Jia Zhangke: Lost Broth­er­hood

Mas­ter writer-di­rec­tor Jia Zhangke tells Newschina about his lat­est gang­ster film, Ash Is Purest White, a decades-span­ning story ex­plor­ing the so­cial and ide­o­log­i­cal changes overseen from the twists of fate of an out­law cou­ple

NewsChina - - CONTENTS - By Wei Yanzhang

Jia Zhangke has never for­got­ten one par­tic­u­lar scene from his child­hood: in the late 1970s, in Fenyang, a small county in north­west Shanxi Prov­ince, dozens of boys from his pri­mary school de­cided to form a sworn broth­er­hood. The kids stole a piece of dried turnip from the roof of a house and cut it into slices. They shared the turnip, kneeled and kow­towed to each other, and thus the broth­er­hood was sealed. Jia was one of these boys.

Decades later, Jia, al­ready one of China's most promi­nent movie di­rec­tors, re­vived the scene in his lat­est gang­ster epic, Ash Is Purest White. At the be­gin­ning of the film, a group of mob­sters gather in a night­club to pledge their broth­er­hood as they pour bot­tles of liquor into a pot be­fore drink­ing their share.

Re­leased on Septem­ber 21, Ash Is Purest White has be­come a big box-of­fice suc­cess and is Jia's high­est-gross­ing film so far. The film cen­ters on a tu­mul­tuous love story about a gang­ster cou­ple that tran­scends 17 years. The movie also finds the di­rec­tor re-ex­am­in­ing themes that he has ex­plored over his life­time in his films and writ­ing: the pas­sage of time, lost val­ues, the predica­ment of moder­nity and the di­lap­i­da­tion of parts of ru­ral China.

Code of Broth­er­hood

Jianghu, which lit­er­ar­ily trans­lates as “rivers and lakes,” refers to a net­work of com­mu­ni­ties that op­er­ate in­de­pen­dently on the fringes of re­spectable main­stream so­ci­ety. Those liv­ing in the jianghu – mer­chants, crafts­men, beg­gars, vagabonds, ban­dits, out­laws and gang­sters, fol­low their own moral code, which they view as su­pe­rior to laws man­dated by the gov­ern­ment. The jianghu con­cept has in­spired count­less movies and nov­els, par­tic­u­larly wuxia (mar­tial arts) and ac­tion movies.

Yiqi, mean­ing the code of broth­er­hood or a sense of obli­ga­tion in per­sonal re­la­tion­ships, is the most es­sen­tial value fol­lowed by ad­her­ents of jianghu. Re­la­tion­ships in the jianghu world of­ten take the form of vol­un­tary kin­ship, with the sworn broth­er­hood be­ing the most preva­lent form. Brothers are ex­pected to put their brotherly re­la­tion­ships above all other com­mit­ments

and cre­ate an en­vi­ron­ment of mu­tual sup­port.

For more than two decades, Jia had dreamt of mak­ing a film based on these con­cepts. Now the dream has been ful­filled in his lat­est film, Ash Is Purest White, in which he ex­plores how a group of firm be­liev­ers of tra­di­tional broth­er­hood val­ues have in­evitably changed with the march of time.

The story, told in three parts, be­gins in 2001 in Da­tong, a crum­bling coal-min­ing city in Shanxi Prov­ince. Bin (Liao Fan) is a small­time mob­ster who owns a night­club and leads a group of men. Hong Kong ac­tion movies star­ring the likes of Chow Yun-fat had an in­flu­ence on Bin, who ex­pects to be treated as a god­fa­ther. His de­voted girl­friend Qiao (Zhao Tao), a ter­ri­fy­ingly in­de­pen­dent and em­pow­ered woman, claims that she is not part of her boyfriend's jianghu un­der­world.

In the mean­time, a new gen­er­a­tion of mob fac­tions is grow­ing, ready to take Bin and his men down when given an op­por­tu­nity. One evening a sud­den am­bush by a gang of young bik­ers catches them off-guard. When Bin is se­verely beaten by the vi­o­lent young­sters, it is Qiao who saves his life by fir­ing off an il­le­gal pis­tol that be­longs to Bin. Af­ter the cou­ple is ar­rested, Qiao claims own­er­ship of the gun, so Bin gets out of jail af­ter a year, and she has to stay in for five.

Af­ter be­ing re­leased in 2006, Qiao has to cope with a to­tally dif­fer­ent world. Bin never vis­its her in jail and has moved to a town near the Three Gorges Dam. Qiao ven­tures down the Yangtze River in search of Bin, ex­pect­ing to re­sume their life. Af­ter meet­ing var­i­ous peo­ple along the way and later be­ing re­jected by Bin, Qiao re­al­izes that noth­ing stays the same and that there is no go­ing back.

The third chap­ter of the story is set at New Year 2018. Qiao, who never mar­ried, finds Bin back in Da­tong, though he is now wheel­chair-bound af­ter a stroke. Even though she has been re­jected and hurt by this man, Qiao silently takes care of the man and his wounded pride, not only out of love, but more im­por­tantly out of her loy­alty to jianghu val­ues that have van­ished over the pas­sage of time.

