With Ash is Purest White, Chinese master Jia Zhangke delivers a gangster film with some martial arts thrown in, an epic love story and at the same time a social commentary on the dramatic changes in China in recent years. At this year's festival the director explained the origins of his film and his attitude to cinema.
Written by Anton Damen
Ash is Purest White begins at the turn of the millennium, in Shanxi, Jia's home province. The film features a familiar landscape, but a genre that’s not too familiar to Jia: the gangster film. Or, more specifically: a jianghu drama. “The jianghu comes with its own philosophy and moral principles – a sense of righteousness,” explains Jia. “For people in traditional China this is really important, something they really believe in. But over the years these beliefs started to erode and disappear. In order for me to understand those changes it was important for me to start the story in the past, and from there tell in onwards until the present time.” The local gangsters were influenced by modern cinema in a way. “Before 1983 you couldn’t say that there were gangsters in Shanxi, but that was before the introduction of video recorders. They made it possible to watch Hong Kong gangster movies, and also the films by John Woo. In those films the gangsters like to wear western style suits. As a result, the local gangsters in Shanxi imitated that and started to wear the same kind of suits.”
Ash Is Purest WhiteJia Zhangke IFFR 2019 141′
Dancer Qiao and gangster Bin’s violent love story plays out from 2001 to 2017 in a rapidly changing China.
In Jia Zhangke’s new film, dancer Qiao and mob boss Bin’s violent relationship plays out against a background chronicling contemporary China from 2001 to 2017; from mining ghost towns to entire villages sacrificed for new dams.
“The jianghu comes with its own philosophy and moral principles – a sense of righteousness.” – Jia Zhangke
But it was a personal observation that provided the kernel of the story. “When I was growing up, there were gangsters around that were actually quite fun to be with. One of them was very handsome, and I admired him quite a lot. When I returned one day I noticed this middle-aged guy squatting, eating a bowl of noodles. This was the same gangster I had admired so much in my youth, who had become this older, weak guy. Those are the changes I’m interested in. How do they take place? What’s happened to him since I last saw him?”
Ash Is Purest White spends a good part of its running time in the Hubei province that is being irrevocably transformed by the building of the Three Gorges Dam – which was also the setting and subject of Jia’s masterpiece Still Life. “In China people often say that the arts shouldn’t talk about politics or society. I think that is plain wrong, because it is simply impossible to separate the two. Our lives are impacted by society, and the big changes affect how we live our lives. So when you look in Still Life at this huge project – the biggest engineering project in the world – I had to make a film about that. Millions of people had to move because of it. The scenery was changing drastically and a lot of artefacts, history and culture were affected by this project. When I made Still Life I had two, maybe three months to shoot before the entire city was going to disappear beneath the water.”
Still LifeJia Zhangke IFFR 2007 108′
Surprising winner of the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. In one of the towns that will disappear under water through the rising waters of the gigantic Three Gorges Dam, a man is looking for the woman he deserted years ago and the woman is looking for her missing husband. Alongside a brilliant exercise in filming with high-definition, an emotional and social masterpiece. See also Dong.
The similarities between the main character Qiao and the characters in Unknown Pleasures and Still Life – all played by Jia’s wife Tao Zhao – are no accident. Or rather: they are. “Originally it wasn't my intention, but as I was writing the screenplay I realised that a lot of the scenes reminded me of those films. And also that a lot of the things in these films are left open, unresolved. So for me that was a opportunity to go back and deal with those issues in this film.”
Photo in header: Jia Zhangke