Chinese film “Ash Is Purest White”, the latest work from Jia Zhangke, is a dry but compelling crime melodrama which fascinates us via its deft mix of personal drama and social background. Although it takes some time for establishing its story and characters before getting things rolling, the overall result is another interesting work from one of the most prominent filmmakers in China, and I admire it more as reflecting more on its strong aspects.
The early part of the movie is set in an old mining city named Datong, and we observe the daily life of Zhao Qiao (Zhao Tao) and her small-time gangster boyfriend Guo Bin (Liao Fan). It is 2001, and the economy of the city has been going downhill as the price of coal is getting dropped, but Bin and his associates are eager to move along with the ongoing social change in the country, which is exhilaratingly represented at one point by a nightclub dancing scene accompanied with a certain recognizable Western pop song.
And then there comes a trouble to Bin. His older associate, who has been doing a legitimate business of his own, complains about an annoying business problem, and, as a guy serious about the code of honor and loyalty represented by Chinese word ‘jianghu’, Bin is willing to take care of that problem, but then an unexpected incident happens. While trying to handle the aftermath, Bin also prepares for advancing further in his underworld as expected, but then he finds himself thrown into a tuft war, and that is when Qiao comes to do something she has probably never imagined before.
Thanks to her unexpected courage and gumption, Qiao saves Bin, but she subsequently faces the consequence of her action, and, without telling anything against her boyfriend, she willingly lets herself incarcerated in a prison for next five years. Although Bin never comes to see her, she does not give up her hope at all, and we soon see her released from the prison five years later.
However, Bin is not there for Qiao, and, still believing in their relationship, she goes to Fengjie, a city located near the Yangtze River which is going to be changed a lot due to the ongoing process of the Three Gorges project. Before arriving at the city by a cruise ship, she happens to get all of her money stolen, but she is not easily daunted by that, and we later watch how she gets some cash in an amusing criminal way.
In the meanwhile, Qiao keeps trying to contact and then meet Bin, but it is already clear to us that Bin is not particularly eager to see her. Not so surprisingly, he has a new girlfriend, and there is an awkward moment when Qiao comes to have a little talk with Bin’s new girlfriend, who directly reminds Qiao of what has been changed since she was sent to the prison.
Eventually, Qiao meets Bin after virtually forcing him to pick her up at a police station (How she manages to do that is another little amusing moment in the film, by the way), but she is only reminded again of how much she and Bin have become distant to each other, and we accordingly get a calm but emotionally intense scene between them. As discerning more of how much her man has been changed, Qiao becomes saddened and devastated, but she keeps maintaining her phlegmatic appearance nonetheless, and Zhao Tao, who has been one of Jia’s main collaborators, did a wonderful job of conveying to us complex feelings and thoughts churning behind her character’s seemingly passive façade.
And the story keeps moving on along with its heroine. Quite hurt about being abandoned by Bin, Qiao later gets on a train, and the movie gives us a number of breathtaking landscape shots as her journey back to Datong takes an unexpected turn. She happens to encounter a guy who introduces himself as a businessman developing a local tourism company in Shinjang, and it looks like he may be someone she can lean on, but then she changes her mind not long after deciding to accompany him.
The last act of the film, which is set around the end of 2017, shows Qiao and Bin under a very different situation. He is sent back to Datong due to his deteriorated physical condition, and Qiao, who is now running a gambling place to which she and Bin frequently went, takes care of him even though, as she casually admits later, she does not have much feeling toward him at present. She simply follows what she should do as a woman fully and fiercely embodying that code of honor and loyalty, and that certainly makes him ashamed and humiliated at times. Liao Fan, who drew my attention for the first time with his unforgettable performance in Diao Yinan’s “Black Coal, Thin Ice” (2014), is an effective counterpart to his co-star, and he and Zhao are particularly good when their characters have a bittersweet private time at a remote spot outside the city.
Like Jia’s previous films such as “A Touch of Sin” (2013) and “Mountains May Depart” (2015), “Ash Is Purest White” is demands some patience from you in the beginning, but it is an admirable piece of work on the whole, and, in my trivial opinion, it is more successful compared to “Mountains May Depart”, which was interesting to some degree but does not wholly work mainly due to its weak last act. Thanks to Jia’s skillful direction and Zhao’s strong performance, the movie comes to us as a rough but powerful tale of personal growth and social change, and its open-ended final shot lingers on your mind for a while. Whatever will happen next to her, she will endure as before – and she will prevail, of course.