The film has been well-re­ceived for its fem­i­nist por­trayal of the char­ac­ter Qiao, a woman on the fringes who has wis­dom, dig­nity and an iron will. It is Qiao that seeks to re­store the de­stroyed tra­di­tions and val­ues of the jianghu world and re­mains the same when other char­ac­ters change.

Zhao Tao, Jia's real-life part­ner and his fa­vorite ac­tress, felt ex­cited when she landed the role of Qiao. In or­der to ex­plore the char­ac­ter, she read lots of re­ports and bi­ogra­phies about fe­male crim­i­nals and women in jail. She wrote a char­ac­ter his­tory her­self, imag­in­ing all Qiao's life ex­pe­ri­ences from birth to death.

Zhao ini­tially imag­ined Qiao as a typ­i­cal jianghu woman, strong, tough and stick­ing to the jianghu code, but later she re­jected this as­sump­tion. “[Be­ing a] jianghu woman is only one side of Qiao. Her be­hav­ior and ac­tions are not merely those of a daugh­ter of jianghu, but, more es­sen­tially, as a woman,” Zhao told Newschina.

Fad­ing Jianghu

One sig­nif­i­cant sym­bolic im­age in Ash Is Purest White is the golden stat­uette of Guan Gong, a red-faced, long-bearded, sword-wield­ing Chi­nese de­ity based on the his­tor­i­cal Guan Yu, a third cen­tury mil­i­tary com­man­der. Guan Gong is widely rev­ered by jianghu ad­her­ents for epit­o­miz­ing right­eous­ness and loy­alty, which they seek among them­selves.

“What Guan Gong sym­bol­izes is the soul of jianghu cul­ture,” Jia told Newschina, “In his­tory, Guan Gong hailed from Shanxi Prov­ince, so Guan Gong wor­ship plays a vi­tal part in lo­cal cul­ture.”

As a Shanxi na­tive him­self, Jia also used to be a wor­ship­per of jianghu and what it stood for.

In the late 70s and 80s, a time when en­ter­tain­ment and cul­tural re­sources were se­ri­ously lack­ing, Hong Kong mar­tial arts movies al­most served as a re­li­gion for teens and youths. As Jia re­called, video par­lors could be found in every nook and cor­ner of China, all play­ing pi­rated Hong Kong mar­tial arts or gang­ster movies.

Jia spent much of his child­hood in a dimly lit, small video par­lor thick with the odor of the to­bacco and sweat, watch­ing Hong Kong mar­tial arts and gang­ster films. Leav­ing the theater, his head was still reel­ing with the street fights, gun bat­tles, fake bank notes, blood splat­ters and flut­ter­ing doves that were typ­i­cal tropes of these pic­tures.

The movies roused the imag­i­na­tion of a fic­tive jianghu world. Im­i­tat­ing the gang­sters on screen, Jia and his bud­dies formed their broth­er­hood, took part in fights, bor­row­ing the de­meanor and jar­gon. Hong Kong ac­tor Chow Yun-fat, in par­tic­u­lar, known for por­tray­ing charis­matic mafia gang­sters, was the teenager's role model.

Nev­er­the­less, the re­al­ity was noth­ing like so ro­man­tic and heroic as on the screen. Af­ter years of dis­or­der, in Au­gust 1983, the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment launched a severe crack­down on crime, call­ing for crim­i­nals to be pun­ished “promptly and se­verely.” In the months that fol­lowed, tens of thou­sands of mob­sters were ar­rested. Many were ex­e­cuted.

Jia can­not for­get the scene when he wit­nessed his class­mates and “big brothers” be­ing ar­rested, be­ing pa­raded be­fore the pub­lic with their hands tied by a thick rope. “I was so shocked, as if my head had been heav­ily hit by a club. It was at that mo­ment that I re­al­ized I'd al­ready grown up and I had to say good­bye to those messy old days,” Jia re­called.

The di­rec­tor has sug­gested that Ash Is Purest White in some way re­flects his youth, with sen­ti­men­tal­ity and nostal­gia for a lost jianghu world. He stressed that what he is at­tempt­ing to dis­play is the real jianghu cul­ture and ide­ol­ogy rooted in peo­ple's daily lives in­stead of the imag­ined highly ro­man­ti­cized jianghu un­der­world in a fic­tional wuxia set­ting.

“Jianghu in real life does not nec­es­sar­ily in­volve par­tic­u­lar rules and cus­toms as they are shown in mar­tial arts movies or Hong Kong gang­ster films. For ex­am­ple, work­ers at the same fac­tory might very nat­u­rally form an exclusive broth­er­hood; a small com­mu­nity might pro­duce its own ‘big brother' fig­ure; a group of peo­ple would es­tab­lish

a strong con­nec­tion out of a cer­tain in­ci­dent,” Jia told Newschina.

