Jia Zhangke has been a major player on the international stage for decades. Winner of the Golden Lion for Still Life, his career has spanned international productions and films made within the more rigid system of state-run media in China. Despite these restrictions, Jia has proven a precise and at times fearless examiner of the many contradictions of his country, showing both the beauty and corruption as different facets of the same culture.
His latest film, Ash Is Purest White, is a wide ranging story that follows decades of transformation both of the country and the people who make their way within the rapidly changing environment. With a standout performance by Zia’s partner and longtime collaborator Zhao Tao, the film played well in competition in Cannes and during its festival run. Prior to its release in theatres, That Shelf spoke exclusively to the legendary director about his fascination with the gangster genre, the challenges of maintaining ones voice and his fascination with Disco music.
How did your own love of the gangster genre affect the making of your film?
Jia Zhangke: I’m a big fan of the jiang hu genre not only from classic literature but also via the Hong Kong gangster films from the 80s. A lot of authors, writers and directors use this particular genre to look as something from the margin to mainstream culture. That is something that I’m very drawn to and very interested in in my new film, Ash Is Purest White.
With my 2006 film, Still Life, I tried to capture the dramatic transformations and changes in the exterior or external sense. It’s a landscape that’s changing and impacts on the characters or the people in this particular environment. For this new film, Ash is the Purest White, I wanted to examine something more internal, more about the inner feelings or emotions and how that kind of interpersonal relationship changes and evolves through time against this dramatic transformation in society.
If you think about the, what you call the quintessential elements of the underworld or the jiang hu genre in literature or film, it’s very much about two elements – qing, which is the emotions or connections interpersonally, and the other one is the loyalty that people somehow feel towards another.
I do think that not only is society externally, but also this sense of codes of conduct, or codes of honour within the jiang hu underworld is changing as well. That is something that I want to capture with this film, to go from the exterior very much into the inner thoughts of the characters, and how they evolved and changed through time against the dramatic transformation of the society.
One of the things that your film suggests is that that internal struggle requires corruption to rise from the low to the high, which is a reflection of the changes that China is going through. I’m wondering if you could reflect on the fact that perhaps sometimes one has to tread into moral blackness in order to achieve things like financial security, but also emotional security.
Take a look at the so-called underworld, the gangster society, and how it has evolved in recent Chinese history. In 1949 the civil society that we used to have beforehand actually completely disappeared because of the governmental institution with their whole idea of work units that people would be assigned to. Any previous existence of this the gangster society no longer existed because of this complete transformation of the political and social structure.
Because of reforms later on, because of the open door policy, civil society was revived. You then see the emergence of this type of gangster again in China. I think that there was a break, in terms of that continuation of certain code of conduct that the gangster didn’t really inherit from the underworld society before 1949. Instead, they learned from the gangster films of Hong Kong. It’s not the same school, not the same lineage of the gangster history that we used to have in the past. It’s something very much of something borrowed from the pop culture from the Hong Kong gangster genre films in the 80s. They combined that, as I mentioned before, the emotions and loyalty in the current reincarnation.
This seems a metaphor for your own cinema. The generation before him would draw upon much more historical examinations of China, using the ancient past as an allegory for the present. Do you find yourself in the same way borrowing from the liberty of 1980s Hong Kong cinema to reflect very on modern China, unafraid to tell the story without needing to cloak in metaphor by using ancient regimes?
My central philosophy, or the reason why I’ve been making the films I’ve been making, is very much about contemporary China and the dramatic transformation that we’re experiencing. It’s actually informed by the contemporary. I want to really get into how these characters feel against this particular social context and I want to give expression to those inner feelings.
For this film, I’m taking on this particular genre which is underworld or the gangster world genre from the 80s in Hong Kong. But with 2013’s A Touch of Sin I was actually drawing from past.
I do think that what’s going on right now in contemporary Chinese society is unlike what happened in the past, in not just contemporary history, but also 300, 400 years ago. I do think that I’m trying to find that kind of connection between what is now and what is in the past, and I do think that’s one thing in a very direct way. I’m not trying to be indirect or trying to be an allegory, I’m just trying to make that connection that what’s going on now has something to do with the past, the causes and effects. What happened in the past has a huge impact on what’s going on right now and caused the social ills and unrest you see.
This is a complicated question – Zhiang Yimou had his film pulled from Berlin supposedly because it went against state censorship considerations. It seems that you are able to make political movies about contemporary China with a degree of freedom that others do not necessarily have. What it’s like working within the system rather than working outside a system, as you have done both?
For me to navigate this kind of boundaries and limitations and lines I need to really adhere to two things I think are crucial for me to be the filmmaker I want to be in China. Number one is that I need to believe in myself and I need to really know the films that I want to make and not compromise in terms of what I want to express in myself, which means that I also need to make sure that I’m not censoring myself. The censorship is not just from the government; sometimes it’s the filmmakers who censor themselves. That is something that I want to make sure that I don’t do in my own films and I really want that my identity as a filmmaker will be intact no matter what.
The second one is that since I want to insist on this particular identity, I want to remain intact, I need to spend a lot of time to communicate about any challenges or hurdles that will be in my way for me to accomplish this particular existence. I need to spend a lot of time communicating with all of the stakeholders and to make sure that I can still be the filmmaker which I want to be. In terms of Yimou’s film being withdrawn from the lineup, I have no idea what’s going on. I think maybe the only person who would know exactly what’s going on would be the director himself. But for me, to do what I can do, as I mentioned, I will just have to make sure that I am the filmmaker I want to be and also to spend time communicating with other people.
You again work with your partner, Zhao Tao, and elicit what I believe to be her greatest role. How do you guys work together to develop the character?
When I was writing the script, with this woman from a small town living on the margins of society, I thought Zhao Tao would be perfect. Not only is she very familiar with people I wanted to capture in this film, but also she has great imagination and also connects with people like the character.
And once again you hold a fascination for repeating instances of Western pop songs, particularly Village People-themed, which seems to be an ongoing trope of late.
I do think the use of pop songs is a very effective way to actually trigger some collective memories of a lot of Chinese youth. I wanted to start the film in 2001 and that was the reality that at the time that was the most popular song in those typical clubs that young people would go to. By using songs like “YMCA” or other pop songs it is a trigger to the collective memories from our generation. For young people of the time, when they listen to these songs, they don’t really know about the lyrics, but they feel the freedom. They feel the freedom in the songs and that’s what they are actually craving after a long period of time without these type of pop culture influences. That’s the reason why I used them quite a bit in my films.
Ash is Purest White opens March 22 and the TIFF Bell Lightbox