Jia Zhangke has always been interested in stories that happen across long periods of time. It is in those spans that the Chinese filmmaker believes time can capture the secrets behind the experiences of life. It is also there where the director seeks to portray the mutation of love, the inevitable changes that — in the end of a tale — take love to its final version, either by a process of consolidation or utter destruction. Ash Is Purest White, Zhangke’s latest film, is another masterful chapter of the director’s artistic journey, one that works wonderfully as a point of entry into his oeuvre.
Reuniting Zhangke with actress Zhao Tao (Unknown Pleasures and Still Life), Ash Is Purest White follows almost two decades in the life of a women named Quiao, one half of a dramatic and epic love story set across the margins of contemporary China. Qiao is in love with Bin, a local mobster of the Jianghu played by Liao Fan. During a fight between Bin’s gang and his rivals, Quiao takes a desperate measure to protect him. The decision, one made out of both passion and loyalty, separates them indefinitely and raises a question: will they maintain what they had?
“Anything that burns at high temperature is made pure,” Quiao says to Bin during a pivotal scene that precedes their separation. She is referring to the geological phenomenon inside of a volcano, but it’s also a metaphor for the couple’s transformation. At the beginning of the story, Quaio and Bin live within an economically stagnant Chinese city. They seem to thrive, but Quiao doesn’t really feel part of the Jianghu world. Bin, on the other hand, lives through and for his power — intangible as it may be — as he and his gangsters are mostly shown dancing, playing games and being quite likeable.
According to Zhangke, the term “Jianghu” belongs to those who have no home. Most of the urban and natural setting of Ash Is Purest White feels like a desolate landscape, one plagued with emptiness. Quiao and Bin seem like the only characters in the world, whether they are alone or surrounded by a sea of people. As the population grows and their old ways die, they need to adapt — even if they have to do it alone.
Ash Is Purest White’s story is very much about Quiao’s transformative journey into a more stimulating region of China. The film is constantly illustrating her struggle of trying to make ends meet while realizing that she won’t find what she is looking for in Bin. And as pessimistic as Zhangke’s premise may sound, there is still such tenderness in every scene. His drama is infused with comedy, of which underlines the nature of a dying relationship: an exclusive yet contradictory human experience.
Ash Is Purest White opens at the beginning of the 21st century and closes in the present. Through this long misadventure, Zhangke gets to experiment with his visual approach, setting shots framed in a 16:9 aspect ratio before changing to 4:3. A hand-held camera is used for an intimate scene in a gangster club, while a still wide shot shows the ethereal night sky. Surprises abide in the director’s storytelling, and they feel welcome every time.
Zhangke has once again excelled at showing how love balances itself, without a warning, through memory and repetition. Since premiering at Cannes last May, Ash Is Purest White has been called one of the best films of 2018. Almost one year later, and with a recent distribution through U.S. cinemas, that statement still holds.
Pablo Staricco Cadenazzi (@pstaricco) is a France-based Uruguayan journalist, film critic and member of FIPRESCI. He worked as a staff member for the newspapers El País and El Observador, and he is currently part of the the movie podcast Santas Listas (from @polentapodcast) and the comics publisher Pantano Editorial.