China is a vast, complicated nation that has undergone dramatic changes in recent decades, and filmmaker Jia Zhangke has captured that process in intimate terms. One of the country’s most revered directors, Jia has probed the nuances of Chinese identity with sophisticated character studies for more than 20 years. His more recent projects, including the Cannes-winning anthology work “A Touch of Sin” and “Mountains May Depart,” have taken on a more dramatic scale. That includes his latest effort, “Ash is Purest White,” in which the director’s wife Zhao Tao plays a woman imprisoned after she protects her mobster husband (Lia Fan). Released several years later, she tracks the man down, discovering a vastly different China in the process.
Like much of Jia’s work, the slow-burn drama is a haunting and perceptive look at the country’s ongoing evolution. While in New York to promote the movie, which is currently in limited release, filmmaker spoke to IndieWire about his intentions with the project and his perspective on the country he still calls home.
Your last few films have been dense with characters. “Ash is Purest White” is more centered on one woman’s experiences in two time periods. How conscious was that shift?
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With this particular film, I really wanted to examine two male and female characters in this particular world. In previous films, I would tend to address more about the external factors they’d be dealing with. With this particular one, with the genre and the character I wanted to develop, I wanted to examine more of the internal emotions and how they have changed in a span of 17 years.
Your last film, “Mountains May Depart,” also had some big time jumps in it.
I decided to use that as a way to examine the drastic transformations facing Chinese society. I do think that, by positioning the film in such a long time span, you get to examine more than how individuals change — society changes, technology changes. The combination of these effects reshape us as human beings. They reshape the way we relate to other human beings in terms of our interpersonal relationships.
Much of what we know about China in the West is the result of how the country chooses to reveal itself to us. So it’s intriguing to watch a movie about China’s criminal underworld, given how little is reported about it. Just how accurate is this portrayal?
In terms of this particular film, what I’m trying to reveal is not actually the silent minorities. In fact, it’s just the opposite. A lot of taboos right now in China have very little to do with the very marginalized people. I think it’s actually just the opposite. What’s the most taboo are the ones who are the majority but unseen. They could easily be your neighbors, your classmates, or your neighbors’ children in real life, especially in the past 40 years. That’s how long it has taken for society to open up and start to reform itself. After 1949, when the People’s Republic of China was established, the civil society that we used to have before completely disappeared because the the economy had everyone assigned to a unit.
So a sense of civil society completely vanished. It wasn’t until that was reformed, and there was an emergence of open door policies, that you’d see the reemergence and reappearance of the civil societies and you’d start to see people move around. There was a lot of mobility, and it was that element that actually created the characters that I’m dictating in my film. They are the majority and they have been around for at least 40 years.
In the final third of “Mountains May Depart,” you ventured outside of China to follow your characters to Australia. How much interest do you still have in terms of making movies in China in the future?
For the near future, I will still very much deal with films happening in China. But that doesn’t mean I won’t explore other countries to explore what’s going on with China. For example, for my generation had a newfound mobility — we removed ourselves from the rural areas and over to the urban areas within China, so we could somehow find better opportunities or find better lives outside of our own hometowns. But the younger generation, the next generation and the newer generations, the way that they express their mobility is no longer just domestically.
Instead, they’re migrating from China to other countries overseas in many different parts of the world. Even though spatially it’s in a “foreign country,” it’s very much still a Chinese story about how these immigrants assimilate into the local community.
Western pop music permeates both “Ash is Purest White,” with the recurring use of “YMCA,” and in “Mountains May Depart,” with “Go West.” What significance do these reference points have for you?
For people from my generation, pop music is almost like a symbol of our rebellious nature at the time when we were young. When we were in our childhood, pop culture wasn’t actually allowed in China. It was forbidden. So we’d secretly listen to the radio from Taiwan, from Hong Kong, just to get a sense of what it was like to be on the receiving end of that kind of pop culture outside of China. For us, pop culture symbolized this ability to rebel against your traditional collectivism — the way the authorities tell you what can be done, what cannot be done, what’s allowed, what’s not allowed. We might not actually know the actual lyrics to the songs, but they trigger those collective memories of us at that time when we were young, feeling rebellious, trying to really express ourselves in a very individualistic manner.
You have also placed a tremendous emphasis on women in your films, in part by working with your wife, Zhao Tao. How have the evolving conversations about women’s rights impacted your interests as a filmmaker?
I don’t think that the way I create my worlds was somehow completely informed either by feminism or the #MeToo movement. I do recognize problems with gender inequality and the things that we should improve upon. But that’s never the source in terms of my creative starting point. It has lot to do with how I see myself as a male person, as a male director, and how I start to recognize that there’s a lot of room for self-reflection against various political and social backdrops.
A lot of my friends lost themselves in this kind of pressure to be a man — this idea that to be successful means that you need to establish yourself with wealth and power. A lot of them destroyed themselves in this process. They lost their dignity and became extremely alienated. They become very, very fragile because they constantly felt as if they’d been left behind by the mainstream culture and they couldn’t somehow catch up with it. That’s why their female counterparts have been so resilient. They still have certain morals and values that they hold onto and adhere to. They can still have interpersonal relationships that they can build and maintain. And so to me, the tide has changed in terms of gender in China.
You run a film festival and speak to younger generations of Chinese filmmakers. What needs to happen to ensure a constructive future for filmmaking in China?
I do think that, in order for these young filmmakers to be sustainable, the overall general environment of the film industry needs to be a lot more open and inclusive. I also think it’s important for directors not to be distracted by other factors other than the film that they’re making. In order to actually make the process of filmmaking as painless as possible, and not to somehow be distracted by other factors, I do think that you need to know why you are making your films — the ideas that you want to express within your film so you don’t lose yourself in pursuit of whatever value systems other people impose on you.
Whether or not this film has great box office potential, does it have artistic merit? It’s a different value system. You have to focus on what you want to make. What are the ideas that you want to express in these films, so that you can still be yourself without being distracted by either the market or societal pressures? It’s all about you as a filmmaker.