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Directors (For Sama)
Lulu Wang (The Farewell)
Ritesh Batra (Photograph)
Schmidt & Abrantes (Diamantino)
Jia Zhang-ke (Ash is Purest White)

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Interview: Jia Zhang-Ke on 'Ash Is Purest White' and his collaboration with Zhao Tao

by Murtada Elfadl

Fan Liao, Zhao and Jia at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival

Ash Is Purest White, opening tomorrow in select theaters, is Jia Zhang-Ke’s latest film. It has his trademark immersive, decades spanning storytelling. This time it is also a blend of gangster film, romance, and social critique. Again it starts his muse and collaborator Zhao Tao, this time playing Qiao, a quick-witted resourceful woman who falls into a decades long epic entalegment with her mobster boyfriend Bin (Fan Liao) within the jianghu (criminal underworld) of post-industrial Datong. We called it "bold, epic and fully detailed in equal measures" in our review. While in New York last October for NYFF, we got a chance to talk with Jia about his film. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Murtada Elfadl: What ideas did you want to push forward with this film?

Jia Zhang-Ke: This film spans from 2001 to 2018 and within these 17 years I wanted to examine how Chinese people are living in this particular historic context. For this particular film, even though it has the same thread of my previous films of examining the transformation of society and its impact on interpersonal relationships among characters, this time I focused on the principles and values that people either uphold or give up during societal transformation. I created these two characters who are moving in opposing directions. Bin was a drifter at the beginning, then he decided to join the mainstream culture which is very much about power, money and fame whereas the female character Qiao takes the opposite route so we can see how diametrically they have changed...

To elaborate on that, at the end Qiao has disdain for Bin for not keeping up the values. Do you think traditional values are eroding and does that bother you as a filmmaker?

I think the film is about the cost of the major transformations we are experiencing. One particular cost is the destruction of human relationships. So we don’t uphold principles anymore. You see that manifest in these characters. I am not a nostalgic person and I don’t take traditional values as good wholesale. We need to look back and see if there might some traditional values that we cherish and maintain and pass on to the next generation.

Can you talk about your collaboration with Zhao Tao. It is something that we look forward as film fans in the tradition of other famous director / actor collaborations.

I’ve making films for 20 years and within that time I collaborated with Zhao Tao for 18 of them. I think she's definitely the person who understands the characters in my films the most. Because my characters, specially the female characters, are ordinary people from the north. And she gets the characteristics and nature of those characters very well. For Ash is Purest White she offered me as a male screenwriter a female perspective and how to think of things with female logic more so than I can ever imagine. It has been a very fruitful collaboration. The Chinese title is Sons and Daughters of the Jiangu so people when they see this title they’d immediately think about the jiangu genre whereas Zhao Tao saw it as more character driven. Especially in the second part and saw that as a greater vehicle to tell the story, not just as a genre film.

Your films always have musical interludes. Mountains May Depart has 'Go West.' Here we have 'YMCA.' These musical scenes elevate the film and give audiences a connection with the story.

It is part of society’s collective memory for that particular era. Around 2000 'YMCA' was the song heard in disco clubs. It serves as a temporal marker for the era that I wanted to depict. In terms of using songs it’s because in chinese society conventionally speaking people tend to be very reserved with their emotions, so using musical sequences can portray the inner world of the characters without having them act out the intense emotions that they are experiencing.

I was mesmerized by the rituals - the scenes of drinking, dancing, and the scene in the hotel room - are they linked to the principles you previously talked about and what did they add to the story?

They are definitely connected. The rituals you observed are manifestations of the values they uphold and the way they conceptualize brotherhood. It represents them becoming as not exactly blood brothers but coming together as one.

How did having a bigger budget change your process? What did it add to your process and what did it take take away?

If you compare my budgets with the rest of the films being made in China nowadays you can see that it’s sorta in the middle or towards the smaller budgets than the bigger ones. However having a bigger budget guaranteed that we could finish the film, despite it not being “a period piece” in the classic sense, it spans 17 years and we needed to recreate certain sets and costumes, props. That takes money. It might be the biggest budget for me as a director but not in terms of the scale of the movie.

The film opened in China last October, how was the reception? Critically and from audiences?

Out of all my films this had the most audience in the theater. So far 2.1 MM people have seen it in theaters.

Why was it successful do you think? Was it the marketing, the story?

The reasons are many fold. Marketing is one, we started early on and throughout our production period and took people along the way as we developed the film. I also think audiences in China are changing, in the past not many would’ve been interested in this type of film. Now younger viewers find these types of films interesting.

Ash is Purest White opens on Friday, March 15 in New York (Film Society of Lincoln Center & Quad Cinema), Los Angeles and San Francisco. 

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Reader Comments (2)

He brings the best out of her talent. They have terrific director/actor chemistry. I haven't seen the movie yet even though it premiered a while ago, but I'll try to, sooner than later hopefully.

March 15, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMe34

A welcome interview, Murtada. I liked Ash is Purist White probably as much as Mountains May Depart, which is to say in the middle-ground of Zhang-ke's ouvre (B's). I long for him to produce something as sublime as Unknown Pleasures, Platform, Still Life or Touch of Sin. We, and especially Zhao Tao, deserve it. And certainly, I think, he can do better.

March 17, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterIshmael

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