The gangster film is turned on its head in Ash is Purest White, a movie that takes the traditional tropes of the genre and uses them to instead tell a deeply personal story. It starts with a party in the local club, with gangsters playing Mahjong in the back. The camera follows Qiao (Zhao Tao) as she walks in and greets her boyfriend, Bin (Liao Fan). He is top dog in this clan; when he wants to light his cigarette, multiple hands suddenly enter the frame offering him a flame. He breaks up a potentially lethal confrontation between two of his “brothers,” placing a threatening pistol on a table. Qiao picks it up, and the title sequence flashes on the screen. From there, her fate looks sealed, with the movie expertly obeying the laws of Chekov’s gun.
From there Ash is Purest White splits into two halves, with one essential act of loyalty proving a crucial turning point in the film’s narrative. The journey taken is completely unpredictable, giving it a thrilling feel. (To tell you anything else that happens would qualify as a spoiler).This is due to the strong characterisation of the protagonist, with the second half in particular having a feeling of spontaneity that seems to follow along with her whims. Zhao Tao’s performance is nothing short of revelatory, containing shades of Isabelle Huppert for the way her interpretation of the character dictates the tone of the film itself. Even when the narrative itself meanders, she remains completely unwavering. Zhangke’s wife, the film is as much her creation as it is his.
It spans from 2001 to 2018, as China modernised massively into the global powerhouse we see today. The production design is immaculate, signifying key changes with just subtle technological cues. This is a nation going through great and rapid change; one tour guide on the Three Gorges in 2006 reminds us that in a few years, all the surrounding area will be underwater. The town of Datong, where the film is set, is a traditional coal mining town; by the end everything is shut down. Although these changes are hardly forced upon us, this makes Ash is Purest White as much a state-of-the-nation study as it is a character drama.
Jia Zhangke fills Ash with many scenes that perhaps could’ve been cut from the final version, but help to deepen the film’s themes. He throws the kitchen sink in here, including musical sequences set to “YMCA,” a brilliant con artist trick, and even a brutal martial arts fight. Zhangke is one of China’s most respected directors, creator of masterpieces such as The World and A Touch of Sin. If you want to understand China in the 21st century, simply watching Zhangke’s movies is probably a good place to start. Experimenting with the boundaries of narrative itself, Ash is Purest White feels like a natural extension of his style, as well as a celebration of his career.
Nevertheless, despite the great first two thirds’ massively ambitious structure, the final act surprises us once again by circling back on itself. Zhao Tao is so good that she doesn’t need to be contained by a traditional rise and fall story. There were a couple of opportunities for the film to end on a brave and enigmatic note — including a sudden, unexplained flight of magical realism(!) — but instead of creating a new type of cinema the unnecessary need for closure is imposed upon the story. Still, for a fleeting moment, Ash is Purest White comes close to the essence of cinema itself.