Ash Is Purest White (2018)
April 1, 2020 9:52 AM - Subscribe

In an industrial city in China, a young dancer named Qiao falls in love with a mobster named Bin. When a fight breaks out between rival gangs, Qiao uses a gun to protect Bin and is sent to prison for five years.

A tragicomedy initially set in the jianghu-criminal underworld-setting, ASH IS PUREST WHITE is less a gangster movie than a melodrama. With a three-part structure, it begins by following the quick-witted Qiao (Tao Zhao) and her mobster boyfriend Bin (Fan Liao) as they stake out their turf against rivals and upstarts in 2001 postindustrial Datong before expanding out into an epic narrative of how abstract forces shape individual lives, and continues Jia Zhangke's body of work as a record of 21st-century China and its warp-speed transformations.

Josh Larsen: Ash Is Purest White starts as a crackerjack, Bonnie and Clyde-style crime movie, then slows down into something more akin to Antonioni’s L’Avventura. It eventually ends as a mesmerizing mood piece about personal alienation and national dislocation. That’s quite a shift, but writer-director Jia Zhangke (A Touch of Sin, Mountains May Depart) finesses it effortlessly

Emily Yoshida: True love may last forever, but can it weather Chinese infrastructure? In Jia Zhangke’s Ash Is Purest White, one woman’s loyalty to her love hangs on for 16 years, but it’s 16 years that feel — visually, technologically, and emotionally (and in the run time of the film, for better and worse) — like a century. Wanna feel old? Zhangke asks. Just be in China, for really any duration of time at all. Your feelings and desires and dreams will feel slow and forgotten, as the skyscrapers and high-speed rail spring up around you. . .

At two hours and 21 minutes, Zhangke’s film is a journey. The film ends just after the new year of 2018, back in Datong, with its shiny new rail station and same old mah-jongg parlor. By the end, the transformation of China is more compelling than Qiao’s love for Bin, but watching both unfold over time is continually thought-provoking, given the ephemerality of whole cities, much less love affairs. “Am I that important?” Bin asks Qiao at one point. “If not you, what is?” she replies.

James Lattimer: The sense of stasis that suffuses Qiao and Bi’s relationship is thrown into even sharper relief by the signifiers of movement and progress that Jia places around it. The clunky Nokia phone Qiao uses in 2006 may have given way to a smartphone by 2017, but the map app still just points the way back to the film’s initial location, while Bi’s photo and voice messages only reinforce the same attitude towards Qiao he’s demonstrated from the outset: one step forward, two steps back. Both before her prison term and after her release, Qiao is shown on various forms of transportation—buses, cars, motorbikes, ferries, trains—with such conspicuous frequency that Jia appears to suggest that regardless of how much she criss-crosses China, she’ll never find the route to lead her away from Bi.

posted by Carillon (4 comments total)
Ash Is Purest White is streaming in the US via Amazon Prime and Kanopy (which you can access with a library card or university ID).
posted by Etrigan at 8:14 PM on April 1, 2020

I really liked this movie and was lucky to watch it last year with a Q&A with Jia Zhangke following the screening. It was both a blessing and a curse: I think that the core question of the movie is "Why did Qiao accept Bin back to Datong and nurse him back to health?" Apparently Tao Zhao asked Jia this when reading the script for the first time and the question didn't even occur to him! It bothered me that the core plot point to me -- a woman accepting an ex-lover who's betrayed and abandoned her back -- was taken for granted by the writer and director, and her character motivation not considered.
posted by watermelon at 2:39 PM on April 3, 2020 [1 favorite]

Really great up until the UFO sighting, where I thought it was going to have an ending, but then there's another chapter that doesn't seem to quite know how to end. Though I did like the sick burn when Qiao tells Bin she took him in out of righteousness which he wouldn't understand because he's not a gangster.

I like all the very shabby entertainments. The ballroom dancing in the dirt for the big shot's funeral, the bad bands, the crappy sound systems. It sucks the glamour out of it which makes it seem grim.. the bar is very low.
posted by fleacircus at 10:37 PM on May 17, 2022 [1 favorite]

Still thinking about this movie a bit. I wish it had ended with the UFO thing. The sort of pure version of what was being shown is the need to create a glamorous jianghu. Boiled down to its essence it's the JEEP hat guy telling lies about bullshit to make himself seem cool, to make the world more interesting than selling toilets. Qiao drinks the kool aid, she sees the UFOs. She really always was a player though, she was always performing, a piece not a spectator. When she saves Bin's life she doesn't rush immediately to help him; she strikes a pose with the gun, in front of the crowd.

Still don't feel like the grim dreariness of the last act was necessary though.
posted by fleacircus at 1:15 PM on May 19, 2022

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