Jia Zhangke on Making His Most Expensive Film Yet, But Maintaining an Indie ‘Spirit’

Jia Zhangke has been at the forefront of China’s indie cinema movement for two decades, with titles that have included “Still Life,” “Platform,” and “A Touch of Sin.”

His latest feature, “Ash Is Purest White” (“Jiang Hu Er Nv”) which plays in competition at the Cannes Film Festival on Friday, is by far his most expensive movie to date and flirts with martial arts, China’s most commercial film genre. Jia tells Variety why this is not a case of him selling out.

What is the film about?

I have been working on “Ash Is Purest White” for three years. As a very important part of Chinese culture, the Chinese word jianghu has two meanings: both dramatic life as well as dangerous underworld.

Jianghu is a world of adventure but also a world of unique emotions. I have always been interested in jianghu love stories in which characters are never afraid to love or to hate.

“Ash” sets the story between 2001 and 2018, an era when China has been experiencing drastic changes. Traditional values and lifestyles have changed dramatically. Yet jianghu folk still cling to their own code of conduct and values, functioning in their own ways. The contrast is ironic, but also attractive to me.

In the film, the central couple go through love, betrayal, separation, reunion and again separation. They never ended up in marriage [and] maintained their personal freedom in a certain way. For me, this is a film about rebels.

Aside from again casting Zhao Tao [Jia’s wife], what is the continuity with the previous feature films in your oeuvre?

When I edited “Unknown Pleasures” in 2001 and “Still Life” in 2006, both starring Zhao Tao, I cut out some of her love scenes in order to simplify the storylines. But when I recently re-watched the old unused footage, the characters in two different movies somehow became one in my imagination.

What are the elements that required (reportedly) the largest budget ever for a Jia Zhangke film?

The social environment in China has experienced great transformation during the 17 years of the story. There were no high-speed trains back then, only slow green trains. City appearances, people’s clothing and communication products all looked very different then. We invested huge amount of money in sets and production design. In my cinema language and style, I like to place people in a natural and authentic environment which leads to lots of scheduling in large and public spaces, filling the spaces with extras, and making sure all details are in line with reality back then.

We traveled 7,700 kilometers making the film, took four months to shoot, and used six different cameras and film stock to present different periods of time.

If this is your most commercial and accessible film to date, are you turning away from the indie sector?

I still define my film as indie. For me, indie film represents the spirit that a director can always insist on his unique cinema language and be faithful to his inner world and emotions. I believe that is what I did and achieved with “Ash.”

Are the conditions for indie filmmaking in China improving or worsening? On one hand is the emergence of an art-house film circuit and your new festival. On the other hand, regulators are becoming more interventionist, and money is freely flowing to commercial films.

In the past few years, 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.

On the other hand, it is also very important to nurture audience interest in indie films. Although people can watch films on many platforms now, they are not exposed to much information about indie films. How to promote the films to audiences and raise their interest is absolutely critical to Chinese indie films. Chinese indie films always face different challenges. But we must persist in making them.

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