Jia Zhangke’s new feature Ash Is Purest White, opening in the US this Friday, March 15, marks the Chinese director’s ninth collaboration with actress Zhao Tao. It’s now been twenty years since the pair first began working together, on Jia’s landmark feature Platform (2000); in the interim they’ve forged what is arguably the most fruitful artistic partnership in contemporary cinema. When I wrote the following article for Fireflies #3 in early 2016, Jia’s most recent feature Mountains May Depart (2015) seemed like a culmination of his and Zhao’s work up to that point—and it was. But now we have Ash Is Purest White, which takes the years-spanning premise of its predecessor even further, and, because of the film’s meta-textual relationship to Jia’s own corpus, feels like a truly summative work. Ash Is Purest White is indeed a grand tour through the pair’s filmography, following Zhao’s resilient heroine Qiao, girlfriend of a low-level gangster, all the way from the post-industrial underworld of Unknown Pleasures (2002) to the striking expanse of the Three Gorges Dam, a location memorably captured in Still Life (2006), with a number of implicit references to other films along way.
Looking at the piece the now, in light of Ash Is Purest White, I wouldn’t change much. With the addition of the new film we might easily reallocate some of the thoughts about Mountains May Depart to Jia’s latest, while I suppose one could argue that Zhao’s character in Ash Is Purest White usurps her Unknown Pleasures role as the pair’s most dynamic creation to date. But if Jia and Zhao’s recent work has taught us anything, it’s that their work is in a state of constant evolution, with each subsequent film adding depth and nuance to what’s come before. —Jordan Cronk
Zhao Tao’s first appearance in a film by Jia Zhangke features the actress, back turned to the camera, addressing an audience from the middle of a stage. Zhao’s role in Platform, Jia’s second feature, was her acting debut. In the decade-and-a-half since its release she’s appeared on a variety of stages, in a number of performative guises, in nearly all of Jia’s films. Needless to say she’s now synonymous with the director’s work, only periodically appearing in anyone else’s films (at the time of writing, her filmography lists only three credits in features not directed by Jia).
When a director and actor—particularly a male director and a female actor—establish a fruitful partnership (think John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands, Yasujirō Ozu and Setsuko Hara, Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman), there’s a tendency to label the performer as muse and the filmmaker as some sort of advantageous auteur. In the case of Jia and Zhao, this isn’t a totally unfair designation (after first discovering Zhao working as a professional dancer, Jia and his newfound actress collaborated for over a decade before marrying in the winter of 2012), though it significantly sells short the creative reciprocation of the pairing and the ontological breadth of the resultant work.
Jia and Zhao have by now worked together for such a prolonged period of time that it’s impossible to attribute her multitude of cinematic traits—which is to say nothing of her onscreen magnetism—solely to her director. Indeed, in a recent interview with Film Comment, Jia described Zhao as a “second author” of her characters, and when charting their development, it’s easy to appreciate Zhao’s pervading influence and her crucial contributions to Jia’s art. As the director has expanded the conceptual coordinates of his methodology in recent years—freeing himself from the strictures of realism through the steady integration of more democratic modes of storytelling—to reflect the social and technological strides of contemporary China, so too have his characters grown in metaphysical magnitude. Zhao, in particular, has accumulated an evermore symbolic presence, so much so that in Jia’s latest film, Mountains May Depart, she attains a kind of meta-cultural presence amidst an increasingly alien landscape.
