The latest from the Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke (Mountains May Depart, The World) continues the filmmaker’s concern with the effects that modernization and globalization have had on his country. Jia’s minimalist visual style and sprawling narrative style allows him to observe changes in the present and over periods of time. Ash Is Purest White takes place over a period of 17 years, beginning in 2001. The societal changes in China over those years have been many, although the subtlety with which Jia reveals them is admirable. However, what truly binds this film is the love story that lies at the heart of it. It’s a love battered by fate and bad luck, quite the opposite of such forces as planned redesigns of China’s social and geographic landscapes.
Bin (Liao Fan) is the leader of the jianghu, the demimonde underworld, in the provincial town of Datong. He resolves disputes peaceably and lives off kickbacks that he collects in the gambling parlor. His girlfriend is Qiao (Zhao Tao, Jia’s longtime collaborator and spouse since 2012) and from the minute she swans in to her first scene we can’t take our eyes off her. The character is lively and unpredictable, and throughout the course of the film becomes so much more than a petty gangster’s moll.
Ash is essentially divided into three sections. In the first, we see the lives of Bin and Qiao. At night we watch as they go out disco-dancing, bopping with other clubbers over an extended sequence to the bouncy sounds of the Village People’s “Y.M.C.A.” (an indicator of the West’s infiltration of traditional Chinese culture). Eventually, fate intervenes and Qiao takes a sudden action to protect Bin, and ends up serving a five-year prison sentence for her deed. The middle section traces Qiao’s quest to find Bin again after she is released. It’s hard going since Bin has moved to another town, job, and romantic affiliation. It is Qiao who exists now on her wits and jianghu tenets. She also travels by boat on the Yangtze River in the area where the building of the Three Gorges Dam will change the landscape in a matter of a few years. In the third part, Qiao has returned to Datong, where she has fully embraced the jianghu life, and Bin re-enters her orbit once more.
Jia, a member of China’s edgier “sixth generation” movement, never romanticizes his story’s love affair, and keeps his focus on the people living in society’s margins. Ash Is Purest White is a story about life on the fringes, the passage of time, the chips in the Bamboo Curtain as China increasingly opens its borders to the rest of the world.
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