Jia Zhangke is one of the world's boldest cinematic talents. In his latest film, a sprawling romance that spans the entire 21st century, he once again portrays contemporary China through the lens of ordinary people.
As in his previous films, the characters in Ash is Purest White are not "super rich" Asians. They don't hobnob in Shanghai or Hong Kong or Beijing. They are not heavily armed assassins trained in martial arts. Instead, they're real: dime-store mobsters in Datong, a coal mining city; middling real estate developers in Fengjie and the Three Rivers Gorge, near the humongous inland city of Chongquin; dancers and clerks and laid-off laborers on the public dole.
Jia's explosive Touch of Sin from 2013, which chronicled the fury and malaise of China's exploited working class, is among my favorite films of the past 20 years. And while Ash doesn't rise to that level, it's nevertheless an elegant and observant drama. And, much like Jia's earlier work, it opens the viewer's eyes to the realities and geographies — not the myths or stereotypes — of modern China.
It opens Friday at the Cedar Lee.
This three-act love story belongs mostly to Qiao (Zhao Tao, Jia's wife and regular collaborator) who, in 2001, is dating a local mob captain, Bin (Liao Fan) in Datong City. China's industrial north, where Jia himself was born, with its malcontented coal miners and impoverished infrastructure, is a decent analog for the U.S. Rust Belt.
For reasons unknown, street violence is escalating in Datong, and Bin is attacked one night by a gang of teenagers on motorbikes. To prevent his death, Qiao fires a gun — forbidden in China — and takes a five-year prison sentence to protect her man, who is released after only one year, though the gun belonged to him. In the film's slow second act, Qiao goes searching for Bin in 2006. She wanders through Fengjie, her melancholy reflected in the city. She understands that Bin has moved on, but still needs to confront him. Their reunion is devastating. In their first conversation in years, staged on a walkway outside a power plant, neither of them can make eye contact.
By 2018, both Qiao and Bin have changed in dramatic ways. Both are left to wonder how their love story might have turned out if not for the gun.
Among Ash's most notable accomplishments are the superb and wide-ranging performance of Zhao — when she learns, in 2006, that Bin has a new girlfriend, Jia keeps the camera on her face, clocking the subtle evolution of her reaction — and Jia's documentary skill. He is able to communicate, unobtrusively, how China has changed from 2001 to 2006 to 2018: the technology, the trains, the massive construction projects and the despair of villages where industry has shut down.
"Anything that burns at high temperature is made pure," Qiao tells Bin in one of the film's most memorable scenes, in fact the scene that inspired the title. It's right before Bin shows Qiao how to fire the gun that will be their undoing.
"This damn place?" Bin responds. "No one would know if you burned to a crisp."