Set in 1999, 2014 and finally 2025, Mountains May Depart provides a useful chronological corollary to Zhao's many roles, which find a kind of cumulative realization in Jia’s latest. Zhao’s disposition and sense of self in each of the film’s three segments—conflicted yet optimistic about the future; numbed by her divorce, the death of her father, and the impending migration of her young son; and lastly, resigned to a life she never imagined for herself—feel especially poignant in light of the delicate manner in which the themes of globalization and economic hardship are explored. Zhao’s character is pointedly named Tao, a name ascribed to so many of her personae as to be anything but coincidental. In the film’s first section, she must choose between two suitors, an ambitious capitalist and a lowly mine worker. Jia has often cast Zhao, a woman of soft features and a seemingly gentle disposition, in similar, almost archetypal roles—objects of male desire or punishment; emotionally displaced or abandoned wives and lovers. As is the case with many of her characters’ admirers, a certain charm envelops the viewer when confronted with Zhao’s natural charisma and unique countenance.
Even in a role as seemingly anomalous as the one she assumes in Unknown Pleasures, Zhao’s body language suggests a confidence and self-possession which has come to define her filmic personality. This is particularly vital to both the dramatic efficiency of Unknown Pleasures and to her role as the capricious Qiao Qiao, a woman trapped between her violent lover, who is a local gangster, and the advances of a younger man hell-bent on breaking up their relationship. It’s a part temperamentally divergent yet spiritually akin to many of Zhao’s characters attempting to forge autonomous existences apart from the men who wish to claim their identities. Easily the most dynamic and volatile role Zhao has played, Qiao Qiao is emotionally impulsive and quick-tempered, a force of nature whose sudden outbursts and flamboyant style—all neon-hued ensembles and darkly tinted sunglasses—belie an insecure spirit. Her teasing, half-aggravated indulgence of the young man’s advances suggests a dissatisfaction with not only her boyfriend, but also her life as a singing, dancing marketing tool for a popular liquor company and the small-town associations from which she can’t seem to break free. Late in the film, she invokes the fourth-century philosopher Zhuang Zhou when explaining that in life she chooses to do what feels good, rather than fall prey to prescribed notions of social and moral decorum. Befitting the realist sensibility of Jia’s first few films, her future appears by film’s end to hold no hope for redemption or liberation. If anything, she’s simply replaced one kind of abuse with another, fated, as are all the characters in Unknown Pleasures, to a life of misfortune.
Jia’s storytelling fluidly migrates between documentary and dramatization and it’s in this liminal space that one is most likely to find Zhao: a fictionalization of herself, and a representation of a collective cultural consciousness. Zhao is the most consistently felt presence in his work, inevitably lending herself to transpositions of Jia’s thematic interests, which she bears with a rare elegance and dignity. Despite the hardships her characters suffer, she moves with an unmistakable grace through Jia’s various landscapes, her characters beacons of composure within the peripheral adversity of his narratives. When the theatre troupe in Platform leaves Shanxi province, her character opts to stay back home and establish a career, separate from the tribulations—arrests, unwanted pregnancies, and a certain existentialist ennui that accompanies life on the road—her friends are set to endure. In Still Life, she arrives in Fengjie to locate her estranged husband. Proceeding methodically in her search, she suggests a stoic figment of an undisclosed past, her lithe frame drifting along the ruinous Yangtze riverbank as the town is torn asunder. As in Mountains May Depart, she meets life’s unexpected trials head-on, though here she remains notably poised, even unflappable.
It was with The World that Zhao’s characters began taking on a more symbolic significance. The film itself—set largely in and around Beijing World Park, known for its miniature mock-ups of such famous world monuments as the Eiffel Tower and the Taj Mahal—is built on its title’s central allegorical conceit, performing the dual function of universalizing Jia’s culturally specific concerns while granting his characterizations a metaphysical essence. The World brushes with surrealism on multiple occasions, as when Zhao’s character—a World Park entertainer, again named Tao—performs against a skyline of the park’s monuments, or when detouring unexpectedly into animation, including one particularly memorable sequence in which a digital simulacrum of Tao literally takes flight above her everyday reality. “Are we dead?” asks her boyfriend in voiceover as he lies alongside her lifeless body at the film’s conclusion. “No,” she responds. “This is just the beginning.”
