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A murderous quid pro quo comes back to haunt two young men at radically different stages in life, leading them to radically different fates in the visually arresting mystery-thriller Ash. That’s a descriptor that’s used extremely loosely, as director Li Xiaofeng’s sophomore effort, following 2014’s promising Nezha, wraps a morality tale within genre trappings and keeps the thrills on a low simmer. Li demonstrated a keen eye for composition and a light but affecting emotional touch in his debut, which unfortunately couldn’t sustain itself to the end. This time around, he manages to follow through both narratively and thematically. Cut from a similar cloth as a recent wave of bleak Chinese genre films, success at home may be limited (if it gets a release at all), but moderate art house showings should materialize across Asia. Overseas, the same distributors that found audiences for Diao Yinan’s Black Coal, Thin Ice, Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin and Ning Hao’s No Man’s Land could get lucky again with Ash. Strong festival performance is assured.
The non-linear narrative starts when a Chongqing detective, Chen Weikun (Nie Yuan, Brotherhood of Blades), is called to a theater to investigate the murder of Ma Xudong (Yang Yiwei), found in an aisle with his throat cut. Chen immediately questions the family, the man’s battered wife and equally battered but furious stepson Xu Feng (Nezha holdover Xin Peng). Against his better judgment and tingling Spidey senses, Chen lets the matter go when he can’t place anyone — except for a mysterious masked figure, observing from a distance — at the crime scene.
The film then abruptly jumps 10 years ahead, where we join a prominent surgeon, Wang Dong (Luo Jin), celebrating his anniversary with his wife, Xuan Hui (Jiang Peiyao). But it’s a fraught night for Wang, as he hallucinates about his wife with another man after a run-in with an odd patient at his office — who’s a dead ringer for Xu. Helmer Li builds tension slowly and deliberately, revealing the whole story and lifting the haze of confusion in snippets. Ash rounds out the narrative with two more chapters, “Ghost” and “Resurrection,” detailing the decade-old bond Xu and Wang share and the opposing and escalating impact the two murders are having on them now — the same murders Chen can’t quite give up on.
There are no spoilers in revealing that Xu and Wang, who became pen pals after Xu picked up Wang’s used copy of Tolstoy’s Resurrection, entered into a murder pact in their youth. Xu wanted Ma dead, and the bane of Wang’s existence was the charismatic Du Guojin (Huang Jue), a gangster and rival for Xuan Hui’s affections. Li and co-writers Xu Zhanxiong, Shen Yi and Wang Mu aren’t as interested in mystery as they are in morality and what may influence it. Ash is not complex — it simply ponders the state of good and evil, right and wrong, and whether or not basic moral integrity still exists in a modern China obsessed with material success. The director puts a lot of pressure on his relatively unknown young cast to make that quandary work, and they acquit themselves well. You can actually see the moment when Xu makes his deadly decision, Xin juxtaposing a dead-eyed stare with a gentle touch for his mother. Luo recalls a young Lee Byung-hun, wrestling with the instinct to lash out and his own conscience. It helps that Li has a firm grasp on who these characters are: Xu, a steelworker, is blunt and manual; Wang is precise, and their crimes reflect that.
As universal and timeless as the subject is, the pic’s strength is really in its technical prowess. Experimentalist Simon John Fisher Turner’s evocative score is more melodic, random sound than music (he did similar work on Caravaggio), filling in where dialogue is usually shoehorned in. And China-based Dutch lenser Joewi Verhoeven’s stellar images — Chen on a moonlit hill, a cemetery confrontation, a lakeside ambush — bathed in yellow and blue in the past, and red and green in the present, make Ash one of the most beautiful films to come out of China this year, in any genre. It’s not perfect. A handful of scenes drag on, belaboring their points, and the cursory introduction of Chen’s wife does little to illuminate Chen’s character, but on balance, Ash is a strong entertainment with a thought-provoking core, and proof Li is one to watch.
Production company: Beijing BHBD Cultural Diffusion Co.
Cast: Luo Jin, Xin Peng, Nie Yuan, Jiang Peiyao, Huang Jue, Yang Yiwei, Sun Hao,
Director: Li Xiaofeng
Screenwriters: Li Xiaofeng, Xu Zhanxiong, Shen Yi, Wang Mu
Producer: Ma Yuanyuan
Executive producers: Chen Yiyi, Wang Donghui
Director of photography: Joewi Verhoeven
Production designers: Wang Zhiqing, Hao Yongfeng
Editors: Liu Yueyue, Teng Yun
Music: Simon John Fisher Turner
Casting: Mu Rong
Venue: Busan International Film Festival
World sales: REDiance
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