Director: Jia Zhangke
Cast: Tao Zhao, Fan Liao, Yi’nan Diao, Jiali Ding
Ash Is Purest White is the first Jia Zhangke film to release theatrically in India. First, let’s just take a moment to celebrate that. The Chinese director is one of the world’s most acclaimed storytellers. Martin Scorsese described his cinema as ‘the finest, toughest, most vitally alive work in modern moviemaking.’ Jia Zhangke’s films are a precise record of the sweeping social and economic forces that have shaped China in the last few decades. His films, which combine realism with playfulness, have won awards at leading film festivals including Cannes and Berlin. Ash Is Purest White premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last year.
The film spans 17 years and three distinct time periods. We begin at the turn of the century. It’s 2001. There is rapid expansion in China as the country rushes toward capitalism. The story is set in Datong, an industrial city in northern China where Qiao and Bin are a glamorous underworld couple. He’s got serious swag and gambling dens. She’s a cool customer – when an argument breaks out during a mahjong session and a gun appears, she doesn’t even turn around to see what’s happening. But the gun eventually proves to be their undoing. Qiao and Bin are parted.
Through the film, we see people moving, in buses and trains, across China. Things are changing so rapidly that it seems impossible to hold on to ways of life and especially, relationships
The film then moves to 2006 when Qiao emerges again and begins her search for Bin. The country is in motion – Qiao takes a ferry down the Yangtze River and we are told that with the building of the Three Gorges Dam, the entire area will be covered by water. Through the film, we see people moving, in buses and trains, across China. Things are changing so rapidly that it seems impossible to hold on to ways of life and especially, relationships. Like China, Bin is now a different man. Earlier in the film, Bin and Qiao talk about the righteousness and loyalty of the criminal code. But Qiao seems to be the only one following it. There is a long, tender scene in a hotel room during which Bin cries because he wasn’t there for her. But when she offers to travel with him, he says that it wouldn’t be appropriate. A word that Qiao smirks at because it sounds so odd from the mouth of a gangster.
As the world around her shifts, Qiao stays resilient. Qiao is played by Zhao Tao, who has appeared in almost all of Jia Zhangke’s films since Platform in 2000. They were married in 2012. Tao is a brilliant actor. As Qiao, she is fierce and vulnerable. Her sadness is haunting but she is a survivor. In many ways, Qiao stands taller than the men who surround her. The title Ash Is Purest White comes from a conversation that Qiao and Bin have about a dormant volcano. She remarks that something that burns so much is purer. Qiao embodies both the idealism and the corruption.
Somehow the film also manages to include a UFO sighting and ballroom dancing at the funeral of a dodgy real estate developer
Jia Zhangke explores the many contradictions of his country but Ash Is Purest White also reveals his sly sense of humor. Somehow the film also manages to include a UFO sighting and ballroom dancing at the funeral of a dodgy real estate developer. It’s laugh-out-loud funny. I also discovered that crashing weddings for free meals isn’t just an Indian thing.
At one point in the film, a character says – the bottom line is, we are all prisoners of the universe. Ash Is Purest White is a riveting examination of that. I strongly recommend it.