You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

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 played in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, 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.

More Film

  • Isle of Dogs

    ‘Isle of Dogs’ Called for a Thousand Sophisticated Puppets

    Andy Gent says it was clear as soon as he read Wes Anderson’s script for “Isle of Dogs” that the project was very ambitious. It just took a while to understand exactly how ambitious. For example, it was originally estimated the animated movie would require between 300 and 400 puppets, the same number needed for [...]

  • Roger Guyett Integrated Old and New

    'Ready Player One' Integrated Familiar and New Characters for Spielberg's Take

    In helmer Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One,” a vast group of familiar characters and those created for the film had to be integrated into one story and some had to travel between two worlds. Visual-effects supervisor Roger Guyett knew he’d be working with multiple styles and sources to pull it off. Original characters including the [...]

  • Left to right: Emily Blunt plays

    How 'A Quiet Place' Sound Editors Scared Audience Sans Noise

    What if living in silence was your only means of survival? That’s the question supervising sound editors Ethan Van der Ryn and Erik Aadahl had to answer in the hair-raising thriller “A Quiet Place” from co-writer-director John Krasinski, who also starred alongside wife Emily Blunt as the on-screen couple Lee and Evelyn Abbott. The allegory [...]

  • Stan amd Ollie Movie Makeup

    In 'Stan & Ollie,' Makeup Magic Transformed John C. Reilly and Steve Coogan Into Iconic Duo

    The second Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly appear onscreen in “Stan & Ollie,” there is no question that they are the legendary Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, respectively. The physical transformations masterminded by prosthetic makeup designer Mark Coulier and makeup and hair designer Jeremy Woodhead are that remarkable, enabling the actors to fully inhabit [...]

  • Pawel Pawlikowski Cold War

    ‘Cold War’ Returns to Gold Standard on Cinematography

    “Cold War,” Pawel Pawlikowski’s tale of star-crossed lovers in the aftermath of World War II, is framed in a distinctive squarish, 1.37:1 frame. With deep focus black-and-white photography by Pawlikowski’s fellow Pole Lukasz Zal, the film has been gaining interest beyond the lensing community — “Cold War” is nominated for three Oscars: foreign-language film, directing [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content