“ASH IS PUREST WHITE” IS COMPARED BEST TO SERGIO LEONE’S “ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA”. IT’S A TRANSCENDING SUPERB MOTION PICTURE EPIC THAT SPANS 17 YEARS.
I am not familiar with the work of Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke. His legacy is well known to both Chinese and American audiences, Zhangke is recognized as a distinguished leading Chinese filmmaker and a masterful director. His films and images have the uncanny ability to encompass past, present, and future. His newest film “Ash Is Purest White” focuses on his recurring themes to encompass three time periods and a change in modern Chinese society. In “Ash Is Purest White” he uses a sort of a “Godfather” scenario as the plot structure. However keep in mind that, this is no conventional gangland saga.
“Ash is Purest White” is Jia’s personal reflection on what has been happening to modern China, involving radical shifts in popular music, dance styles and Jia uses integrated documentary footage at the start of his film that was shot years ago by the filmmaker. In a brilliant filmmaking choice he reflects the passage of time through an array of film formats, including shooting with a Mini DV, HD, 2K, and 4K cameras. Jia uses shifting technological landscapes that surrounds our main character Qiao, where flip phones give way to smartphones and banged-up old locomotives are replaced by bullet trains.
Why is Jia so keen on observing changes in the past periods of time and the present? Why does he focus on the where we are, where we’ve been and where we’re going dynamic? That’s because “Ash Is Purest White” takes place over a period of 17 years, beginning in 2001 and closing in 2018. The societal changes in China over the years have been monumental, Jia’s subtlety of his reveals in the changing times is admirable.
The glue to the film is the love story that lies at the heart of it. It’s a love between a small-town gangster Bin (Liao Fan) and Qiao (Tao Zhao, Director Jia’s real life wife), his cheerfully swaggering girlfriend. It begins in 2001, when its heroine, Qiao comes into the headquarters of her boyfriend Guo Bin, a small-time provincial gang boss who enjoys settling disputes among his associates and the locals while holding court in a mahjong parlor. She’s a hard-bitten type who takes no guff from anybody, and joins the crew in a toast to their brotherhood and its code of conduct.
The times they are a-changin’ in the crime world, as in society as a whole. We see the larger reality when Qiao visits her father in their coal-mining hometown, where the industry is dying and the population moving away. Transition in her smaller, more closed world is portrayed when an older mob associate of Bin’s is killed, apparently by a gang that represents a new, less disciplined type of criminality, and then he’s assaulted, first by a pipe-wielding thug and then by a bunch of vicious motorcyclists. The person who saves him from the attackers is Qiao, who uses his illegal gun to fire a couple of warning shots that send the attackers packing. Then she protects him further by claiming that the gun is hers, earning a five-year prison term by doing so. He doesn’t even visit her while she serves the sentence, and when she’s released, he’s disappeared.
That begins the second section of the film, set in 2006. Qiao travels the Yangtze past the Three Gorges region so prominent in Jia’s earlier “Still Life,” past towns soon to be submerged by the massive reservoir’s rising water, in search of Bin. Old acquaintances tell her that he’s moved on and doesn’t want to see her. Jia provides Qiao with a series of encounters during her odyssey that reveal, with touches of both humor and poignancy, her capacity to take charge. She’s robbed and must use her wiles to survive by conning philanderers and indulging in other minor scams.
On a train she meets a blowhard entrepreneur who claims to be spearheading a project to set up tours of UFO-sighting sites but proves to be a fraud; she, on the other hand, experiences such a sighting herself. She uses her wiles to steal a motorcycle when she needs one. And she finally locates Bin, only to find a changed and desolate man.
The third act of “Ash” leaps to 2018, and Qiao and Bin have effected a reconciliation of sorts, but on very different terms than those of two decades earlier. She is now presiding over the mah-jong parlor, while he sits dejectedly in a corner a shadow of his former self, treated without the earlier respect from his colleagues. Yet Qiao, still true to the old code even in a society that has taken a sharp turn, holds to what she considers her responsibility even now.
The English title “Ash Is Purest White” refers to the pure ash produced by the tremendous heat emitted by active volcanoes, which acts as a symbol of the absolute fidelity to the old values Qiao maintains even after enduring two decades of wrenching change in her life and the society around her.
Tao Zhao is a wonderfully gifted actress, I was lucky enough to discover who and what she is capable of thanks to the film. She takes Qiao from a hardened gangster moll to a woman who now has nothing left to lose. It’s so fascinating to watch her through her portrayal. She is nothing short of pure entertainment. She’s tough, vulnerable and can break your heart all at the same time. Tao Zhao gives a quiet performance that builds in power.
“Ash Is Purest White” is an immersive, 136-minute (2 an 1/2 Hour) epic that is told entirely through Tao Zhao’s perspective. The film takes its time telling Qiao’s story – relishing in long takes and long conversations. The pacing is running at medium pace where at the start it establishes Qiao and Bin’s world, then focusing on Qiao’s release from jail, when her growth as a woman becomes more of the focus. While there are sequences that shows us the Chinese crime underworld, it is not a full blown violent look into the journey of the Chinese crime world. It’s ultimately about two people that love each other, but their love is poisonous and destructive. No matter how much they want to forget each other there is always an emotional drive that never allows one to move on. Most importantly it’s about Qiao’s slow self-destruction, affecting largely of what accompanies many of her choices. Jia gives us an examination of a woman struggling to understand her place in the world.
Jia makes each new desolate locale that Qiao encounters an adventure. The Datong scenes in Datong, China has Jia excelling in photographing the clamor and confusion of an industrial city. When Qiao does end up back in her home province, it’s become a foreign landscape, a city that was left in the dust by China’s rapid 21st-century innovations. Humanity fills every frame, even if the visual element is a landscape.
Both in scope and subject matter “Ash is Purest White” is a kindred spirit to another gangster picture that’s steeped in nostalgia and regret, Sergio Leone’s masterpiece “Once Upon a Time in America” from 1984, starring Robert DeNiro. Although “Ash Is Purest White” shows that the regret is for a life saved rather than for a life thought lost. “Ash is Purest White” is a simmering, heartbreaking story that spans years and miles but is thematically united, led by a remarkable character in Qiao.
There is a classically composed cinematography by Eric Gautier and editing by Mathieu Laclau and Lin Xudong who are all entirely in sync with Jia’s minimalist visual style and sprawling narrative style.
“Ash Is Purest White” deals with individual loss, growth, and revolution amid countrywide upheaval. It is a haunting, epic romance. That spotlights a superb performance by Zhao Tao and Jia’s vision makes for a heady brew of love, loss, and loneliness over three-time frames that coincide with huge changes in China.
GRADE: ★★★★★ (5 out of 5)