Jia Zhang-ke was never going to make a conventional jianghu underworld movie, and even if genre elements and hard-edged character details are woven into Ash Is Purest White, this typically unhurried, long-span drama is very much of a piece with the Chinese auteur’s contemplative body of work. Starting in 2001 and ending on a melancholy New Year’s Eve that ushers in 2018, the film provides a transfixing leading role for Jia’s wife and indispensable muse Zhao Tao. She plays a woman from a dying coal-mining town in love with a local mobster, their complicated relationship unfolding against the backdrop of a country changing at a dizzying pace.
The evolution of contemporary China, of course, has always been Jia’s central theme as tradition has made way for modernity, bringing both losses and gains, while Western influences and technology have pierced cultural insularity. That canvas is more casually observed here than in some of the director’s earlier films, many of which find direct echoes — the surreal UFO element of Still Life; the three-part structure of Mountains May Depart — in a discursive drama that should please aficionados of Jia’s distinctive work though perhaps contains too many cryptic detours for wider exposure.
The film opens with digital video footage shot in 2001 in Jia’s northwest home province of Shanxi, showing a baby girl in USA dungarees unsmilingly surveying a busload of chain-smoking miners. At the same time, the swelling score blends traditional themes with modern electronic sounds and a touch of ceremonial drumming. This is the new China, or at least it was at the start of the 21st century.
Zhao seems to have stepped right out of her role in 2002’s Unknown Pleasures to play Qiao, a local beauty who takes no crap from the men that frequent the gambling den in the back of a nightclub dominated by the presence of her boyfriend Guo Bin (Liao Fan from Berlin festival winner Black Coal, Thin Ice). While everyone else is busy sucking up to Bin, Qiao is a woman who refuses to be intimidated by the macho environment; she greets Bin with a sharp but affectionate bite on the shoulder and gives playful thumps to the regulars in a scene that instantly establishes the character as no mere decorative prop.
It’s Qiao, not Bin, who leads a celebratory toast to “the brotherhood,” and it’s her espousal of the time-honored jianghu codes of loyalty and righteousness that will outlast the convictions of her partner.
Qiao confidently straddles the divide between traditional values and the less marginalized status of the modern Chinese woman. She shows loving concern for her aging father, who rails drunkenly against threats to mineworker job security, but turns spiky with anyone lacking respect for Bin. And while she struts her stuff in a fun formation routine to The Village People’s “YMCA” (in Mountains, it was the Pet Shop Boys cover of “Go West”), she deems ballroom dancing “too Western” for her taste. But that and animal documentaries are the pet fixations of Bin’s senior associate, a crooked property developer who disappears way too soon at the hands of a rival gang.
When Bin subsequently is targeted by a group of young thugs on motorcycles — a violent action setpiece that is easily the movie’s most exhilarating sequence — Qiao saves him from being beaten to death by firing warning shots from the Chekhovian gun prominently featured in earlier scenes. Her refusal to incriminate her boyfriend as the illegal weapon’s owner gets her a five-year prison sentence.
The movie’s midsection then shifts upon Qiao’s release in 2006 to the Three Gorges area as she sails down the Yangtze River looking at villages destined to disappear underwater in a planned hydroelectric dam project. Again, evidence of a vanishing China. No doubt feeling guilty about his failure to visit her in prison, Bin blocks her calls and sends other people to convey the news that he’s moved on. But Qiao wants to hear it from his lips.
In the meantime, she gets robbed of her cash and ID card, but in a wryly funny series of scenes, makes use of skills she picked up around the prison yard to get back on her feet, starting by crashing a wedding to get a meal. The funniest of her scams involves spotting likely philanderers and bilking them for cash during family festivities at a banquet hall. The tone then shifts from amusing to mournful when she finally gets to confront Bin, in an exquisite extended scene that’s all the more affecting for its stillness and quiet.
The final section jumps ahead almost to the present day, with Qiao now returned to Shanxi running a gambling house of her own, a survivor and yet an eternal outsider in this strange new world. Bin’s greatly reduced circumstances send him back him to her, but while she claims to feel nothing for him, her humanity renders her unable to derive pleasure from his misfortunes. The wrap-up is somewhat protracted and seems poised to end more than once, but as always with Jia’s films, he packs such soulfulness into the conclusion that any digressions can be forgiven.
This latest feature is Jia’s first not shot by regular cinematographer Yu Lik Wai. Noted French d.p. Eric Gautier steps in with assurance, fluidly integrating footage from different generation DV cameras that allow the visual textures to change with the passing of the years. Gautier has a sharp eye for bold splashes of scorching color, but the look of the film generally is composed, almost understated, lending gorgeous scope to the occasional panoramic shots of landscapes or architecture.
The performances of the two leads are riveting. Liao initially projects a cool authority but is warm and at times almost deferential with Qiao, suggesting an understanding between the two that renders thoughts of marriage irrelevant. Even later, when experience has soured Bin, there’s a molten core beneath his abrasive manner. And Zhao virtually assembles a mini-retrospective of her roles for Jia, referencing many of her earlier characters in ways both subtle and direct, while bringing inscrutable grit that quietly evokes the tough broads of 1940s Hollywood. Their partnership is one of the great husband-and-wife collaborations of contemporary world cinema.
Cast: Zhao Tao, Liao Fan, Xu Zheng, Casper Liang, Feng Xiaogang, Diao Yinan, Zhang Yibai, Ding jiali, Zhang Yi, Dong Zijian
Production companies: Shanghai Film Corp., Xstream Pictures, Huanxi Media Group, MK Productions
Director-screenwriter: Jia Zhang-Ke
Producer: Shozo Ichiyama
Executive producers: Ren Zhonglun, Jia Zhang-Ke, Dong Ping, Nathanael & Elisha Karmitz, Liu Shiyu, Zhu Weijie, Yang Jinsong
Director of photography: Eric Gautier
Production designer: Liu Weixin
Music: Lim Giong
Editors: Matthieu Laclau, Lin Xudong
Casting: Lin Tian
Sales: MK2 Films
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)