What is your life going to look like in the future? Who will you be close to, what will you do? I have a tough time picturing what I’m doing for dinner this week, let alone answering those questions. With Ash is Purest White, Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhang-ke tracks a couple through romance and hardship for close to two decades, with a somber and zenlike calm throughout.
Ash is Purest White
Director: Jia Zhang-ke
Release Date: March 15, 2019
Lovebirds Qiao and Bin seem to be doing well. Qiao (longtime Jia-collaborator Zhao Tao) is the boss’ girl, essentially. She supports gangster-boyfriend Bin (Liao Fan) while asserting herself as a strong woman, and the two cruise through the dance halls and backrooms of nightclubs, making deals and breaking bread with other underworld types. Though their world is shady, there’s a class to their act. Until there isn’t. Violence follows crime like rain follows clouds, and when Bin is thrown into a life-or-death situation with rival gangsters, Qiao’s intervention saves the day, while costing her years of jail time. Separated by time and space, she’s released from her sentence five years later, and seeks Bin out.
Ash can be cut up into three timeframes, the third of which serves mostly as an epilogue to the meatier first parts. Jia’s exploration of ripples, cause-and-effect comes into play naturally with this structure, and for the most part gives us enough in the film’s present for the audience to chew on. The underworld glamor sucks you in until the inciting event of the film’s story jolts the audience out of their happy daze, giving way to a period of doubt and listlessness in Qiao.
Jia’s films are often paced slowly, his direction concerned with the “everyday,” in more ways than one. There’s a sad fondness that highlights the grifters and ordinary people walking and working the city streets, while also present is Jia’s eye for the bizarre. In past films he’s been known to insert flashes of extreme or silly events gone unnoticed (read: a piece of architecture casually taking off as a rocket in the background) in an effort, I think, to convey the extraordinary things we either take for granted or ignore completely in our daily lives. Similar motifs rear their head in Ash, in a way that struck me as a bit redundant for the filmmaker, though audiences fresher to his work might not be tired of these playful moments.
Though I found the mid-section of Ash is Purest White to meander perhaps too much, wallowing in Qiao’s disillusion, Zhao Tao’s performance makes any sluggish moments bearable. Qiao’s transformation over years from gangster’s girl to sharp and self-sufficient is a marvel in a time where we need strong female characters represented on the screen.
Following her prison release we see Qiao made savvy by her time amongst criminals, and her casual maneuvering, grifting here and there, is a sort of dark humor in itself. There’s something incredibly satisfying and almost awe-inspiring to me in seeing characters in film act extremely in a grounded world. What I mean is sure, it’s great to see Tom Cruise jump off of buildings and stuff, but in films like, say, Mission: Impossible that’s the world we’re in, and those acts that would be insane in our lives sort of fade into each other in a movie like that. What Jia does with Ash is create our own mundane world, and then Zhao acts boldly and brashly--like a movie character--and becomes a sort of force greater than any Ethan Hunt in dominating her surroundings.
To speak to “mundane,” Ash doesn’t shy away from melancholy. Jia’s frequent fascination and sympathy with the Three Gorges Dam, and the people displaced by it, is another trademark that gives way to a large part of Ash’s setting. And though there’s some violence present, it’s the damage to Qiao and Bin’s relationship, and the passage of time on their characters that cuts deepest here. Yet for what is a bleak story of strained love, Ash is Purest White never manages to feel excessive or oppressive, just sometimes exhausted by that crazy little thing. Called love.
Admirable for its performances, I couldn’t help but feel Ash is Purest White lacked a little spark of something to send it hurtling towards greatness, its own commitment to the trudge of time both a strength and weakness. Still, in time, perhaps Jia’s latest will be seen for its staying power; appreciated by those who themselves have seen changes in their own lives, hopefully for the better.