Modern Chinese Society Transforms, Art-House Style
Underworld gangster movies are cool, right? How about a glacially-paced, culturally-specific meditation on the shifting state of modern Chinese society? Whether you consider this pairing two great tastes that taste great together or a jarring bore depends on your state of mind.
ASH IS PUREST WHITE ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Jia Zhang-ke
Written by: Jia Zhang-ke
Starring: Zhao Tao, Liao Fan, Xu Zheng, Casper Liang
Running time: 136 min
Internationally acclaimed but commercially challenged filmmaker Jia Zhang-ke straddles the line between genre thrills and dour ruminations with the fitfully-engaging, occasionally inspired, and relentlessly overlong Ash is Purest White. Spanning the first 18 years of the 21st century, this sleepy crime saga chronicles the emotional travails of small-time thug Bin (Liao Fan) and his faithful moll Qiao (Zhao Tao).
The two lovers surround themselves with hard-drinking made men, pledging loyalty oaths, playing marathon mah-jongg sessions, and paying respect to their ballroom-loving capo. They relish this life, until a gang of upstart punks on motorcycles puncture the romance and ambush their late-night drive. A few unexpected gunshots later, Qiao has rescued her boyfriend but ends up taking the fall and going to prison for five years.
Cut to Qiao’s eventual release and the transformed world in which she struggles to adapt. Desperate to find Bin, she receives word that he’s moved on and forgotten her. Bitter and vengeful, the hardened Qiao makes it her mission to find him. She’s got no opportunities, though, so she pulls off petty scams to line her pocket while she wanders around a rapidly-modernizing country.
Years pass before she and Bin finally reunite, but they’ve changed. The tough, resourceful Qiao now runs a gambling parlor, while the diminished, emasculated Bin is in a wheelchair after suffering a stroke. It’s no longer a man’s world, with its archaic codes of patriarchal honor. But it is a land of newfound opportunity for people like Qiao, programmed from childhood to be a supporting character but now discovering her own agency.
The original Chinese title of Ash is Whitest Color translates as Sons and Daughters of Jianghu, which refers to the generation of criminals who grew up with outdated expectations of thug-life respect. It’s a much more fitting description of the central theme in Jia’s tale, with its notions of seismic generational change and adapt-or-die futurism. The film’s florid Westernized moniker refers to a recollection Qiao shares about volcanic ash that’s apparently the purest because it burns so brightly. So…are they the ash? Did they burn bright? What’s pure about a pair of crooks? Also, why use a broken-English translation more suited for fortune cookie profundities than art-house marquees?
Adoring critics kvell over Jia’s turgid, self-indulgent narratives because of this propensity for pretension that they interpret as wisdom. And those intimately familiar with his previous films like Mountains May Depart, Still Life, and Unknown Pleasures will see recurring ideas, temporal similarities, and even the same actress used repeatedly (Zhao is Jia’s wife). I suppose they interpret this as Jia delving deeper instead of spinning his wheels. There’s much to feast on in Ash Is Purest White for those who have done their homework and are sympathetic to an auteur recycling familiar territory. Casual viewers will be less charitable, although they still might spark to the film’s peripatetic but ultimately compelling portrait of female empowerment.