Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke isn’t a household name in the U.S. His films haven’t been nominated for foreign language Oscars and only 2013’s “A Touch of Sin” has grossed more than $100,000 here.
But to cinephiles, he’s one of the world’s best; his 2000 movie “Platform” is ranked among all-time great masterpieces.
He recently visited The City to discuss, through an interpreter, his ninth, latest feature “Ash Is Purest White,” which opens Friday at the Embarcadero.
The movie is something of a culmination of his work so far, as well as a tale of the Chinese underworld, known as “jianghu.”
“When people think about the mafia, it’s a mysterious existence,” says Jia, 48. “To me, it’s their daily life. It’s how they live. I wanted to portray it as ordinary life, quite common.”
Set over a 17-year period from 2001-18, the movie stars Jia’s frequent leading lady, muse and now wife, Zhao Tao as the clever, self-reliant Qiao, who enjoys her status as the girlfriend of mobster Bin (Liao Fan).
After a violent turning point, the couple are separated for years, and Qiao must make a long journey, physically and spiritually, to find her place in the world.
Growing up watching cool and fun Hong Kong action and crime movies like John Woo’s “The Killer” in Chinese video parlors, Jia saw those films differently from many viewers.
“They depict very strongly love and passion and commitment, and I think this value system is slowly fading away in contemporary China,” he says. “I wanted to tell people that these are important values.”
Writing “Ash Is Purest White,” Jia realized connections between Zhao’s character and those she played in his 2002 movie “Unknown Pleasures” and 2006’s “Still Life.”
“I thought that it seems like the same character,” he says. “I intentionally left some open ends in the other two films. And I filled in some of the blanks in the current one.”
Yet since making her acting debut in “Platform,” Zhao’s performance skills have grown. “In the early days, she was a very good listener, and she would follow my direction very closely,” he says.
In recent years, he adds, “She started giving me lots of feedback, challenging me.” She asked questions about small details, such as the time of day, so she would know what state of mind her character might be in.
“I was pleasantly surprised when I heard these questions,” Jia smiles.
In addition to Zhao’s appearance, “Ash Is Purest White” includes other touches from his previous films, notably a mention of the massive, disruptive Three Gorges Dam Project on the Yangtze River.
“Thousands of years of history were suddenly submerged, millions of people were displaced and their fate was changed because of the project. I thought talking about this in one film was not enough. It needs to be mentioned repeatedly. It shouldn’t be forgotten,” he says.
Conversely, Jia is fond of singing and dancing. It’s a reaction to his childhood years before karaoke clubs and discos were prevalent and Chinese citizens had few avenues for displaying emotion.
“They didn’t know how,” he says. “That’s why I like to put dances and performances throughout my films, as a way of showing how people are expressing their feelings.”
Also drawing from “Still Life,” “Ash Is Purest White” includes an image of a UFO in the night sky.
“I wanted to show something that brings out the vastness of the universe, to create a contrast of big and small, and also add some comfort to her existence,” he says. “Even though she’s small she can be strong. And she’s not alone.”
IF YOU GO
Ash Is Purest White
Starring: Zhao Tao, Liao Fan, Xu Zheng, Casper Liang
Written and directed by: Jia Zhangke
Running time: 2 hours, 21 minutes