In Jia Zhangke’s subtly majestic drama Ash Is Purest White the director's regular muse, Zhao Tao, must reckon with China's rapid change over the last seventeen years. Revealing an ambitious, sprawling tale with sidelong storytelling that focuses on the grace notes of a much bigger picture, it is an elegant evolution of the Chinese auteur’s version of a neo-melodrama, as was showcased in his last film, Mountains May Depart. Like that film, Ash Is Purest White follows Zhao’s character across three eras (in this case, 2001, 2006 and 2018) of contemporary China as her life is turned upside down, the country evolves in the background, and those once close to her become irrevocably different. Continuing a formal approach begun in the earlier picture, each section in Ash Is Purest White is shot a bit different than the others, including format (film, Digibeta, HD digital), aspect ratio, and decoupage, and each self-reflexively calls back to and revises different films from Jia’s own career. It is a film that roves across the director’s country, his own filmography, and across time with the magnificent Zhao Tao as the constant factor, the spirit and the hope.
In 2001, Qiao is one part of a power couple in the developing northern Chinese town of Datong, side-by-side with her gangster boyfriend Bin (Liao Fan), who runs “transport” and gambling in a town on the edge of growth. With looser camerawork and pulling from the gangster-noir qualities of Jia's A Touch of Sin (2013), the atmosphere of relaxed bribery and nightclub evenings is disrupted by a new gang of youths who start to cause havoc with Bin's small-scale underworld. But together, cutting a striking duo with Liao’s provincial tough-guy mustache and off-hand demeanor and Qiao’s precise hair bob and fluid confidence garnering respect as she floats through a world of men, the couple can take on anything—that is, until another attack of the new generation spurs Qiao to violent action and lands her to jail. In 2006 she is released to find Bin at the Three Gorges Dam (thus calling on Jia’s same-year Still Life), enmeshed in official business there and no longer interested in her love. Qiao resorts to petty frauds to find and confront him: “I’ve been living as a jianghu just to find you,” she says, referring to the gangster world from which they came. “Am I that important?” he scornfully asks. “If not that, then what is?” She keeps her head above water with no more family or support, but is unable to recapture the love and unity of the past. “We’re all prisoners of this world,” says a huckster she meets on the long train journey home; in a moment of tentative solace she joins him on his way—before abandoning him while he sleeps. Finally, in 2018 she returns to a modernized Datong and the gambling dens of her past, but now she’s old, resigned, and in charge—and it's Bin who must abjectly come back to her. The couple is restored but no longer the same: time has tested one to the limit and crippled the other.
A slow-burning and poignant portrait of female fortitude and resolve, Ash Is Purest White pays homage to a Chinese woman both faithful and capable. Qiao is able to survive in a world that changes under her feet: as she journeys north to south, south to north, trying to rejoin he whom she loves, she finds men inconstant, insincere, cowardly, and venal in a country tearing itself down and building itself up. “Something that burns so much is more pure,” she says early on of a dormant volcano, and this metaphor of person and land soon becomes clear. It is not a naive view of women simply as faithful, but rather that this woman has a moral constancy and the perspicacity not only to survive but to keep her being intact rather than be corrupted by time and change. And Zhao Tao, building on the similarly epoch-spanning role of Mountains May Depart, reveals another tour de force performance. “How much love can be repeated,” asks a wonderfully terrible pop song in the film, “how many people are worth waiting for?”
We spoke to director Jia Zhangke when he was in New York to present Ash Is Purest White at the New York Film Festival.
NOTEBOOK: Your last film, Mountains May Depart, had a beautiful three-part structure that skipped through time. Was that a structure that you found useful to tell this story in Ash Is Purest White? Or did this story exist before you had the idea of splitting a film into different sections?
JIA ZHANGKE: I do think that especially my previous two or three films, it’s a little bit different from what I have been doing in the past. In the past, I’ve tended to focus on a very short period of time, and then to really use that to focus on the characters in that particular temporal context. Whereas now I’m getting older, and I have experienced a lot more. As a director I tend to start thinking about things long-term, a longer time spanned, and that’s the reason why I design such a way to tell a story from 2001 to 2018—seventeen years. And in order for me to somehow deal with what happened in these seventeen years, it is inevitable that for me to somehow create certain “omissions.” The reason for this is because you only have two-hours-and-whatever minutes, and there’s no way for you to take care of every single detail of these seventeen years. So I try to find commonality of the two points, or two junctures, so that I can use that as a way to separate a three part story: one juncture will be what happened when Qiao went to prison and there’s nothing in the film talking about her life in jail. And the other juncture—the second one—is after Qiao and Bin break up, the gap between that and the time when they reunited and he in a wheelchair. So that part, I didn’t actually portray any part of the story during that time period. And I do think that it’s a very interesting way of thinking about the commonality between these two omissions that somehow coincide with the blindspots between their relationships of the male characters and the female characters. In jail and also after they’ve broken up they are not in the same sphere, so to speak, so I think that it’s natural to use these two points as a way to separate the story, to break those seventeen years into three parts with these two obvious omissions.
