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The Current Debate: Jia Zhangke Tracks China's Rapid Changes in "Ash Is Purest White"

A survey of the critical discussion about the latest film from the acclaimed Chinese filmmaker.
James Kang
Ash Is Purest White
There were a variety of different movies we could have chosen to relaunch this column, which strives to gather and present together some of the best writing on some of today’s most interesting movies. I’m thrilled that we could begin with a new film directed by not only one of the juggernauts of contemporary art cinema, but also a personal favorite of mine, China’s Jia Zhangke.
To describe the story of Ash Is Purest White, I’ve taken the no-nonsense plot summary from its American distributor, Cohen Media Group:
"Qiao [Zhao Tao] is in love with Bin [Liao Fan], a local mobster. During a fight between rival gangs, she fires a gun to protect him. Qiao gets five years in prison for this act of loyalty. Upon her release, she goes looking for Bin to pick up where they left off."
What we can add for context is that the film was praised at the Cannes Film Festival, where it debuted in competition and was ignored by the jury, which is usually the case with Jia’s films.
Some have complained that with this film, Jia is repeating himself. Dennis Lim disagrees. In his Cannes dispatch for Film Comment, he explains why Jia returning to old settings creates emotional potency out of observing regional changes:
"Ash Is Purest White is a self-conscious acknowledgment that Jia’s career to date corresponds with a period of unprecedented change in Chinese life. He revisits the sites and situations of his earlier work not for lack of inspiration or out of self-regard but specifically to find a new vantage on them. We know Jia’s films as state-of-the-nation dispatches, and the shift here to the backward glance, the past tense—even if it is the very recent past—allows for more rueful registers and more complicated tones to emerge."
Filmmaker Magazine managing editor Vadim Rizov wrote on one reason why Jia’s films are important to him, something on which most non-Chinese cinephiles would likely agree:
"For otherwise underinformed viewers like myself, one of the functions of watching Jia Zhangke’s movies in real time as they came out was pedagogical: because I don’t read the news enough, I’m not sure I would have known about the construction of the Three Gorges Dam otherwise, let alone developed a visceral understanding of its impact. . . . If you’ve experienced [recent Chinese history] primarily (though not exclusively) through his films, as I have, the effect is doubly moving, inevitably reminding the viewer of the aging process."
Jia and his wife and usual lead actress Zhao Tao are considered reliably great talents. Adam Nayman of Reverse Shot believes they’ve outdone themselves in the creation of Zhao’s character in this film:
"In Qiao, Jia and Zhao have created a heroine whose contradictions are as vexing and exciting as any in recent memory. By sidelining her own concerns to quest for Bin, she would seem to be a clinging vine, except that the strength and resolve it takes to follow this path evince a loyalty so powerful it becomes a form of fulfillment."
Jia used a variety of different period-appropriate formats and cameras to stay true to the incremental changes of the times. In a review available only through purchase, Abby Sun described the multiple formats for Film Comment:
"[. . . F]idelity is the name of the game, but not of an individual to the state or to an ideology, nor that of a woman to a man. The highest fidelity is Jia’s to the world he represents: the film employs five different shooting formats, each carefully chosen to bolster period accuracy. In the present-day third act, Bin’s visit to a doctor is cheekily punctuated with a selfie, and the breathlessly tense final scene—a fight scene without the fight—focuses on an old comrade who mercilessly baits Bin while recording his every move on a cell phone. In this way, the extended cameos by a coterie of revered directors (the disgraced Feng Xiaogang, Zhang Yibai, Diao Yinan) sanctify the purity of an independent cinema."
IndieWire’s Eric Kohn asked Jia about censorship. The Chinese director tried his best to give a diplomatic response:
"One of the worst things that can happen to any director isn’t censorship of the government; it’s the censorship the filmmakers impose on themselves. That’s not the way I operate. I believe in the stories I’m trying to tell. Instead of paying attention to what can be made and what can’t be made based on the government’s ambiguous standards, it’s more important to think about what you want to make."
MORE TO WATCH:
Jia appeared with his stars Zhao Tao and Liao Fan at the Cannes Film Festival press conference.
And Jia was interviewed twice on stage at the Film Society of Lincoln Center for this film, first by Dennis Lim, then by Kent Jones.
***
The Current Debate is a column that connects the dots between great writing about a topic in the wider film conversation. It is written by James Kang, who works on MUBI’s critics reviews section, a large database of movie reviews that seeks smart writing.

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