Studio 360

Jia Zhangke’s Empathetic Eye

Jia Zhangke on his latest film about the lives of working-class Chinese, Ash Is Purest White, and the movies that shaped him.

Director Jia Zhangke sitting in a director's chair.
Director Jia Zhangke. Cohen Media Group

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For much of his career, Jia Zhangke’s films were officially banned in his home country, China. But through austere, realist movies like Still Life, Platform, and The World, Jia became one of the most celebrated directors on the international art-house circuit.

Bin lighting a cigarette in a crowded space in Ash Is Purest White.
Liao Fan as Bin in Ash Is Purest White. Cohen Media Group

His latest film, Ash Is Purest White, appears at first to be a conventional mob epic, focused on a “gangster’s moll” character played magnificently by Zhao Tao. But with a story beginning in 2001 and spanning 17 years, the movie is just as much about the effects of the rapid growth of China’s economy on its society. The dramatic changes led some working-class Chinese to form criminal brotherhoods for support.

“These are the people bound together because of the human connections among them,” says Jia. “They have their code of honors and code of behaviors, and the way that they connect with one another to somehow protect one another.”

Qiao holding up a gun in Ash Is Purest White.
Zhao Tao as Qiao in Ash Is Purest White. Cohen Media Group

Jia Zhangke joins Kurt Andersen for a conversation about Ash Is Purest White. And he shares some of the movies that have had the greatest impact on him, from Robert Bresson to Breakin’.

This podcast was produced by Studio 360’s Evan Chung.

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