A long and melancholy summation of better movies the brilliant Jia Zhangke has made before, “Ash Is Purest White” finds China’s most prominent filmmaker wistfully replaying the hits in order to further romanticize some of the fixations that have always dominated his work. The passage of time, the sweep of modernity, and the outlaw violence that can be traced back to the Cultural Revolution unsurprisingly come to define this fractured saga of a small-time gangster and the girl who was always by his side, as the writer-director spins an epic tale that never quite captures the poetry of its English title. It’s a loveless love story, told across three parts, five different camera types, and 17 years of change — it’s a movie that often feels like a mega-mix of Jia’s greatest hits, but one that rehashes them with precious little of the ineffable grace that make each of them so valuable on their own.
April 2, 2001. Beginning in the North China province of Shanxi, “Ash Is the Purest White” drops us into a pocket of the jianghu underworld. It’s a racket that involves considerably more mahjong than murder — a community filled with kill or be killed people who talk a big game but seldom play for blood. Bin (Fan Liao, an actor who some viewers might remember from his brilliantly unhinged performance in “Black Coal, Thin Ice”) is a small-time gangster who owns a decent little nightclub where everyone treats him like a god. As soon as he picks up a cigarette, four different hands dart into the frame to light it. His face sinks into a natural scowl, and he tries a little too hard to replicate Chow Yun-Fat’s cool in “The Killer,” but the truth of the matter is that he seems like a pretty solid guy.
It’s not hard to understand what Qiao (Zhao Tao, Jia’s wife and favorite actress), might see in him. By all indications the most beautiful girl in town, Qiao flits around like a newly hatched butterfly — the insect is embroidered into most of her shirts, just in case we don’t catch her preening confidence. But Jia has a real love for his characters, and would never dare to write them off as arrogant or intimidating. Bin has reservoirs of hidden mercy, while Qiao tenderly cares for her father, who’s fallen into drunken disrepair since the local mine went under.
These early scenes are colored by their broad humor and their cultural specificity. The cell phones are long slabs of gray plastic, the government’s agricultural planning projects seem like a distant threat, and the locals can’t get enough of the Village People’s “Y.M.C.A.” (which isn’t exactly a recent jam, but Jia has never met a coordinated group dance he didn’t like). The China of 2001 isn’t yet the powerhouse that it would soon become, but the country still feels like it’s straddling the old world and the new, leaving the good citizens of Shanxi to find their own kind of stability. We see it in the way that Bin and Qiao lean on each other, the two lovers pulled together by an unyielding emotional gravity. Both of them appear to be cool with the co-dependence at work between them, but Qiao is in for a rude awakening.
An illegal gun that triggers the problem — that’s how those things work. It’s ominously displayed at least three separate times before it goes off, par for the course in a film that’s about as subtle as a UFO screaming across the night sky (that’s your cue to perk up, “Still Life” superfans). The glowing neon scene where the weapon goes off is one of the most incredible things that Jia has ever shot, as two fluid long-takes capture how Qiao saves Bin from a vicious street fight. While much of “Ash Is Purest White” seems determined to frustrate our hopes and expectations, teasing us with possibilities that it deflates with the mundane developments that follow, this sequence is electric enough to put John Woo in his place.
Qiao goes to prison for five years and Bin never visits her. The next thing we know it’s 2006 and she’s being released into a different world. The movie grows considerably more episodic from there, Zhao taking control of the narrative as she wends her way through China’s Three Gorges area in search of resolution. She meets (and swindles) a number of people along the way, each one of these single-serving characters helping to tighten the strange bond she continues to share with Bin.
The side quests aren’t particularly satisfying on their own (even though Olivier Assayas’ regular cinematographer Eric Gautier has a field day shooting the Yangtze River on celluloid), though each of them reinforces the idea that Qiao is changing at the speed of the country around her. When the film jumps ahead to its final section in the present day, those tectonic shifts are all the more pronounced.
There’s a feeling that we’re being treated to a revue of all the women who Zhao has played for her husband, the actress’ early scenes appropriately recalling her work in 2001’s “Unknown Pleasures” before the 2006 section finds Qiao maturing into a character who more closely resembles the one Zhao played that year in “Still Life.” If nothing else, this movie is a monument to her talents. The waters rise, coal towns get wiped off the map, and Bin gets an iPhone; everything changes except for who we are to each other. The faster the world spins forward, the more that Bin and Qiao need each other as focal points to keep from getting dizzy.
“We’re all prisoners of the universe,” someone says, but our loveless lovers are bound only to one another. It’s a bittersweet idea that Jia unpacks with all the emotion of a slow-growing ulcer. Touching on the tumult of “24 City” (but without the urgency) and the futurism of “Mountains May Depart” (without the wild ambition), the film’s affectless third act brings everything together with a heavy sigh. As always, Jia is fascinated in the ways that China is changing, and how that forward push is experienced by people who are just trying to keep their feet on the ground. But where many of his previous films made it feel as though he was guiding us somewhere, “Ash Is Purest White” gives the impression of a master filmmaker who’s reached a fork in the road, and has no choice but to slowly retrace his steps.
“Ash Is Purest White” premiered in Competition at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.