Director Jia Zhangke speaks at the New York Film Festival on Sept. 30, 2018. (Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images)
Director Jia Zhangke speaks at the New York Film Festival on Sept. 30, 2018. (Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images)

Review

Inside Man

Jia Zhangke’s "Ash Is Purest White," socially critical yet officially sanctioned, strikes a middle path for Chinese cinema.

The punkish outsider who eventually overtakes—or is assimilated into—the establishment is a familiar figure. In a way, it’s a process as natural as the passing of time or the rotation of the seasons. Even the passing of time, however, can be fraught in modern China, where history moves quickly and the nation’s political and cultural future is the subject of fierce battles with uncertain terms and high stakes.

In many ways, Jia Zhangke, whose new crime drama, Ash Is Purest White, debuted in China last year and is playing now in the United States, is the model for the contemporary Chinese independent filmmaker. The foremost representative of Chinese cinema in the world today, and a great favorite among international critics and cinephiles, Jia’s commitments to social critique and his own personal idea of realism stand in stark opposition to China’s official self-image, and to the polished, internationally acclaimed historical epics of directors like Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige—the previous generation of Chinese filmmakers to gain international fame. Yet Ash Is Purest White, which has grossed over $11.4 million, including over $10 million in China alone—massive figures for a Chinese art film—is a project with mass ambitions as well as artistic ones. To date, it’s the clearest expression of Jia’s drive to forge a viable alternative to marginalized dissidence, in which he can both articulate a socially critical perspective and find a popular audience, in China and around the world.

His first film, Pickpocket, released in 1997, was shot without state support—most Chinese films are produced within the official system—for about $50,000 in the director’s hometown of Fenyang, in Shanxi province. The film’s unexpected success led to a relationship with Office Kitano, the production company run by the cult Japanese filmmaker Takeshi Kitano, which garnered Jia the resources to make a historical epic of his own, Platform, released in 2000. A decade-spanning story of a China undergoing a strange transformation, Platform follows a team of itinerant performers who over the course of the film metamorphose from the Fenyang Peasant Culture Group into the Shenzhen All-Star Rock and Breakdance Electric Band. Foolhardy in ambition and faultless in execution, Platform signaled something new in Chinese cinema: a novelistic opus marked by the rough-hewn textures of everyday life, made under the nose of a single-party state that prefers a varnished image. The Canadian film magazine Cinema Scope named it the greatest film of the 21st century’s first decade. In 2013, Foreign Policy placed the director on the year’s list of 100 Global Thinkers. “Jia Zhangke is angry,” the editors wrote. “He’s angry that his fellow Chinese filmmakers often ignore their country’s worsening social problems, including rising inequality and corruption.”

As Jia’s international profile has grown—he has become a regular on the international festival circuit—his prominence within his native country has risen as well. Rather than emigrate or maintain a purely oppositional stance, and thus give up the possibility of releasing his films at home, as have many of his peers on China’s nascent art cinema fringe, or give himself over to China’s official commercial cinema, like many filmmakers from previous generations, Jia has forged something of a middle path. In recent years, he has accepted some state funding—the investors behind Ash Is Purest White included the state-aligned Shanghai Film Group as well as Office Kitano and French arthouse stalwarts MK2 and Arte France Cinéma. And in order to play domestically, his films must undergo the country’s erratic and finicky censorship process. At the same time, however, Jia has maintained the subject matter of his early work. In the process, he’s become something of an ambassador for Chinese culture abroad, and, reciprocally, a representative of international and independent cinema within China. In 2017, he led the creation of a new international film festival in the city of Pingyao, a historic town in his native Shanxi province where parts of Platform were shot. The Pingyao Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon International Film Festival gives the director an opportunity to highlight both key international movies from the festival circuit as well as new works of Chinese independent cinema—at least the ones that the government will permit to play in an official festival. A true renaissance man, he’s also opened a noodle shop in Fenyang.

As filmmaker, historian, and poster child, Jia’s role within China recalls to a certain extent Martin Scorsese’s position as an elder statesman for cinema in the United States (albeit with the rather glaring distinction that, in contrast to the endearingly grandfatherly Scorsese, Jia is still a relatively young 48 years old). Yet while the American director’s extracurricular work consists largely of preserving and refining his country’s film culture, what Jia is hoping to create must be constructed from the ground up. He admitted as much in an interview with Variety on the occasion of the premiere of Ash Is Purest White at the Cannes Film Festival, saying, “I have been committing myself to improve the distribution system in China, trying to open more screening spaces for indie films, including setting up the art-house film alliance. But these efforts have not been big enough so far in a big country like China.”

