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Jia Zhangke on Ash is Purest White, Deconstructing Genre and Learning Masculinity from John Woo Movies

Zhao Tao in Ash Is Purest White

The latest film from writer and director Jia Zhangke adds new insights to his previous titles like Still Life and A Touch of Sin. Again starring his wife Zhao Tao, Ash Is Purest White follows two outsiders for some twenty years as their fortunes flow and ebb in China’s new economy. Set partly in a gritty coal-mining town and partly on the Yangtze River at the moment when the then-under-contruction Three Gorges Dam was about to forever change the landscape, the film resembles the structure of Mountains May Depart in its use of three time periods and chapters. But, as Jia explains, what starts as a kind of crime film turns into something quite different. Filmmaker spoke with Jia during the New York Film Festival and during his press tour this February. Vincent Cheng translated.

Filmmaker: You grew up in the Shanxi province, where the opening of Ash Is Purest White takes place. Are there autobiographical elements to the film?

Zhangke: This is a film spanning from 2001 to 2018, 17 years that I lived and experienced. Even though the stories are not mine personally, the impressions are definitely a reflection of what I experienced as Chinese society was dramatically transforming.

Filmmaker: What does a town like Datong, where the story opens, represent to Chinese viewers?

Zhangke: Datong is very close to Mongolia, so the Chinese tend to think of people there as being very, very tough—risk takers, adventurers, in part because the local industry relies heavily on energy, particularly coal. So if the price of coal goes up, everybody lives a good life. If the price drops, then everyone suffers. So in general, when people think about Shanxi Datong, they think about the coal industry, the coal miners—a sense of being very masculine, tough guys, like John Wayne.

Filmmaker: You show how they learn to become tough guys through movies and pop songs. When they watch a clip of Chow Yun-fat in Tragic Hero, it’s like they’re studying how he moves and behaves.

Zhangke: Definitely. They learned a lot from Hong Kong films, John Woo movies and others, because they were so popular in the 1980s. They would gather around the arcade and it’s all they saw. The ones that jiang hu were really crazy about were the triad films. A lot of them, they learned from that particular genre of film and expressed that in their daily life.

Filmmaker: What does jiang hu mean? Does it refer to gangsters, triads?

Zhangke: In the Chinese context, it’s different from the concept of mafia or gangsters in the US. We had gangsters, organized crime, in China, but since 1949 it was forbidden, and abandoned as a result. Crime organizations or associations in the past tended to have very strict rules of succession, from one generation to the next, with a lot of rituals associated with how you pass down power. So before 1949, there was that traditional understanding of the concept of crime families or organizations. What I am talking about this film is very much post-1949. It’s not gangsters in the strictest sense. It’s more an underworld society, brotherhoods that form organically within certain neighborhoods and pockets of society. The reason is because these people tend to feel very marginalized—in fact, they live on the margins and need to protect themselves and one another, so they form these very loose societies. It could be people from the same street, the same factory, the same neighborhood, and it’s out of necessity that they somehow come together.

One big difference between the jiang hu I’m talking about and the mafia crime families that people are familiar with is that there aren’t any codified rules or regulations to follow like you might find in triads. It’s loosely put together and more about complex interpersonal connections, emotions and relationships that you build with these people that you call brothers or lovers, these people you choose to associate with. One thing I tried to do with Ash is to examine this jiang hu culture by showing how two characters evolve into two separate directions. The male character, Guo Bin [played by Liao Fan], as time passes, somehow lets go of those human connections—codes of honor, codes of conduct—within the jiang hu. He starts to pursue other things such as money, power, fame. Whereas the female character, Qiaoqiao [Zhao Tao], is actually the one who is upholding those connections, emotions, codes, until the very end, and becomes a stronger character.

Filmmaker: Do those codes still exist today, or are they as illusory as the movies they watch? Qiaoqiao insists that she is living by a code of honor, or “righteousness” as she calls it.

Zhangke: I do think some people completely abandon or neglect that type of time-honored traditions and values of the past. They now focus on a more market-driven, money-driven value system. That’s definitely a reflection of Chinese society right now. One concept from the film sort of summarizes how you see that there are people who are still living by this code of honor, and on the other hand you have people who completely take on a new way of living. It’s the concept of industrializing or commercializing jiang hu. Since that long line of tradition has been cut off, outlawed since 1949, you have this gap. How do you conceptualize your role? What does it mean to be in that type of society? You draw inspiration from other sources, movies and songs perhaps. Or you abandon them entirely.

Filmmaker: But then Qiaoqiao is cut adrift by following a code of honor. It’s a brilliant performance by Zhao Tao because you can see her confusion when she is betrayed by her principles. In the second half of the film, she not only has to rebuild her life, but her belief system as well. Can you talk about how you collaborate with Zhao Tao and your other performers?

Zhangke: At first I thought maybe we would have two sets of actors, younger ones for the early scenes and then Liao Fan as Bing and Zhao Tao as Qiaoqiao when they are more middle-aged. I talked to Zhao Tao about these ideas, how are we going to do this, and she pointed out that all of my films have a very keen sense of documentary feel. Documenting how actors’ faces evolve and age through time adds to that sense of reality. That’s why we decided to go with one group of actors instead of two. Here’s another example of how the interactions and collaborations with my actors not only change the way I write and finish my script, but also how I think about what I have written. In the beginning of the script Zhao Tao has to take on an underworld character, a strong female character. But she thought that ultimately this is a story about a woman. It doesn’t have to be in the underworld or any other context. Her concept of female thinking and logic, how women feel inside, the emotions they carry with them—that’s something I want to capture more than what the beginning of the script was about. In the beginning I was working in a clear genre style. A good way to transcend that genre is to deconstruct it, to slowly take away all those genre identifiers. In the end the film boils down to the love story between Qiaoqiao and Bin, their raw feelings and inner emotions.

Filmmaker: What about working on the set? Zhao Tao very likely is good no matter how she plays a scene.

Zhangke: Parts of the performance are scripted in the original screenplay. For example, the way Qiaoqiao loses her money and decides to become a grifter, tries to survive in that environment, that was written. So when Zhao Tao read that part of the script, we talked about the motivations for this character facing this particular challenge, trying to survive without any money. We talked about this in terms of when you think of people in prison, in a way it’s a school, a great education, for criminals. You can learn how to commit crimes, and you can also learn about men’s weaknesses, how they can be taken advantage of. So that became her motivation, why she chose to become a grifter and cheat those men out of their money. She understands their weakness, and she got a pretty good education in prison. So even though it’s written in the script in terms of situations, the plot line and locations, understanding those motivations needs a lot of communication. We discuss why people are doing the things they are doing, rather than just “do this without thinking about why.”

Some parts of the script are not written at all but happen spontaneously during the shooting. For example, when Qiaoqiao meets the lady on the cruise liner. As soon as the woman enters the cabin, Qiaoqiao immediately stands up. That is very much the influence of prison culture. Whenever anyone enters your jail cell, a security guard or whoever, you stand up. That wasn’t written in the script, but Zhao Tao’s performance teased out that natural reaction for someone of her background, how she would behave if someone suddenly entered her private space. I didn’t write it, but it adds so much texture and detail to the story and the character. In my earlier films she tended to take direction and then actualize it in the character. With A Touch of Sin she became a lot more proactive in terms of offering suggestions and addressing doubts she might have about her character. That really gave me a rich and different perspective. This film is very much about male characters reflecting where they stand and who they are in society. As a male director, I very much appreciate Zhao Tao’s input in terms of female logic, female perspective. She really added layers and textures to the film. It’s a great collaboration.

Filmmaker: So how fluid is the script? Do scenes change? I’m thinking of the moment when Qiaoqiao is on a motorcycle taxi on her way to the power plant, and you stage it in a teeming downpour.

Zhangke: When I’m writing I have things that will never change, in terms of the mood and setting, and the weather is also written into the script. For that scene on the motorcycle, in my script I wrote that it had to be a rainy day. That’s how the whole scene plays out, so we needed man-made rain. It was challenging, because the shot is so wide. I do revise the script in production, but that will be more or less in terms of dialogue, certain parts I want to edit, or maybe omit altogether.

Filmmaker: This is the first time you’ve worked with cinematographer Eric Gautier. Was that a difficult adjustment?

Zhangke: I worked with Yu Lik-Wai from my first film until Mountains May Depart. But when I started Ash Is Purest White, he was working on another project that he was directing. So I had to find another cinematographer. I’d seen films by Olivier Assayas and Walter Salles, so I knew Eric’s films and was really impressed by his work. I really appreciate how he approached the shoot. He does a lot of preparation before we start. During that period we had in-depth discussions about how we are going to actualize the scenes in the script.

Filmmaker: How do you collaborate with Gautier on set?

Zhangke: Because I usually have a lot of long takes, that takes a lot of mise en scene. It will definitely be my jurisdiction to create a particular arrangement before we shoot. Then he will be the one executing what I put together with his own compositions, his own techniques and how he wants to present the scene.

Filmmaker: One remarkable moment is a long action scene at night in the streets of town. Can you talk about putting that together?

Zhangke: We applied for permission from the government to shoot this particular scene in three nights. We needed it to be on location, because we wanted to have this sense of time and place. I envisioned it to be shot in three long takes, with short takes in between. We applied for the permit and did it. But the first night, Liao Fan suffered a head injury on the hood of a car. We had to wait for his wound to heal before we could apply for permission to shoot for another three nights. In terms of the fight, we had to break it down into small parts which we choreographed and rehearsed ahead of time. As we approached the actual shooting, we picked up the speed in rehearsals to make sure we have this organic, authentic moment. It’s one long take, you need to get it right. Once we have that, we can cut other short takes into it.

Filmmaker: How does a film like this fit into the Chinese marketplace?

Zhangke: In terms of budget, in relation to other mega-films on the market, this is definitely a low budget film. In spirit it’s very much an independent film. We do need to learn how to play into the overall release system in China. It takes a lot of effort, a lot of time, to promote the film, to go through all the efforts to make sure it can be seen, because we don’t really have the kind of cineplexes that show all types of films, from blockbusters to arthouse.

Filmmaker; How much is language a barrier? For example, the jiang hu love Cantopop songs, but they don’t speak Cantonese.

Zhangke: They actually know the lyrics. At the time, pamphlets from the cassettes would translate the lyrics, or they would find them in magazines. Many people actually used songs as a way to learn Cantonese. In the film they are mostly speaking the Shanxi dialect. But even though the two dialects, Shanxi and Cantonese, are different, they are both ancient Chinese dialects, which is something they share. I did something similar with the English dialogue in Mountains May Depart. I treated the words like the pop songs I listen to.

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