Crime and Passion: Jia Zhangke's 'Ash Is the Purest White' is a time-spanning story of love and betrayal

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Jia Zhangke’s Ash Is the Purest White had its American premiere at the New York Film Festival on Oct. 1 and opens in U.S. theatres on March 15, 2019. It is the celebrated Chinese writer-director’s eighth narrative feature, and perhaps his most introspective and enigmatic endeavor. At 48, Jia has reached the age, celebrated in myth and the movies, when men embark on their second search for meaning. The writer-director’s realization of that moment arrived when he began screening outtakes from Unknown Pleasures (2002), his breakout film about disaffected youth, and Still Life (2006), a drama centered on the construction of the Three Gorges dam. Jia’s characters in Ash Is the Purest White, a woman and her lover, are named for two teenage characters from Unknown Pleasures, Qaio Qaio and Bin.

In an interview at the offices of distributor Cohen Media Group in New York City, Jia says of his latest film: “A lot of people’s lives are about fighting against their fate, fighting things out of their control, such as the family or class they were born into, or the location they were born into.” Speaking through an interpreter, Jia concedes that these spiritual or psychological journeys lie at the core of his work. “To understand these stories is to understand how a society and the individual are connected,” he says, “especially in societies of oppressed individuals where we see a change in the trajectory of their development.” Jia’s latest film begins in 2001, when Qaio and Bin are young lovers, and Bin is a respected underworld figure.

The three time periods in Ash Is the Purest White reflect an era of great change in China. In 2001, Jia explains, many factories were closed and there was widespread unemployment, which is the reason that Bin, a former worker, turns to a life of crime. Recognizing that this 17-year period coincided with his own growth as an artist, Jia ages his central characters a by few years in the first segment of the film to match that of his generation; by the second section of the movie, using scenes from Still Life, he follows them into their 30s, and then, in the third section, to late middle age. In revisiting footage from his previous features, he began to think about the technical advances during these years; Ash Is the Purest White reflects that history through Jia’s shift to different aspect ratios.

The story unfolds from Qaio’s point-of-view, in the opening scene, as she banters with Bin’s gang. After a fellow mobster is killed in their town, Bin shows Qaio how to use a gun, and she is both fascinated and repelled by the weapon. Guns are illegal in China. The lovers are bound by Mafia-like oaths of loyalty, so when Bin is brutally beaten by bikers, Qaio looking on from inside their car, she soon realizes that she must find some way to defend him. She discharges the gun twice, and the attackers scatter. Qaio is arrested for possession but she will not betray Bin by telling authorities that it is his gun. She receives a five-year sentence, and Bin does not visit her in jail. When she is released, she confronts him, and discovers that while he still feels a strong bond with her, he is with another woman. She is devastated by his betrayal, and returns to her hometown.

Asked about his female character who in the end, adhering to their code of loyalty, helps her former lover to recover from an injury, Jia explains that Bin does not intentionally abandon Qaio. “In terms of this concept of betrayal, it depends on your point-of-view,” he explains. “From Mr. Bin’s perspective, what he did is make a choice for himself—he did not set out to betray her.” The filmmaker recalls that during the writing process he strived to create a spirited woman who makes a life for herself after Bin’s abandonment and a reversal of fortune. Ash Is the Purest White refers to volcanic ash, and is a metaphor for the purity and strength of those who survive a fiery transformation. An early scene in which Bin teaches Qaio to shoot the weapon is backgrounded by a volcano, a foreshadowing of the violence that will dramatically alter their lives.

The filmmaker, who lives with Zhao, his partner and the star of nearly all of his films, in the region where he was born and where many of his stories are set, says that Chinese censors made no cuts to this movie. At first glance, Ash Is the Purest White is a simple love story, and a surprisingly expository tale from a writer-director best-known for multi-layered narratives that both celebrate the Chinese people and depict their attempts to forge some measure of personal freedom in a totalitarian state. Not unlike Jafar Panahi, who insists on staying in Iran despite the ban placed upon him, Jia must feel that living outside China he would lose his identity and all the cinematic idioms that inform his oeuvre. Asked if audiences might interpret the movie as an allegorical tale, he at first demurs and then replies: “If I want to make a little connection to the allegorical elements that you mention, I think it would be what the society and the Chinese people are going through now.”