Zhao Tao has been an indelible presence in Chinese director Jia Zhangke’s cinema since the 2000s. The 42-year-old actress’s central performance is the biggest draw of Zhangke’s most recent film, Ash is Purest White. The 2018 production has been screened at film festivals in India, and is being released on August 2 by Narayanan Srinivasan and Sanjay Suri through the PVR cinema chain’s movies-on-demand platform Vkaao.
Ash is Purest White marks Tao’s eighth collaboration with Zhangke, whom she married in 2012. The gorgeously produced and photographed film unfolds over several years. Tao plays Qiao, the loyal girlfriend of the gangster Bin (Liao Fan) who takes the rap for a crime on his behalf, only to be rejected after being released from prison. Qiao retains her loyalty to Bin despite his escalating indifference. Even when Bin descends into cruelty, Qiao remains steadfast, a reminder of a value system that has been abandoned to corruption and apathy.
For long-time followers of Zhangke, Ash is Purest White might seem like a relatively lesser work when compared to his earlier films, including his breakthrough, Platform (2000), Still Life (2006) and his masterwork, 24 City (2008). Many of the film’s themes are familiar from his previous productions, and the conventions of the gangster genre don’t sit comfortably with Qiao’s lonely quest to retain her place in a world that’s slipping away from her. There can be little argument, however, about Zhao Tao’s nuanced performance and her ability to represent Zhangke’s continuing attempts to make meaning of his country’s past, present and future.
Zhangke, through his films, has provided glimpses into globalising China like few other directors before and after him. Through his artfully constructed narratives, which rival documentaries in their attention to realism and details of ordinary life, Zhangke has captured the impact of China’s economic transition from Communism to a form of capitalism. The resultant changes in the landscape and architecture of China’s villages and small towns are conveyed through working-class characters whose faces and bodies adapt or perish, as the case may be.
Zhangke made his debut with The Pickpocket in 1997. His international breakthrough was Platform in 2000, set between the late 1970s and the ’90s and mapping the effects of the Cultural Revolution on four members of a cultural troupe. Tao, a former dance teacher, made her debut in Platform as a reluctant rebel who makes her peace with her surroundings and becomes a tax collector.
Several elements of Zhangke’s style, influenced by Taiwanese and Japanese masters but also unmistakably shaped by Chinese realities, emerged in Platform – lengthy and complex takes, long shots framing characters against blocks of concrete and glass, realist acting, moral dilemmas explored without melodrama, the influence of Western-style consumerism and imported kitsch. In Zhangke’s next feature, Unknown Pleasures (2002), Tao plays Qiao Qiao, a flashy model for a Mongolian liquor brand who falls in with a wastrel despite being involved with a gangster.
As in Ash is Purest White, Qiao Qiao pays the price for being attached to the wrong man. And not for the first time, Qiao Qiao is treated shoddily and left standing by the side of the road, her at-once enigmatic and expressive face saying nothing and everything.
In The World (2004), Tao plays a performer at the Beijing World Theme Park, providing manufactured pleasures for visitors who arrive to tour replicas of global monuments. The movie brings out the alienation that often accompanies migration through the friendship between Tao’s character, also named Tao, and a Russian performer, Anna.
Still Life (2006) sees Zhangke further refine his ability to excavate the ways in which big-scale industrial projects physically and emotionally displace individuals. As construction on the Three Gorges Dam destroys and remakes a town’s landscape, its residents struggle to maintain their links with each other. Tao plays a woman who arrives in the town to look for her husband, whom she hasn’t met in two years.
Zhangke’s concerns reached their zenith in 24 City (2008), a dazzling hybrid of documentary and fiction. The film maps the gradual conversion of a state-owned munitions factory into an apartment complex. The macro-views of the alienating backdrops are seamlessly meshed with the microcosmic attention to the people on the ground. Zhangke combines interviews with the workers with dramatised sequences, which include Tao as a future resident of an apartment in one of the high-rises that will replace the factory.
Erasure and alienation brought on by urbanisation, one of Zhangke’s many themes, reaches its logical conclusion in A Touch of Sin (2013). The movie marked a shift from Zhangke’s meditative style. A Touch of Sin braids together four incidents of violence whose roots lie in the massive economic upheaval in China since the ’90s.
Tao is cast as a spa worker who suffers horribly for rebuffing an assault by a corrupt government official. She movingly plays a woman caught in an unhappy relationship with a married man and forced into a crime beyond her understanding.
Mountains May Depart (2015) begins and ends with the happy image of Tao’s dancing to the Pet Shop Boys song Go West. One segment is set in Fenyang, Zhangke’s birthplace and the setting of several of his films. Tao’s character, once again named Tao, chooses the better prospect among two suitors, and yet again, the man in her life lets her down.
Tao’s ability to express deep emotions with the smallest of gestures and slightest shifts in facial expressions are in full-throttle display in Ash is Purest White. In Zhangke’s films, she has often played a face in the crowd that emerges into view to provide a measure of the human experience. Whether she’s waving a gun in the air or suffering in silence in prison, Zhao Tao ensures that while Ash is Purest White isn’t on the same level as Zhangke’s previous films, her performance is beyond blemish, like Qiao.