Love in time of rapid modernization: An interview with director Jia Zhangke

A portrait of a man against a blue wall.
Asia Society/Courtesy

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The second act of “Ash Is Purest White” — the latest from one of China’s most prominent filmmakers, Jia Zhangke — returns the director to an old stomping ground.

After spending five years in prison, the protagonist of the film, Qiao (Zhao Tao), re-enters Chinese society to discover a world she doesn’t recognize. Incarcerated for firing a gun skyward to protect her gangster husband (Liao Fan) during a brawl, Qiao seeks the man she loved, stepping out of criminal life as he did years before. The lonely journey takes her to the developing Three Gorges Dam, an industrial behemoth that was the background of Jia’s 2006 film “Still Life.” Spanning the Yangtze River, the project was trumpeted as an economic triumph, though it flooded countless settlements and displaced some 1.3 million people.

“Three Gorges is a subject that’s very critical to China,” Jia said in an interview with The Daily Californian conducted in Mandarin. “I find it an epitome of life that shows many aspects that Chinese society is experiencing.”

“Ash Is Purest White” continues Jia’s project of following the adjustments Chinese natives have made as the country has transitioned from totalitarianism to an often equally repressive wave of expansionism.

“I was born in 1970,” Jia began. “So all the changes I’m reflecting in my productions, they kind of coincide with my own personal growth. But the focus in my films is still people.”

And Jia’s sentiment of studying relationships’ evolutions under the influence of economic shifts is at the center of the romance “Ash.”

The film is structured as a triptych spanning 17 years, observing the obligations Qiao and her husband Bin hold toward one another and the reconciliations they must make in rough stages of their relationship. At the start, the two adhere to the codes of “jiang-hu.” Though the term has been associated with China’s underworld in recent decades, its usage begins centuries ago, referring to a rejection of political power games in favor of living based on moral principles of honor and righteousness.

“(The code of conduct in jiang-hu) is such a classic code of behaviors that we honor. … And it’s reflected in, or deeply ingrained in, human relationships. Even though I see it’s fading away,” Jia said. “But today, with all the economic changes, there’s a greater focus on materiality. … So for those of us who experienced this change or see this transition, it’s rather pitiful that people are forgetting these fundamental values that we used to honor.”

Jia is dipping his toes into gangster films with “Ash,” even citing influences such as John Woo’s “The Killer.” The film’s roots in this genre come through in its melodramatic bombast, emerging from the decaying practicality and subsequent betrayals of these traditional ethics.

Having been sequestered behind bars, Qiao wanders around her country like an alien. A cultured dancer at the film’s start, her identity becomes reduced to the codes of jiang-hu, which she sticks to with an honorable, tragic idealism.

“I am not a terribly nostalgic person,” Jia affirmed. “But I do see that there’s a tendency that in the pursuit of modern convenience … people have a tendency to move away from old value systems, good or bad.”

His political concerns are not the only recurring elements in his films, though. Zhao, his muse and wife of seven years, has performed in every one of Jia’s films since his 2000 global success “Platform.” Across an eclectic and diverse body of work, “Ash” is one of her finest showcases as an actress.

“We fought a lot during filming,” Jia chuckled. “She’s not just a great actress, she’s also a great contributor because she brings the female perspective to my stories.”

The filmmaker divulged how Zhao conceived of a unique body language to play the younger version of Qiao and researched court cases about women in jiang-hu.

“And she also told me that this is not just about jiang-hu; it’s also a love story about a man and a woman. And that broadened my perspective on this whole film,” he explained. “In (‘Ash’) … this is something that Zhao and I discussed very often … do we think this is a tragedy? … I feel, even though they are not passionate about love … she is committed to him.”

Citing his previous feature film, “Mountains May Depart,” which envisions families becoming disparate in a prospective globalized 2025 China, Jia concluded the interview by connecting that view forward with the tragedies of the past in “Ash.” He expressed ambivalence over these tales of historic strife and how they might burden intergenerational relationships as China continues to answer the beckoning call of Western capitalism.

“I wonder: Should all these experiences, our sufferings, our stories be carried on for many generations into the future? That’s something to be pondered upon,” Jia said.

Jackson Kim Murphy covers film. Contact him at [email protected].