In Jia Zhangke’s three-chapter drama “Ash is Purest White” our focus is placed on a woman named Qiao (Tao Zhao). We observe as she navigates three very different phases of her life, all to a shifting Chinese landscape. It’s a cynical yet strikingly realistic portrayal of love, devotion, and the consequences that can come with them.
It’s hard not to be drawn in by Jia Zhangke’s intoxicating visual technique. Just as much story is told through the poetic gaze of his camera as through the film’s dialogue. This approach demands a capable, multifaceted central performance and we certainly get it from Tao Zhao. The sheer range of emotion and experience she brings is truly impressive. She crafts a character full of grit and determination, but also sensitive and mournful.
The film begins in 2001 where Qiao lives a life of plenty with her boyfriend Bin (Liao Fan). He has considerable clout as a crime boss in Datong where local industry is succumbing to China’s sweeping economic change. Bin runs his crew by a strict code of ethics which demands respect and honor among thieves. But his rule hits a wall when he is beaten by a gang of young thugs. In a quick moment of sacrifice, Qiao saves Bin’s life but ends up in prison for her efforts.
From there Qiao’s journey makes two significant stops on Zhangke’s timeline. First in 2006 where she is released from prison and setting out to find Bin who she hasn’t heard from since being incarcerated. The final stop is present day where we find Qiao and Bin’s relationship taking on yet another drastically different form. Throughout her journey Qiao shows a quiet ferocity and unshakable ability to take care of herself. At the same time you see a growing melancholy as certain truths become clearer to her.
Again, you can’t help but notice the parallels between the film’s central relationship and the dramatic evolution of the country itself. China’s cultural and economic transitions play out mostly in the background but Zhangke’s camera has a way of making them a part of the story. They are broad changes with seemingly no regard for the people they leave behind. And there is an unmistakable harmony between them and what we see between Qiao and Bin.
Whether his focus is on a love story or the criminal underworld, Zhangke’s storytelling has a hypnotic quality to it. With a few rare exceptions, his film features no dramatic highs or lows. It gets in no hurry and moves to its own slow and steady rhythm, perhaps too slow at times. But even as it wanders there is no shortage of captivating visuals or thoughtful character work to take in.
“Ash is Purest White” is full of empathy, longing, and a surprising amount of restraint considering the film’s gangster element and the eruptive metaphor within its title. It’s an auteur’s epic spotlighting a personal journey through a land of intense modernization. And the feeling it conveys through the camera and Tao Zhao’s performance is cinema in its purest form.
VERDICT – 4 STARS