Returning to Cannes for a fifth time, leading Chinese auteur Jia Zhangke presents his new film Ash Is Purest White, a story of love, sacrifice and betrayal spanning seventeen years of contemporary Chinese history.
From as early as Platform, Jia has been linking the trajectories of his characters’ lives with the rapidly changing scenery of Chinese social life and specifically of his home province of Shanxi. And so this is where we find Qiao (played by Jia’s constant collaborator and wife Zhao Tao), a good-looking girl in a dying mining town. Her boyfriend Brother Bin (Liao Fan) is a leading member of the jianghu criminal underground. She is confident of her power and influence, happily punching the gamblers in the local den, strutting her stuff at the local disco and providing her drunken old dad with funds to go gambling.
But the mine isn’t the only thing which is being affected by the new Chinese reality. An older respected member of the gang is stabbed to death by a bunch of kids and Bin himself is attacked with an iron pipe by a gang of juveniles. In any ordinary gangster flick, something shady would be going on and an escalating spiral of violence – it’s always a spiral – would ensue. Bin and his pals even sit and watch a John Woo movie in rapt silence dressed in black suit and tie like criminal cosplayers. And sure enough the young gang make their move and the fight scene is delivered with relish, but here things begin to go wrong.
In defending Bin’s life, Qiao fires a gun and finds herself in much more trouble for having an illegal firearm. She refuses to rat on her lover – it’s his gun – and is imprisoned for five years. When she emerges, no one is waiting for her and Bin has in fact got a new girlfriend and life. The ethos of the jianghu is revealed to be empty. Everyone has moved on to making money ‘legitimately’; loyalty goes unrewarded and no respect is due. As with Mountains May Depart, the country seems once more to be in the grip of Village People fever. Qiao sets out to meet up with the disloyal Bin and in the process work out what to do with herself. When she’s robbed on a ferry, she shows that she’s lost none of her spunk in getting some money with a hilarious con and confronting anyone who seeks to take advantage of her.
Gangster films are often power fantasies. We watch the rise and fall of the Corleone family or Tony Montana to get a vicarious thrill of seeing them go to the mattress or serve revenge cold. But Jia breaks the template and goes off in his own direction. Bin is as much a victim of disappointment as Qiao and, in a confessional and quietly touching scene in a hotel room while the rain batters down outside, can offer her little to compensate her for the lost years. Her one solution is to go back to where she started and to try to start again. Bin will eventually come back to her after more years have passed but this is no triumph. Far from a spiral of violence, their lives have spiralled down the plug-hole of failure.
Ash Is Purest White is a fascinating chapter in Jia’s ongoing chronicle of ordinary lives affected by unprecedented change in China. The background is often as important as the story, with the locations dramatically changing as time goes by. Cities become ghost towns and new bright possibilities open up, including tourism: one train passenger claims to be developing ‘UFO tourism’. And “Why not?”, as Barry Norman used to say. “We are all prisoners of the universe,” says the man, but Qiao was actually a prisoner and that’s a hard thing to come back from. Her journey is full of surprises and things never quite go in the direction you’d expect, but she has resilience, energy and wit to last the road.
The 71st Cannes Film Festival takes place from 8-19 May.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty