There’s little point being loyal in a world which changes constantly, at speeds which defy comprehension. This is the bristling, animating tension existing at the centre of Zhangke Jia’s new film, ASH IS PUREST WHITE, which follows Qiao (Tao Zhao) and her burdened relationship with Bin Fan Liao), both respected members of the jianghu, a kind of chivalrous criminal underworld.
Beginning in Shanxi in northern China, the film travels in time and space across its three sections: the first is set in the northern mining town, in 2001; the second follows Qiao as she travels, post-incarceration, to find Bin near Fengjie (the site of the Three Gorges Dam), five years later in 2006; the last section, set in 2017 and 2018, returns the pair to Shanxi, with luck and opportunism having brought them to differing kinds of standstill.
Many components of the film resemble parts of Jia’s filmography: the sweep of the narrative is reminiscent of 2000’s PLATFORM; it shares a location with 2006’s STILL LIFE; and the structure and format shifts — from digital to film to ultra digital — look similar to 2015’s MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART. ASH IS PUREST WHITE, however, is alive with its own preoccupations and idiosyncrasies. In between running a mah-jongg parlour, during the opening section, Qiao and Bin also share a dance-floor moment to Village People’s “YMCA” and a slow and lovely hill-top excursion, during which he teaches Qiao how to fire his illegal firearm. The second section is rudely awakened by a petty theft, and ends on a weird and wonderful extraterrestrial note. The third, mournful returning section tries to set things up as mirroring the past, but the resemblance proves exasperatingly thin.
“Jia […] is an extraordinary composer of images, shots, and scenes: two scenes in particular mark ASH IS PUREST WHITE out as something approaching great.”
Jia (as helped along by Olivier Assayas’s regular DP Eric Gautier) is an extraordinary composer of images, shots, and scenes: two scenes in particular mark ASH IS PUREST WHITE out as something approaching great. The first is the scene closing out the opening section, in which a night time drive is halted by a rival gang. Qiao alters the pace; she exits the car, holding the gun aloft, and fires off a shot into the sky. The unbroken tracking shot which follows demonstrates her resolution: she walks forward, commanding the space, before swiveling on a spot, waiting a beat, and firing again. This passage attains distinction by its wonderful variation of tempo, as the tension builds gradually until the furious flurry of action is halted by Qiao’s unwavering repose with the pistol, which is one of the film’s indelible images. No scene in the film better represents the still and steely magnificence of Tao Zhao’s performance: the way her nearly expressionless face lets her gestures roar with meaning.
“…the furious flurry of action is halted by Qiao’s unwavering repose with the pistol, which is one of the film’s indelible images.”
The other example of Jia’s scene-making greatness is late-on in the second part: Qiao has travelled far and long to find Bin, who’s proven himself inconstant, and doesn’t reciprocate her act of honour in not handing him over to the authorities. They’ve finally reunited, retiring to a cheap hotel room — it’s pouring with rain, and the neon signage outside their window wouldn’t look out of place in a John Woo movie. In a single take, Qiao states her disappointment with Bin, and slowly, through elaborate silences, modifying conversational rhythms, and subtle camera movements, the sense that the pair will never reconcile emerges. Jia’s dramaturgy suggests these characters, despite being suited for each other earlier, can never return to that state, exactly because they have opposing conceptions of that past: for Bin, it’s all over, and he needs to move on; for Qiao, the past was interrupted, and her ideal future, bound up with the rigid code of loyalty she lives (and loves) by, is simply to return to how things were. The intransigence of their views, and the fact that she has been released into a China so profoundly different to the one she knew five years prior, combine to produce the film’s potent dimension of tragedy.