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January 31, 2019 at 12:00 PM EST

Jia Zhangke is a filmmaker whose ideas need time — 17 years, to be exact — to blossom.

While the world-renowned Chinese artist’s latest venture Ash Is Purest White (EW’s exclusive trailer for which you can watch above) wasn’t filmed over two decades, the director’s vision for a turbulent, multi-era romance required patience, precision, and a keen understanding of China’s cultural to serve as a thematic backdrop for his central character’s evolution from a place of weakness to one of power.

“The story starts in 2001, the year that China joined the World Trade Organization. The year that China won the right to host the Olympic Games was 2008, and this was the year that the development of economy in China started rapidly booming. It was a very crucial year for China: the internet became a big part of people’s lives and all of society started to change,” Zhangke tells EW via email of his decision to set the Cannes-debuting film amid the radical cultural shift between 2001 and 2018, which facilitates the sometimes brutal, strikingly beautiful entanglement of a young dancer named Qiao (frequent Zhangke collaborator Zhao Tao) and her mobster boyfriend Bin (Liao Fan). “I really want to talk about are the rules of this society in the past twenty years: values that are based on affection and loyalty…. It changes and vanishes every year.” 

For Qiao, a woman who seemingly believes in fate rather than self-agency at varying points in the film, things change after she uses an illegal firearm to ward off a menacing gang on a deadly hunt for Bin — an act that lands her in prison for five years. On the other side of her sentence, she longs to return to the life of passion and affection she sacrificed a part of hers for but finds a cold society (one increasingly obsessed with technology and less with compassion) waiting for her instead.

Zhangke maintains that the film should be read as an internal journey. And just as Qiao connects broken threads of her past as she forges into an unknown future, he, too used the project as a means to assemble loose ends from his creative history.

“I think this film is more about the change from the inner perspective: the change of human relationships and how we deal with it,” he explains, adding that the characters and locations are extensions of those he introduced in previous films like Unknown Pleasures and Still Life. “In Unknown Pleasures, Zhao Tao’s character is named Qiao and her boyfriend is named Bin. While the movie shows their love, it didn’t explore too deeply their romantic relationship, and it also didn’t explain where they are from and what they actually do.”

“Thus, while I was reviewing [those films], I suddenly had the idea: Why don’t I keep the names of the characters Qiao and Bin? I even used some of the same costumes that we had used in those two films. The [cities] where the story happens are also the same,” he continues.

Like the mysteries of introspection and growth at play for Qiao in Ash Is Purest White, the references could mean something deeper, or they could reflect little more than a curious soul’s inquisitive probing of the unknown without the promise of closure.

“I just feel it is very interesting,” Zhangke ambiguously explains of his decision to make a film that, despite spanning 17 years, has a tenacious heart that feels timeless. “And I had a lot of fun with that.”

Ash Is Purest White enters limited release in New York and Los Angeles on March 15. Watch EW’s exclusive trailer for the film above.

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