NOTEBOOK: I would imagine breaking such a long story up in this way requires almost a hyper-condensation with each section? You’ve talked about how with your past films you can spend two hours exploring small periods of time, but in this film and also your previous two movies you need to tell a whole story in 30 minutes, or 40 minutes, before you move on. Do you find that your filmmaking is different in trying to condense what you want into each “short story” or section?
JIA: I do think that, in terms of looking at those three parts, I actually want to see differently and think almost about a negative space—terms of a painting. The gaps, they’re as much a narrative device as the three-part stories I want to tell, because if you use the Chinese concept of lí biéit, it’s like this kind-of physical separation or emotional separation. It’s very much what Qiao and Bin had gone through in these seventeen years, as much as the times they had been together—from the puppy love all the way to the end where they are reunited. So I do think that the omissions or the gaps created, that they serve just as dense or as important a device as those three parts that you’re talking about.
NOTEBOOK: I remember reading when you presented this film at Cannes that you talked about shooting the different segments in different formats. Can you talk about the aesthetic approach to differentiating the time periods?
JIA: In terms of the equipments or cameras or the medium that I am using, it’s not as if I am breaking them into three parts and using different cameras for different ways of shooting the films and presenting them digitally. I actually used six different types of cameras, starting from the mini-DV to the HD-DV to 16mm, 35mm, 4K, and all the way to 5 and 6K, also including film stock that I also used in certain parts of the film. The reason why I am using them is not to use it as a way to separate different segments of the films, but to really recount the evolution and the histories of the DV technology, and use that as a way to present how the image can be from very grainy and gritty all the way to better resolution, to even better high resolution at the end, and you can really see that the quality of the image is somehow getting better and better or sharper and sharper in terms of resolution, going from the past to the present day. The reason why I don’t want to make such a contrast for you to notice, for you to actually decode that something has changed, is because I think that I like this concept of changing in gradation. Gradually things just happen, in such a way and such a gradual manner that it caught you by surprise at the end. And because sometimes you don’t notice the changes around you because you are in it. That’s the reason why I’m using all these different types of equipments and mediums, trying to portray that kind of slow, gradual transition, and the changes in these seventeen years.
NOTEBOOK: This is the first time you haven’t worked closely with your regular cinematographer, Yu Lik-wai. How was it different working with your French photographer, Éric Gautier?
JIA: Definitely it’s very different in terms of process of collaboration. For Lik-wai, we had collaborated for many years and usually the way that we collaborate is starting from the scriptwriting, he would be very much part of the script developing process. When I had a script he pretty much knows exactly how I’ve gone from nothing to this particular final product. Whereas my collaboration with Éric, maybe because of language barriers, he wasn’t involved in the script-writing process. Very much at the end of the scriptwriting process, the final product was the first time he actually had the chance to take a look at the script that I provided him. But what he did differently is that, based on that particular script that I gave him, he then would do a lot of research and a lot of adjustments, and tests—a lot of experiments to make sure that he can really accomplish what I wanted to accomplish, not only with six different cameras and different textures that I wanted to have, the gradations I wanted to have in the film. He would actually do not only test shots but also do adjustments to the camera in order for him to actually manipulate certain images in such a way that can really make those gradations or kinds of progression that I want to capture in the film. So definitely it’s a very different experience, but a great experience nonetheless.
NOTEBOOK: This film, like A Touch of Sin, roves geographically quite far. I was wondering if you could tell me a bit about why these locations are important to set the story in: Datong, the Three Gorges, the mining area where Qiao's father lives, which was in Xinjiang.
JIA: I can talk about the first two first, Datong and the Three Gorges, and the reason why I want to return to these locations to shoot my new film is because I’ve made many, many films in these two locations, Datong (or Shanxi, the province) and also the Three Gorges. I do want to capture this essence and this idea that there is this constant stage to present different characters and different people on this particular stage. And in this particular case, it will be the jianghu motif and jianghu characters I want to present in this particular film. If I can use an analogy, think about how the country itself is constant, it’s the same thing, it’s the same stage. And then you have people living in this particular country, they are acting out different walks of life, different fates, and different sufferings, different stories that somehow come with them being on the stage of the country. So I want to somehow use these two locations as the two constant stages for me to put on a different play, so to speak, with different characters and different stories.
