In Chinese auteur’s Jia Zhangke’s latest film, which premiered to acclaim in Cannes last year, unrequited love and inner resolve are pitted against the rapidly-changing world of modern China. Ash Is Purest White is an epic spanning decades and vast geography that ultimately gives way to the intimate and personal.
Beginning in the early 2000s, Qiao (Tao Zhao – Jia’s regular collaborator and spouse) is the devoted girlfriend of petty gangster ‘Brother’ Bin (Fan Liao). While Bin sees to his small criminal empire of gambling dens and real estate, Qiao exhibits a near-preternatural power over his minions, playfully thumping them during a card game while they look on like bullied schoolboys. After Bin’s father is killed in a seemingly random attack by youths, his name looks to be next at the top of the hitlist.
The balancing of style in the film’s first act is impressive, and one which continues throughout. Opening on close-up, handheld shots in boxy 4:3 aspect ratio, the frame broadens into a more conventionally cinematic widescreen after the opening titles, juxtaposing the intimate against the sweeping. Meanwhile, Qiao and Bin live the high life dancing to classic disco – never have the Village People been so infused with unspoken menace – while their crew fend off as rival gangs circling their territory.
The film’s first act culminates into a brief detour into martial arts cinema, when Bin’s car is beset by a gang and he is forced to fend them off in a brutal, thrilling fight. Qiao’s use of his illegal gun to end the fight costs her five years in prison, yet is the first outward sign of a near-pathological resolve.
Both before and after her imprisonment, Qiao presents as a strange mix of guilelessness and cunning, singular purpose, her changing hair cuts and gradually-ageing soft features cannot hide a razor-sharp intensity behind the eyes. After being robbed by a fellow passenger on a boat headed back to her hometown of Datong, Qiao not only tracks her down to retrieve her money, but then proceeds to her own life of grifting, stealing the ride of a lascivious motorbike driver and ripping off a wealthy businessman by pretending to be his aggrieved sister-in-law.
After Qiao is released from jail, she returns to a rapidly-changing China in her search for Bin, who no longer wants anything to do with her. During her journey home along the Yangtze River, she passes through the famous Three Gorges dam, whose surrounding town, as a detached electronic voice tells her, will be underwater in ten years. Movement and transportation feature heavily in Zhangke’s conception of a modern China lived through Qiao’s eyes – ever transient, moving on boats, trains and motorbikes, Qiao’s China is one of ceaseless flux, one in which roots are as deeply felt and rarely grasped as the passage of time.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell