The Personal over the Political7 min read

Jia Zhangke scales down in his new film – Amanda Walencewicz

Jia Zhangke, whose cinema has been acclaimed for its social criticism of contemporary China, is contemplating his own oeuvre. The Chinese director’s latest film, Ash is Purest White – which premiered at Cannes in 2018 and was released in the US this March – is sprinkled with references to his previous work. A member of the so-called “sixth generation” of Chinese filmmakers (those born during the Cultural Revolution, now in their fifties), Jia has been making independent features since the mid-1990s, and 1997’s Xiao Wu – about a small-town pickpocket – established him on the global film scene. A former breakdancer from the northeastern city of Fenyang and a graduate of the Beijing Film Academy, Jia’s films have focused on his generation and their milieu, recreating their lives with documentary-like fidelity.

Ash is Purest White, a gangster romance, constantly recalls Jia’s signature style. From 2002’s Unknown Pleasures, he repurposes the names of his main characters, Qiao and Bin, as well as the setting, the Shanxi mining town of Datong. The action then migrates to the Three Gorges while the dam is being constructed, a central location in 2006’s Still Life. Hairstyles, mentions of UFOs, even scenes of characters waiting for buses, all call to mind Jia’s previous films for longtime viewers. But rather than focus on the world around his characters as he usually does – using their stories as an entry point into the messy environs of post-Deng China – the background in Ash is Purest White really is just background. The story, a 17-year narrative about a gangster couple whose lives are inextricably intertwined, belongs to them, not to China. Amidst this consideration of the past, Jia is shifting to a more inward, personal tone, a change of pace from the films that made him China’s premier cinematic voice.

The story, a 17-year narrative about a gangster couple, belongs to them, not to China”

The style that Jia established in his early work now defines the image of “Chinese independent film.” Realist in style, irreverent in tone, shambling in story, his films depicted a generation set adrift by the uncertainties of the Reform Era. In Xiao Wu, Platform (2000), Unknown Pleasures, and The World (2004), we see Chinese youth as aimless, unsure of what their ambitions even ought to be. Later films deviated from this template, such as Mountains May Depart (2015), which is mellower and imbued with more pathos. But they shared a key characteristic: all were essentially comments on Chinese society and its lack of moral and cultural anchors. Jia’s characters are those “left behind” in this newly prosperous era, and those for whom the country’s rise is an abstract notion, not something they experience.

The milieu of his films is a society full of capitalism and corruption, working actively against the lower socio-economic classes. Ideas once revered in the Mao era have been discarded and its buildings razed for pricy new developments, creating a rootlessness both mental and physical. The chaos of this new capitalism – the conventions it disrupts and the swiftness with which it alters them – leaves the characters without a clear antagonist, and they suffer disillusionment in their inability to direct their frustration. Jia’s films are at their core political, albeit dealing with these subjects with nuance and a “show, don’t tell” ethos. They immerse the viewer in turn-of-the-21st-century China – KTV bars, cigarettes, empty lots of rubble and quickly disappearing government-provided housing. Their long, uninterrupted shots of the new Chinese landscape allow the viewer to take it all in, and the unpretentious handheld camerawork lets us ruminate on what life was really like in China for the have-nots.

To produce such incisive critiques of local government, urban planners, small-time thugs and unfeeling corporations, must be exhausting. Ash is Purest White is a product of that exhaustion. After so much energy expended on societal issues, centered on characters almost hollowed out by their detachment from the world around them, Jia has turned inward.

The scale of the film is different from his previous work, in that it revolves around the personal drama that characterizes traditional narrative film. It is the story of a woman’s resilience and her capacity for forgiveness. Qiao, our heroine, is the focus; she must find her way forward after she goes to jail, covering for her boyfriend’s crime. There’s intimacy and momentum in following her journey throughout the years and across the country, learning more about her character along the way. While there has always been injustice, sadness and violence in Jia’s films, rarely are they treated with the plot-turning intensity of conventional filmmaking. Even in A Touch of Sin (2013), Jia’s most fiery film to date, there’s a distance, a coldness, that prevents full emotional identification from the audience. But with full attention on Qiao and her resolve, Jia has given us a character to root for, a story to invest in. As Qiao moves from Datong’s underworld to jail to the Three Gorges, then back to where she started, the environment of the film is ultimately just a setting, providing context for the characters but not a daunting presence in itself.

To produce such incisive critiques must be exhausting. Ash is Purest White is a product of that exhaustion.”

Jia has replaced contemporaneity with nostalgia. Not a rosy nostalgia, but a comfort in looking back, revisiting a simpler past. Life may not have been any better then, he seems to suggest, but in retrospect it becomes predictable. There are no surprises; nothing will happen in 2001 that didn’t already happen. That is reassuring in an era where norms are being discarded and trends seemingly inconsistent with the Reform Era are emerging. To return to the same locations – small-town performance halls, local gangsters’ card games and empty streets – brings well-worn familiarity, a camaraderie with audiences who remember the way things were, whether they knew it firsthand or on a screen. The characters are older, too, established figures in their underworld scene rather than youths trying and failing to find their way. Jia’s leading lady (and wife) Zhao Tao inhabits a different character than she did 17 years ago in Unknown Pleasures, for example, even if their names are the same. No longer flippant and pouty, this Qiao is clear-eyed, weary but still pursuing what she has set her mind to.

Why, then, has Jia scaled down from telling a story about China to a story about one woman? Only the director himself can tell: perhaps he wanted to avoid getting in trouble; perhaps he just wanted a change of pace. But Jia’s latest film comes at a time when the Reform era is both celebrating four decades as governing philosophy, and also receding into the background. China’s development had been unpredictable and, to the characters of Jia Zhangke films, oppressive in its chaos. But the phrase “reform and opening up” did still undergird many of the actions taken by the government. Now it feels hollow, reform in name only. Controls are stricter: memes are censored and politics has filtered down to every facet of life, even the economic, which was once exempt, like a vise being tightened.

In this bleak environment, telling a simple human story seems more manageable, not only to avoid censorship but to direct one’s attention away from a world that now feels severe and depressing, when it once seemed dispiriting but still changeable. To center on forgiveness, loyalty, resilience – qualities that are relatable in the face of authoritarianism. Defining Jia’s films in relation to their political moments has always been a natural way of understanding them. Ash is Purest White inverts that perspective, using a lack of political content to say just as much. ∎