While Chinese film director Jia Zhangke was editing his earlier films Unknown Pleasures (2002) and Still Life (2006), both of which starred Zhao Tao, he attempted to simplify the storylines by cutting some of her love scenes. But when he went back to look at those deleted scenes, the two characters she had played somehow blended together in his mind. In his imagination, this woman was born and raised in his hometown, a coal-mining region in north-west China. Such deleted scenes inspired him to create Ash is Purest White, which has been selected to compete in the official competition for the Palme d’Or of the 71st Cannes Film Festival, which took place in May.
The deleted scenes inspired Jia to imagine what would have become of this woman—and the man she once loved—in the present day. She was named Qiaoqiao (Qiao for short) and fell in love with a jianghu type, people who speak with a different dialect. Their love and torment would open the story. Although time has changed the way she looks, Jia used cinema to record the way that time has shaped her.
That title almost says it all as the couple in the film live on the margins of society. They survive by challenging the orthodox social order. “I didn’t set out to defend them, rather to empathise with their predicament,” Jia said in the press conference during the festival, adding, “it reminds me in some ways of the first decade of my career, when it was risky to make films expressing one’s true self and truths about society. So I threw myself into writing the script as if I were writing about my own emotional journeys, my lost youth, and my fantasy about the future. To live, to love, and to be free.”
The film opens in China at the outset of the 21st century and closes in 2018.
Structure of Ash is Purest White echoes time-frame of Mountains May Depart, but tone, characters are very different this time. Why did you decide to focus on characters from jianghu underworld?
The mystique of the jianghu is a very important part of the Chinese culture. Many underworld societies were formed in ancient China, rooted in particular industries or regions. They were networks which transcended family relationships and local clan identities, providing support and a way of life for lower-class people. The most common spiritual symbol of jianghu culture is Lord Guan. He represents loyalty and righteousness—the core values of the jianghu. You can see how that works in the opening scene of the film; the character Jia refuses to acknowledge his debt to another guy, and Bin makes him confess the truth in front of the statue of Lord Guan, their spiritual totem.
After the communist victory in 1949, China’s underworld societies gradually disappeared. The characters in Ash is Purest White are not gangs in the old sense. They came into existence after the “reform and opening-up” movement of the late 1970s and inherited the violent legacy of the “Cultural Revolution” years. They learned their morals and protocols from the Hong Kong gangster movies of the 1980s. They developed their own distinctive ways of handling relationships as a way of surviving and helping each other amid all the drastic social changes that China was going through. The jianghu is a world of adventure and a world of unique emotions. I have always been interested in jianghu love stories, in which the characters fear neither love nor hate. The story of this film spans the years between 2001 and 2018, years of enormous social upheaval. People’s traditional values and the ways they live have changed beyond recognition in these years. And yet the jianghu clings to its own values and codes of conduct and functions in its own way. This seems ironic, but I find it curiously attractive.
Qiao and Bin did not get married. As I see it, that is their fate—but also a symbol of their rebellion.
It is fictional, but it is based on all kinds of jianghu rumours. Some of the details came from friends of mine.
First section of story incorporates some footage which you shot nearly 20 years ago. Was that old footage starting point for whole project?
I got my first digital video camera in 2001. I took it to Datong in Shanxi back then and shot tonnes of material. It was all completely hit-and-miss. I shot people I saw in factories, bus stations, on buses, in ballrooms, saunas, karaoke bars, all kinds of places. I kept on shooting such material right up to 2006, when I made Still Life. Recently, when I have gone back to look at that old material, I somehow found it more and more alien to me. I would always assumed that changes in Chinese society are gradual, not something that happens overnight. Hence, looking back at this old material was a shock, bringing home to me how suddenly things have changed. It is only when I look at those old videos that I remember how everything looked back then. Before I wrote the script for Ash is Purest White, I rough-cut some of that old footage into a 10-minute documentary short, which brought back so many memories. The film begins with a fragment shot on a public bus. I wanted to start the film that way because journeys are crucial to jianghu mythology. The stories about jianghu legends always make a point of the adventurous way they roam around.
Those faces on the bus remind me of a philosophical jianghu saying: “Wherever there are people, the jianghu exists.” The name “jianghu” literally means “rivers and lakes”, but in Chinese philosophy, the term connotes “different people”. The characters in the story have encountered more people than most of us do. So the film needed to begin with a group image.
You have returned to Three Gorges for middle part of story, it is an area which represents both China’s progress, development, loss of old communities, traditions. What keeps drawing you to it?
Yes, it has become an important location in my films—both because it exemplifies all the drastic changes in modern China and because the actual landscape remains more or less the same. It still looks like a classical Chinese painting. The Three Gorges are on the Yangtze River (in Chinese, the “Changjiang”), in an area where almost every county has its own pier on the river. Countless boats bring new people everyday, and take others away. There is a constant sense of movement and chaos. The dam project in the area has forced a large number of people to relocate. On the one side, a huge national project, and on the other, the break-ups of families and loved ones. The film’s story opens in Datong, Shanxi Province, in the cold and arid north, and moves into the Three Gorges, in the warm and humid south-west. The enormous environmental differences open up a huge space for the film. From Shanxi all the way to her dream of a new life in Xinjiang in the far north-west, Qiao embarks on a long journey of exile. She travels across more than 7,700 km of China in the course of the story.
The people living in the Three Gorges area have their own distinctive dialects, and linguistic diversity was another thing I wanted to pursue in the film. In the first part of the film, you hear dialogue in the Shanxi dialect. In the middle part, you hear the higher-pitched Chongqing dialect.