The notoriously anthology-happy Chinese auteur returns with a full-length tale of crime, romance and outliving one’s usefulness.
For the majority of his career, master Chinese auteur Jia Zhangke has made films about those on the periphery – not necessarily outsiders but rather those who previously fit in and have now been displaced by natural or unnatural forces. His films are often self-reflexive, beginning with multiple characters in various parts of China and jumping around time periods to offer a new perspective on the same location whether it’s through the effects of modernization that have disrupted old industries or natural events like the flooding of the Three Gorges that left many homeless.
In recent years, Jia has adapted his meld of social realism and allegorical fiction to the anthology format in what is arguably his mainstream breakthrough, A Touch of Sin, and Mountains May Depart, but Ash Is the Purest White marks his first return to fiction storytelling since 2006’s Still Life. His two recent efforts may have been more immediate, interlaced with graphic violence that felt more befitting of pulp crime fiction than the gentle character and location studies that characterized his earlier work but this returning breathing room is a reminder of how Jia expertly mirrors the tumultuous changes between the country and its citizens.
Taking place over sixteen years, Ash Is Purest White hones in on Zhao Qiao (Jia’s wife and regular collaborator, Zhao Tao, in easily the best performance of this young year), the moll of the brash Guo Bin (Liao Fan in an ostensible callback to the Still Life character), a club owner and budding gangster who’s fast outgrowing the anonymity of Datong’s country life.
Bin’s a man with real clout, but not someone above hubris as seen when he drops a gun – which has its own totemic significance – while dancing to the disco classic “YMCA”. (There’s nothing quite on the level of the sublime “Go West” finale in Mountains May Depart, but this scene comes close when it cuts from the club to other classes of Chinese people dancing to the song as a form of a cultural bridge).
Qiao is every bit Bin’s partner, someone who commands the room not only as the stereotypical boss’ girlfriend but as a fierce, self-possessed presence who’s by his side during every decision and ready at all times with a wilting quip for his underlings. Presence is a word that’s so often thrown around when critics talk about acting but rarely explicated beyond an “it” quality.
Tao is the rare actress who makes every single scene feel simultaneously spontaneous and completely lived-in. That feels like the only proper way to describe a scene where the spiritually drained Qiao scams an unsuspecting young man into believing that someone had a miscarriage. Over the course of a deliberate but not overly impressive long take, a viewer can read and understand everything that went into her decision.
But despite the film’s early emphasis on crime, this is anything but a typical gangster film. True to Jiao’s previous films, there’s a pervasive humanism and calming beauty present whether it’s shown through a deal to blackmail a competitor that ends with a ballroom dance or the filmmaker’s ongoing fascination with UFOs.
And it’s barely a half hour into the run time before Qiao has sacrificed five years of her life and has been abandoned for a new girlfriend. Her re-entry into outside life is equally rocky as she’s duped by an overly friendly roommate, but Qiao soon brings out her survival skills sneaking into wedding banquets and robbing horny cab drivers.
Tao is the rare actress who makes every single scene feel simultaneously spontaneous and completely lived-in.
Likewise, Jia’s vision of gangsters are not flashy; they’re commoners dreaming of a better life. Business transactions happen but they’re far from the typical image of Western or Eastern gangsters. Rather, the biggest fight of the film is notably fought entirely with blunt objects like pipes and bike helmets and the violence is bloody and brutal without any sense of stylistic poetry. Even a repeated mention of the lifestyle of the Jiang Hu underworld is less a code to live by than a rationale for cruel behavior.
The film is instead a meditation on usefulness as these two people go through granular arcs that have the same transience of the passing trains Qiao takes as she journeys to find a new identity in the world. Bin, likewise, is a ghost of his former self long before the years take their toll on him. He’s sold out to his dreams, but he has nothing of lasting value to show for it.
But this is less of a moralistic scold of a film than one that finds resilience in the betrayals that never fully heal. Collaborating with Arnaud Desplechin and Olivier Assayas’ regular cinematographer Eric Gautier for the first time, the film’s compositions have an unexpected warmth.
The film still has plenty of Jia’s stylistic signatures like his long pans that luxuriate in the details of regular people or a technically difficult but resolutely human tracking shot around an astonished crowd at a magic show. But there’s a distinctly lighter feel to the way the film moves from moment to moment that’s appropriate for a film that feels more unburdened the longer it goes on.
Some have understandably criticized the structure of the film saying it’s
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