Jia often couches broad socio-political themes in intimate affairs such as these. A similar conceptual gambit is employed in Still Life, a film in which emotional tremors are writ in the changing complexion of the natural environment. As Zhao's character traverses the crumbling Fengjie countryside, the construction of the nearby Three Gorges Dam suggests an inexorable process of both transition (for the locals, forced to disperse) and transformation (of the landscape, caught in the throes of industrialization). By the conclusion of both films, her character has moved to the precipice of pure abstraction, forging cross-currents of personal and political intrigue from the most elemental phenomena.
There’s a strong documentary element to Still Life, as there is in much of Jia’s work. Yet just as his fiction films rarely operate solely as fiction, so too do his nonfiction films rarely play by the rules of verisimilitude. As such, the presence of Zhao in his two most celebrated nonfiction features, 24 City and I Wish I Knew, works as clever dramatic maneuver and tacit acknowledgment of both the medium’s inherent artifice and our familiarity with Zhao herself through Jia’s corpus. 24 City, an intergenerational account of the city of Chengdu and the closing of one of its primary munitions factories, set to be turned into a luxury housing complex, features talking-heads interviews with both locals and actors portraying fictional characters, lamenting China’s rapid commercialization; I Wish I Knew, a first-person meditation on the modern history of Shanghai, utilizes cinema as a lens through which to conceive of the city’s vast lineage.
As the last interviewee in 24 City, Zhao (driving a Volkswagen New Beetle, adopting an uber-contemporary persona) assumes an especially parabolic presence, both as a meta-textual reference to Jia’s greater artistic project and as a humanizing agent for what to many viewers will be a foreign topic of discussion; measured yet deeply felt, her words reinforce the sense of perseverance that has sustained those who have preceded her. I Wish I Knew, by contrast, calls upon her physical features to shoulder such matters. As the only fictional figure in the film, Zhao carries an enigmatic weight; dressed in khaki pants and a plain white shirt, hair cropped short, she emerges at various intervals as if a manifestation of the memories left unexpressed by the interview subjects. Walking silently, regally, through the vacant, rain-soaked streets of Shanghai, she’s the embodiment of the city’s historical fatigue, a ghost of the country’s troubled cinematic legacy.
In many ways, Mountains May Depart, Jia’s first unabashed melodrama, brings all of Zhao's various character threads together in a single indelible role, for a performance of striking depth and humanity. The time span serves a kind of cumulative purpose, lending the narrative’s more openly emotional moments a retrospective gravity, particularly in its second and third episodes wherein Zhao’s character is forced to come to terms with a life of loneliness she inadvertently precipitated in her youth. In these moments, after many films and many years of repressed anguish, all of Zhao’s tears, it seems, are allowed to mercifully spill forth in relief. And in that sense it’s not unreasonable to perceive of Mountains May Depart and its composite narrative as an aggregate portrait of a performer who has developed onscreen through a variety of roles and across a corresponding epoch.
In what has likewise become a recurrent trend in his work, Jia returns to Zhao’s character in the film’s final scene. Whether her role is relatively small, as in Platform or A Touch of Sin (two films in which she nonetheless appears to bear the burden of the entire cast of characters), or more substantial, as in Mountains May Depart, Zhao’s presence at the very heart of the film seems to command a gravitational interest for Jia’s camera—so much so that, upon conclusion, her reappearance feels less obligatory than preordained. Appropriately, Mountains May Depart is bookended by two dance sequences. In the first, Zhao, young, hopeful, and exuberant, is one of a team of performers, rollicking in synchronicity to the Pet Shop Boys’ cover of the Village People’s “Go West;” in the second, soundtracked by the same nineties disco-pop hit, Zhao is featured dancing alone in a wintry clearing, weathered yet passionate, moving as if by intuition to the music in her head. This heart-swelling bit of visual storytelling brings the film full circle, but also rather succinctly plays as a metaphor for Zhao’s evolution as a performer. Once one of many, she is now a singular expression of unbridled creativity.