It begins like a gangster melodrama—a flinty tough guy, his bold, sexy girlfriend, and the circle of underworld petty criminals in which they move. The time frame is contemporary, and the locale is an urban landscape of discos and motorbikes in an industrial city in the Shanxi province of northern China, where an epic drama of fierce loyalty, loss and regret unfolds in Ash is Purest White.
From the trailer for this movie, you might expect some sort of violent morality play acted out in the city streets. But writer-director Zhangke Jia has something more complicated in mind. After its flashy beginning, the story plays out over the next 15 years or so as the characters struggle to find themselves, each other and their bearings in an era of extreme social upheaval and cultural change.
Qiao (Tao Zhao) is a poised young woman at the center of a local “jianghu,” a mafia-style family of criminal “brothers.” Her position in this boy’s club is secure because her boyfriend Bin (Fan Liao) is the enforcer for the boss. They go disco dancing to “YMCA,” and sightseeing around the vast countryside. In the shadow of a famous Shanxi tourist attraction, the Datong Volcano Cluster, Qiao says she’s read that, “Anything that burns at a high temperature is made pure.”
But things change fast when Bin is violently attacked in the street one night by a rival gang. Qiao fires a gun to chase off the attackers, saving Bin’s life. Next thing we know, she’s behind bars for possession of an illegal firearm; then we see her with short hair, in shapeless prison garb, serving a five-year sentence. But Qiao’s emergence back out into the world is where Zhangke’s real story begins.
The world she knew is disappearing. The jianghu have scattered. The notorious Three Gorges Dam, which will wipe entire towns and villages off the map and displace thousands, is being built. (The story stretches from 2000 to roughly 2017.) When her belongings are stolen and Qiao has to live by her wits on the street for a while, it might be a new beginning for her. Instead, she launches herself on an odyssey to find Bin—who has gone through profound changes of his own.
The story is divided, visually and psychologically, into thirds. Colors are neon red and poison green in early gangster scenes, drab greys and beige when Qiao emerges into the new world, and she’s dressed in black in the third section, when she’s become a kind of enforcer herself, a scowling nanny to the hapless remaining members of her former tribe.
It’s intriguing to watch the ever-shifting dynamics of Qiao and Bin’s personal relationship. Typically, movies (and drama in general) serve up a small slice of their characters’ lives, but Zhangke is more interested in the long term, showing how actions and consequences progress not only through individual lives, but also across the vast, sprawling landscape of China itself in an era of change. Coal mines close, the streets fill up with the disaffected unemployed and increasingly hell-bent youth, and Bin’s “brotherhood” of old-school, Western-style gangsters becomes outdated.
Zhangke’s scope is ambitious, yet for all his thematic ideas, I wanted to feel more involved in the central story of Qiao and Bin. Their prickly relationship is never meant to be taken for a great love story, but if viewers are completely indifferent about whether or not they reunite, the movie loses a lot of its momentum along the way. It’s stylish and admirable, often surprising in interesting ways, but rarely engaging.
Tao Zhao’s performance, however, is totemic. She evolves from sure, confident party girl to avenger, from stoic prisoner to resourceful street hustler, finally becoming the face of weary pragmatism itself. Or perhaps the face of China itself, resolute against all odds. The question of whether she is “made pure” after her various trials by fire—or simply survives—is left to the viewer to decide.
ASH IS PUREST WHITE
*** (out of four)
With Tao Zhao and Fan Liao. Written and directed by Zhangke Jia. A Cohen Media Group release. Not rated. 136 minutes. In Mandarin with English subtitles.