there!
The question I had about Qiao is that she had a chance to leave everything behind and go West (Xinjiang) with this venture capitalist that she met on the train. But she doesn’t. I wonder about the choices that she made.
I think after breakup with her longtime lover, she decides that it’s time to make a change, to break away from that past relations and trying to find the new one. It just happens to be this chance encounter with that person. It was almost like a very very short fling.
But after that experience that she realizes that to go with him, to Xinjiang in this case, she would be removing herself completely from the underworld that she still very much see herself a member of. So she at the end makes the final decision.
At the end of the film she says “I am jianghu and you are not.” She is actually telling this to Bin. It’s that spirit of jianghu she is abiding by, not any men.
You told me in 2014 that you might be doing a period piece about Chinese journeymen traveling West first, Europe and then South America. Is it still happening? If not, what’s next for you?
It’s not anywhere in preparation stage. It’s still one of the films I very much want to make. The next film we are preparing for is a period piece set in the late Qing dynasty. It’s going to be Wu Xia genre film.
I am very much looking forward to that!
Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musings and opinions on everything cinema and beyond can be found at www.dustinchang.com