Amid a scandal surrounding the whereabouts of Fan Bingbing, who has been missing since July, Chinese auteur Jia Zhangke's drama "Ash is Purest White" will get its theatrical release this Friday in China — but with cuts that may reflect the sensitivity of the political-cultural climate currently in the Middle Kingdom.
The film, which follows the turbulent lives of a gangster couple over a 17-year period, was screened at the Toronto Film Festival last week in a version that was six minutes shorter than the version that played in competition at the Cannes Film Festival in May. The new version was labelled as a director's cut.
"This is a normal process which improves the flow of the narrative," a spokesman at the film's French co-investor and international sales agent MK2 Films told Variety. "It is always a rush to prepare a film for Cannes. And (Jia) did the same thing with (2015 title) 'Mountains May Depart.'"
Chinese media reported that the edits specifically remove the cameo appearances of Feng Xiaogang, the high-profile film director who is embroiled in the scandal and rumor mill surrounding celebrity actress Fan Bingbing. Fan has been accused of hiding part of her income from an appearance in Feng's upcoming film "Cell Phone 2." Fan and Feng have both denied accusations of tax dodging.
In 2017, Fan attended the launch party in Cannes for Jia's new Pingyao film festival. This year she walked the Cannes red carpet for the world premiere of "Ash." Her disappearance from public view since late July has fueled suggestions that she is being detained by authorities against her will.
At a public screening of "Ash" in Beijing on Sunday, Jia dodged questions about cutting out Feng. "It is complicated" he said on stage, according to reports by Chinese website Mtime.
Jia is China's highest profile art-house director. He has made a career of chronicling the changes on Chinese society made by the country's breakneck modernization. That has made him a darling of overseas festivals - Toronto's Platform section was named after Jia's 2000 film of the same title - and a recurring pain for Chinese authorities.
While Jia's first four features were considered as underground works, more recently he has received partial financial backing and local release through state-owned companies including the Shanghai Film Group. While his films are considered auteur works and reach much smaller audiences than those of Feng, Jia has successfully steered a course between critiquing societal changes and outright antagonism of authorities who would prefer to present a rosier picture.
Even so, his recent films have depicted the effects of the massive Three Gorges infrastructure project, collusion between crooked businessmen and civil servants, and the alienating impact of working in the Chinese mega-factories that make iPhones.
"Ash" is by his biggest film in terms of budget, with much of it spent on painstaking recreations of sets and costumes that were current less than two decades ago, but which has now already disappeared.
"The social environment in China has experienced great transformation during the 17 years of the story. There were no high-speed trains back then, only slow green ones. City appearances, people's clothing and communication products all looked very different then. We invested huge amount of money in sets and production design. In my cinema language and style, I like to place people in a natural and authentic environment which leads to lots of scheduling in large and public spaces, filling the spaces with extras, and making sure all details are in line with reality back then," Jia told Variety in May.
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