Ash Is Purest White (Jiang Hu Er Nv): Interview with director Jia Zhang-Ke
Jia Zhang-Ke’s Ash Is Purest White tells a melancholic story of romance and heartbreak amidst the dark and ruthless culture of the Chinese mob. Full of tonal leaps and digressions, the film defies expectation at every turn, but it is held together by a powerful performance from Zhao Tao as the sharp and streetwise protagonist who sacrifices everything for love.
We interviewed Zhang-Ke after the movie’s Cannes premiere. We talked about winning awards, the process of time and changes in Chinese society.
Hello. As a director, how does it feel to be up for awards at Cannes?
It took three years to film, with many people involved. A great award would be an achievement for and recognition of the crew. With Cannes as a platform, we will have the ability to show it off. This is more important than winning or losing awards. After Cannes, I will be able to share this with the world.
Qiao is very strong but tender. Is this representative of women in China?
It’s almost a paradox, almost contradictory for a strong female character to chase the love of her life. But yes, a strong female figure might need love, but won’t beg for it. If it happens, it happens. This is reflected in current Chinese society – very talented women who are accomplishing a lot. I’m trying to challenge this male-centric, patriarchal society dominant in China now. I want to examine and represent the uniqueness of females and their achievements.
Why did you use the song YMCA for this film?
The story starts in 2001 when the characters were young. The youth see life as colourful; they have a lot of time, a lot of hope. Young people listened to Go West and YMCA when dancing at discos. I use it to capture the essence of the era, how young people consume these foreign influences.
From where does the fascination with ballroom dancing come?
It was big in Chinese society; it was a foreign import. People don’t just like it as a dance form but also because it is gymnastic, almost acrobatic. That’s why it became popular. The mob boss who introduces the ballroom dancing, he is the last of his generation and this is new stuff that he can show off to the Jianghu community.
This film is about the process of time. Do you think time is ultimately enhancing or debilitating for the two main characters?
I use time very differently in my films. For the past two I used it to place people in a period of time and observe the changes, not only individually through the characters, but also societally through the changing landscape. I’m now 48 years old and I’m reaching that moment in my life to think about time as something you can observe in a lifespan. I experience these changes happening in me as well as society. They happen gradually like fish in the water; you don’t really see the changes very clearly, but you juxtapose what happened a long time ago and what’s happening right now. The changes are traumatic. As a director I want to see the evolution: what we have gained and what we have lost.
And what is lost?
One example in the film is that Jianghu culture is about loyalty and an unbroken bond. Bin strives to achieve success, high social status and materialistic wealth. At the cost of betraying his lover and his brothers, he completely forsakes the culture – and therefore the bond. Things have been destroyed in the last 17 years for economic reasons, displacing people from their original villages, and townships will soon be underwater. This is a very good symbol of what we destroy as we progress in society. It’s amazing to witness this in my lifetime, a great showcase of what is being destroyed in the name of progress, in the name of modernity.
How do you analyse these problems?
It’s not that difficult to combine the private and societal spheres. Private emotions between the two characters are very much of people in love, in the moment of betrayal. But I like to think of the physical and temporal context: the city they live in, the era, the economy. Jianghu is a subculture that they are very much a part of. I see these elements as integral to each other, and from this I place the characters and reflect the societal issues.
You’ve had issues distributing films in China. Does that change the way you work now?
I don’t really pay attention to the possible complications, because that would affect me as an artist. You should be true to your expressions and freedoms, artistically and emotionally. I have to prepare to recognise that these creative freedoms come with certain responsibilities.
Which Chinese visual artists inspire you?
I cross over and collaborate with the contemporary art world, whether with installations or multimedia works. I believe cinema is part of this world. The way we think should be like a contemporary artist, with film as a vehicle to express emotions. I incorporate a lot of material I filmed in 2001. I used six types of camera to tell the story, to construct the narratives. It shows how society changes through the different textures created by different media and equipment. I can also document the changes in technology from the past to now.
How did the title come about?
The Chinese title is The Sons and Daughters of Jianghu. The English title comes from a scene where the two main characters are talking by the volcano. That gave me inspiration. Jianghu is an integral part of Chinese culture, for people living on the margin. They need to form a brotherhood because they can’t survive on their own. They have their own values, their own rituals, their own ways of living.
Why do you use so many different means of transport in the film?
The female character is looking for meaning in life, for her lover and for the future. Different transportation takes us to a greater world – the broader world – which makes us realise how individuals are insignificant, makes us think about loneliness and of something greater than ourselves. I love these public spaces.
Photo: Dominique Charriau/ Getty Images
Ash Is Purest White (Jiang Hu Er Nv) does not have a UK release date yet.
Read our review of Ash is Purest White (Jiang Hu Er Nv) here.
Read more reviews and interviews from our Cannes Film Festival 2018 coverage here.
For further information about the event visit the Cannes Film Festival website here.
Watch a clip from Ash Is Purest White (Jiang Hu Er Nv) here: