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Ash Is Purest White

Ash Is Purest White

[…] With a heroine at the centre who has utilised all her passion to survive and become independent in a world that twists and turns under her feet, Jia portrays a woman of enormous candour, humanity, and virtue.

[…] Places and sceneries from Jia’s earlier films reappear in «Ash Is Purest White», giving it a sense of time that takes stock not only from a socio-historical perspective but from the more personal point of view of an auteur who has, since the very beginning of his career, consistently put the focus on crafting perceptive, beautifully photographed and quietly poetic chronicles of Chinese society that don’t shy away from using bold genre moves, and continue to look at the world with an ever-present sense of wonder.

Time can heal, as they say, but not erase. Perhaps that is therefore why time itself is always omnipresent in Jia Zhang-ke’s films, to remind us of the things that are lost, but also to make us appreciate the fact that life, however carefully planned, simply cannot exist without change and the certainty of the unknown. For Qiao (Zhao Tao), the central character in Ash Is Purest White, the realisation comes with a jolt as she finds herself behind bars, following a fight between rivalling gangs in the rough, isolated mining town in Northern China where she grew up. The year is 2001 and, so far, this humble yet audacious moll to the handsome and ambitious gangster Bin (Liao Fan) has led a rather worriless and glam life in the local underworld gangland, but with Bin quickly moving up the mafia hierarchy after his boss is murdered, things start to become increasingly complicated for the young loving couple until, one night, at the risk of herself and Bin being shot, Qiao is forced to take action – and to make a decision that has a momentous impact upon their shared futures.

Sentenced to five years in prison for illegal possession of firearms, Qiao surrenders to her destiny and leaves behind the two men she cares about the most: her elderly father and her dashing lover. Upon her release, the world around her has changed to such a degree that, at first, makes it difficult for her to navigate her way through it, as she tries to track Bin down and start afresh with her life and their relationship. The former jianghu, however, has since left their home province, Shanxi, and settled into a new future of his own, far away at the Three Gorges Dam, that leaves no room for Qiao to remain an active part of it. With her only love lost and her heart broken, the tender yet resilient woman has no other options than to face reality yet again and find her own place in a rapidly changing society that has little to give but a breath of cool, toxic air.

Following the two main characters over almost two decades, the plot of Ash Is Purest White ultimately culminates in 2018 and sees the couple reunited in their old hometown, although some light years away from where they once were. The time that has passed has left its marks on both of them, visible, palpable, and etched into their minds and their skin forever. «Anything that burns at a high temperature is made pure», Qiao tells Bin early on in the film as they look towards a dormant volcano, and the complex truth behind her fleeting comment eventually becomes clear. With a heroine at the centre who has utilised all her passion to survive and become independent in a world that twists and turns under her feet, Jia portrays a woman of enormous candour, humanity, and virtue. Yet, at the same time, the now 48-year-old director offers a remarkably conciliatory tone here, knowing that only change can reveal the full beauty of the past und help us to see the present in a clearer light.

Places and sceneries from Jia’s earlier films reappear in Ash Is Purest White, giving it a sense of time that takes stock not only from a socio-historical perspective but from the more personal point of view of an auteur who has, since the very beginning of his career, consistently put the focus on crafting perceptive, beautifully photographed and quietly poetic chronicles of Chinese society that don’t shy away from using bold genre moves, and continue to look at the world with an ever-present sense of wonder. While Jia’s gritty crime narrative skills (built to a rolling boil in A Touch of Sin) define the beginning of Ash Is Purest White, the restrained pace and semi-documentary style of films such as Unknown Pleasures, Still Life or 24 City infuses the second part of the film. What remains is an epos of great power, both emotionally and cinematically, and a profound record of the temporal and spatial dissonances at the heart of society in 21st-century China.

First published: April 24, 2019

Ash Is Purest White | Film | Jia Zhang-ke | CHN-FR-JAP 2018 | 150’

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