It’s this gap between Jia’s already considerable accomplishments and the broader potential of his project that makes him such a compelling figure. Despite boasting the world’s second-largest film market and a major national cinema, China can still be realistically perceived as a sort of cultural sleeping giant, at least on the international level. Hollywood has long been infatuated by the promises of the Chinese market, salivating at the prospect of its already lucrative blockbusters being made vastly more profitable. What Jia dreams of, an engagement with independent cinema on that same mass scale, would represent a much greater transformation. If he were to succeed, it would be difficult to overstate the significance of his achievement.

Ash Is Purest White is a product of this balancing act between Jia’s filmmaking and his wider ambitions, necessitating a certain negotiation of both the political situation and the market. It is both his highest-budget and most lucrative effort to date.

Perhaps one indication of Jia’s mass ambitions has been his embrace of genre. His 2013 film A Touch of Sin, consisting of episodes drawn from headlines, played on action conventions, its title harkening to King Hu’s 1971 kung fu masterpiece A Touch of Zen. Ash Is Purest White takes the form of a romantic crime epic, starring Jia’s wife and muse Zhao Tao as a gangster’s moll who must rebuild her life after pulling an illegal gun to save her lover from a rival gang, going to prison to protect her beau and losing him in the process.

The issue of the authorities and the accompanying threat of censorship is more difficult to parse, not least because the government doesn’t define outright what is and isn’t acceptable. Much to the director’s unpleasant surprise, A Touch of Sin, Jia’s most overt gesture toward Chinese popular cinema, was barred from release in his native country.

Ash Is Purest White avoided that fate. Built around a narrative extended over the last two decades, it continues Jia’s rigorous engagement with his country’s recent past—likely the most radical and potentially subversive element of his work. His distinctive style, insisting on location shooting and sound so as to integrate his character’s stories into a documentation of their physical and social environment, is in some ways a response to his country’s accelerating history. At a master class at this year’s Locarno Film Festival, where Jia served as head of the jury, he attributed his aesthetic to a realization he had during a major redevelopment of Fenyang, shortly before the making of Pickpocket. “My father told me that I needed to take a close look at it or it would be gone soon,” he said of his hometown. “It was the first time I realized that memories could be lost.” Later, he said, “At the moment, you are filming the present, but it will become history very soon. So filmmakers are responsible, among other things, for recording history.”

This isn’t just a poetic turn of phrase. Ash Is Purest White begins with documentary footage that Jia shot in 2001 (a device that he also used in Mountains May Depart), a recognition that the director has been around long enough for his own experiences to register some historical interest. After all, China’s blistering rate of change means that one’s present can become history in frighteningly little time. Jia’s earlier work is recalled throughout the film, which has been described both approvingly and derisively as a collection of greatest hits. Like its predecessors Mountains May Depart and A Touch of Sin, Ash Is the Purest White is divided rather clearly into distinct chapters. Geographically, the film revisits the scenes of some of his past triumphs, including the protagonist’s hometown of Datong, the setting of Unknown Pleasures (2002), and the area of the Three Gorges Dam, which the director documented in his 2006 Venice Film Festival-winner Still Life.

It is against this decidedly national landscape that Zhao’s character roams, maintaining her loyalty to her former lover after he rejects her for the sister of a wealthy colleague, and as his formerly tight-as-thieves gang fractures and its members turn their backs on one another. Equally adept at playing emotional vulnerability and steely resolve, Zhao holds the screen as naturally as a grande dame of Hollywood’s golden age, giving the film’s broader social resonance an accessible emotional core—though Jia has insisted that the gangster film was the sole genre he looked to in making the film, its portrait of beleaguered yet resilient femininity bears a not insubstantial similarity to the old American melodrama. As in his previous two films, the subject of Ash Is Purest White is money and its corrosive effect on human relationships, its central couple rent asunder by the vicissitudes of survival in the dog-eat-dog reality of modern China.

A storyteller adept at putting the country’s history into narrative form—with the documentary evidence to back up his version of events—it makes sense that Jia is perceived alternately as both a promise and a threat by various interests within China’s government, not least its censors, who have certainly marked him as a person of interest. Skeptical viewers who suspect that the director is practicing a form of self-censorship to ensure that his films have a life domestically will be able to point to the absence of official wrongdoing in the film, in contrast to films by more underground filmmakers such as Ying Liang and Wang Bing, which have made a point of holding the state accountable for specific trespasses. Yet the amorphousness of the film’s critique has a power of its own. Instead of highlighting individual acts of government malfeasance, Jia’s recent work amounts to a portrait of a profound and widespread malaise that stands in stark contrast to official narratives of a resurgent China. While the banned Touch of Sin showed the participants in contemporary Chinese capitalism reduced to behaving like criminals, Ash Is Purest White shows its gangsters slowly giving themselves over to the norms of the new capitalist system. That this seems somehow just as tragic only makes it all the more damning.

Daniel Witkin is a filmmaker and writer based in New York City. His work has appeared in Reverse Shot, Film Comment, and the Forward, among other publications. Twitter: @dzwitkin