For Xinjiang, I’ve never shot in Xinjiang, so to me it represented a sense of mystery. That’s the reason you saw the UFO actually show up there, in the Xinjiang sequence.
NOTEBOOK: You suggest that the place is the stage and the people change, but my sense of the film was the other way around, which is that people have a certain moral quality and the world changes underneath and behind them, and they interact with the world as it changes. Qiao leaves to go to jail, the world keeps going, she comes back and she’s the same kind of person, but the world has changed and she must interact with the world.
JIA: That’s definitely a very valid perspective, to see this as one central character and the world just changes around her, but for me as a director, I’m thinking about how in terms of the connections between my previous films and this film, and I’m trying to somehow make that kind of continuity and connections within my own work.
NOTEBOOK: I’m glad you bring that up because I wanted to ask you: when I first saw this film it almost struck me as a retrospective, in a way, of your previous movies. Not nostalgic, but a reconsideration, re-evaluation, or returning. Your new film seems to be thinking through places you’ve been before, stories you’ve told before, but now with a distance. Do you see this as a story as one of you reflecting on your past work?
JIA: I didn’t really think about whether or not this is a summation or retrospective of my previous works. I do think that, if anything, it is for me through the scriptwriting process a way to take a really hard and close look at what I have been doing in these seventeen years. Because it happens so quickly that suddenly I have been making films for twenty years, and through the process of this, I get to re-examine and take a look at the things I have been doing in these seventeen years and really have that moment of introspection: who am I as a director and what have I been doing? Is this something that I’m supposed to do? How am I going to continue to do the work that I want to do in the future?
NOTEBOOK: Do you then feel, after having written and made this film, that you now have a different perspective on filmmaking?
JIA: I don’t really know for sure, but definitely one thing is to think about the possibility of not making films for a little while, just because it seems to me that I’m doing a lot of things in such a cycle that I’ve become very routine. And I want to seek other possibilities. So maybe not making films is one of them.
NOTEBOOK: When you made Still Life, for me as a viewer it felt like your film was happening at the same time history was happening in front of your camera. That you were participating in it at the moment. But then in this film you go back to the Three Gorges, and you re-create an era when you were doing that. How did it feel to be in the moment and then also to re-create that moment later?
JIA: When I was making Still Life of course everything was happening so fast, and I was trying to capture as much as I could, because these are the things that if I don’t document them, they will no longer be there years after. So to me it’s very much about environment, I’m very much about the space and the site that I was shooting in. And the film itself, the story and narrative actually came later on, when we were doing editing, thinking how to try and tell the story based on all the footage that we had shot, as much as we could. It’s very different to go back there, because now it’s not out of curiosity, it’s not out of a pressure or desperation to try and capture everything that I could capture at the time. This is something we’re trying to re-create, certain memories, a certain understanding of the place that we already now know a lot more about, through that process of creating that particular film, Still Life. So I wanted to shift the focus from the space and the location as a character, and instead I wanted to focus a lot on the actual characters, the human characters that I wanted to put in this particular familiar environment that I already have done my homework on, years ago when I was shooting Still Life. I think because of that experience, it gave me the luxury to then focus a lot more on the character this time.
NOTEBOOK: Qiao is a tremendously impressive character: She’s so strong and thoughtful and morally upright, without being perfect. Most of the men she encounters in the film seem corrupt, inconstant, unfaithful… Do you feel like this a gendered story? Is this a portrait of a woman, the strength of women as a gender?
JIA: I do think that on some level I do want to make that particular statement, in terms of what does it mean to be a man and what does it mean to be a woman in contemporary China, or in these seventeen years. Because I do think that as a male writer and director, it takes some introspection in order for me to really understand my own privilege and the life that I have lived so far, from a different perspective by creating this particular female character. And I do think that—in general, again, not every single person is the same—in general, I do think that a male person in the Chinese context, especially within the last seventeen years, it is easier for them to actually go with the flow, where the flow means the mainstream culture: in terms of how they define success, in terms of the fame, power, money. I think that they’re more inclined to go on that route. Whereas for the female characters, or the female gender in general in China, they tend to be more resilient with that kind of grit to not only try and make it in this current environment but at the same time to also uphold certain values. Whether or not it’s about their loves, whether or not it’s about their affiliations with their families, they still maintain some type of conventional values and traditional values as they are trying to survive and try and make it in this very cutthroat and mainstream environment.