Direction: Jia Zhangke
Ash is Purest White is the latest art-house period drama of gifted Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke. It’s also a tart love story that spans 18 years and overflows with precious details and a lot of references to the auteur’s previous films and themes.
Structured in three parts, the story begins in 2001 in Datong and follows small-time mobster Guo Bin (Liao Fan) and his loyal, quick-witted girlfriend Zhao Qiao (director’s wife and muse Zhao Tao). They spend time among friends, playing mahjong at the bar he owns and taking a good care of the illicit business that allows them to live comfortably. As members of the Jianghu, a word referring to the Chinese underworld, which also means trust, they act and react according to that lifestyle. “For people like us, it’s always to kill or to be killed”- he says. However, the Jianghu is not like in the old days anymore. Times are changing at a hasty pace. Whilst he enjoys living in the margins of the society, she opens up about wanting a stable life, in an attempt to coax him into the idea of family.
This dream becomes totally impracticable for Qiao after she was forced to shoot a gun to save Bin’s life from a violent ambush. While she is sentenced to five years, he does only one, after which he never visits her in prison. Immediately after her release, the disappointed Qiao heads to Fengjie, where Bin is now working. She obviously suspects of betrayal, but, self-reliant as she is, she just can’t let the hope dies and forget the case. Moreover, if something happened, she wants to hear it from him, not from anyone else. Is she prepared for the cruel truth?
The misadventure includes a frustrating boat trip through the Three Ganges Dam and a lot of artfulness to survive. The repeated locations and comparable characters make us think of a combination between the social disenchantment of Unknown Pleasures and the austere transformations of modern China depicted in Still Life. In the same manner, a strong female character is at the center of the story, just like it happened in the director’s previous effort, Mountains May Depart. Still, Zhao Tao elevates Qiao as the most active and resolute of the characters, delivering a thoroughly engaging performance.
Preserving a detailed, intimate, and observant style, so reminiscent of Hou Hsiao Hsien, Zhangke provides us a culturally intense, consistently-told story with a noir sense of punishment, bitterness, and disillusion. This powerful look at an ever-transitioning Chinese society comes with plausible twists that indicate new times, new realities, and new postures.