“What was the bond that con­nected them? In the past, it was mainly the tra­di­tional code of broth­er­hood that bound them, and, of course, hav­ing com­mon in­ter­ests also played a part,” he added.

In mod­ern China, many jianghu tra­di­tions and val­ues have been lost. With the in­creas­ing in­flu­ence of free-mar­ket poli­cies and the im­pact of wide­spread ur­ban­iza­tion and glob­al­iza­tion, the broth­er­hood, which used to be tied with loy­alty and mu­tual sup­port, has been re­duced to mere money re­la­tions.

“Nowa­days gangs have trans­formed into com­pa­nies and street fights have a price list. There's a joke in Shanxi about lo­cal mob­sters – two men had a fight and each called on a group of thugs-for-hire to help them. The thugs from the op­pos­ing sides ac­tu­ally be­longed to one rogue com­pany. So they took the money, just pushed and shoved each other around a bit and then they went home to­gether,” Jia told Newschina.

De­bate on Cin­ema Art

Ash Is Purest White has been well-re­ceived by movie­go­ers with an av­er­age rat­ing of 7.7 out of 10 on China's con­tent-re­view­ing web­site Douban. It was se­lected to com­pete for the Palme d'or at the 2018 Cannes Film Fes­ti­val.

But the film was harshly lam­pooned on so­cial me­dia by Hu Xi­jin, out­spo­ken edi­tor-in-chief of State-run tabloid the Global Times, who com­pared it to “stinky tofu” and called it “de­press­ing” and “full of neg­a­tive en­ergy.”

“Neg­a­tive en­ergy can at­tract au­di­ences in a way like how opium gets peo­ple hooked. But I still hope film­mak­ers in China can learn from Hol­ly­wood and Bol­ly­wood to pro­duce more movies with nor­mal views about what's good and what's evil,” Hu wrote on China's Twit­ter-like Weibo on Septem­ber.

Jia re­sponded to the harsh crit­i­cism in a lengthy Weibo post full of wit and irony, which has been shared more than 68,000 times, re­ceiv­ing 128,000 likes and 30,000 com­ments.

“I be­lieve en­ergy is built on the ba­sis of telling the truth as much as pos­si­ble. The truth is the most pow­er­ful source of pos­i­tive en­ergy. Turn­ing a blind eye to what's re­ally go­ing on would block ac­cess to facts and gen­er­ate more neg­a­tive en­ergy,” Jia wrote.

“Your job is to re­port ‘a com­plex China' and I am in­ter­ested in telling sto­ries about ‘com­plex char­ac­ters.' […] Re­gard­ing ‘nor­mal views about what's good and what's evil' – what I don't re­ally un­der­stand is: who should be the judge of what is nor­mal and what is not?”

Jia's re­sponse im­me­di­ately trig­gered a vig­or­ous de­bate on­line on art and truth, with most ne­ti­zens ap­plaud­ing his frank­ness and jok­ing about Hu's nar­row-mind­ed­ness. The most liked com­ment said “Di­rec­tor Jia is not fake [‘Jia' is a ho­mo­phone for ‘fake' in Chi­nese], edi­tor Hu is real non­sense [“Hu” is a ho­mo­phone for ‘non­sense']”. “Telling the truth shows the great­est em­pa­thy. Pre­sent­ing a false sense of peace and pros­per­ity is the sad­dest thing to do,” an­other user wrote on Weibo.

Jia ex­pressed his con­cerns over the cur­rent “moral­is­tic ten­den­cies” of the con­tem­po­rary cul­tural en­vi­ron­ment dur­ing the in­ter­view with our reporter.

“Chi­nese peo­ple in the 1980s had al­ready tran­scended moral­ism with re­gard to literary and art crit­i­cism,” the di­rec­tor pointed out, stress­ing that au­di­ences in the past were more open and lib­eral in deal­ing with the re­la­tion­ship be­tween art and moral­ity.

“Nowa­days, au­di­ences of­ten adopt a moral­is­tic per­spec­tive to eval­u­ate a film, crit­i­ciz­ing some for ‘de­liv­er­ing wrong moral val­ues' or mer­ci­lessly at­tack­ing some works for touch­ing on ex­tra­mar­i­tal af­fairs,” Jia said.

“But it is the vul­ner­a­bil­ity in hu­man na­ture, the va­ri­ety, sub­tlety and com­plex­ity of hu­man emo­tions and also re­la­tion­ship dilem­mas that art ex­plores. That's why we have so many literary works and films cen­ter­ing on LGBT [is­sues], ex­tra­mar­i­tal af­fairs or even in­cest – those are ar­eas of hu­man emo­tion that we need to un­der­stand. It's artis­tic degra­da­tion if we take the moral­ists' stance and treat all these top­ics as taboo,” Jia told Newschina.

Jia Zhangke

A still from Ash Is Purest White

The poster for Ash is Purest White

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from China

© PressReader. All rights reserved.