Premiered at Cannes Film Festival in May 2018, and since then showing in numerous international film festivals around the world, “Ash is Purest White” is now playing in selective cities in the U.S. If you live near Twin Cities, MN, it opens Friday, March 29th at Landmark’s Edina Cinema.
Ash is Purest White” is acclaimed director Jia Zhangke’s latest feature, a China and France co-production. It is like a fusion of Jia’s previous “A Touch of Sin” (2013) and “Mountains May Depart” (2015). The film is structured in three parts, packed with conflicts of loyalty and betrayal, love and loss. The fast changing physical and technological landscapes in China are the realistic backdrop of a story wrapped in the contradictions of choice and fate.
For non-Chinese language viewers, the English title could well be a mystery. What exactly is its meaning, and what kind of genre is it? The film has an answer as the phrase is explicitly mentioned: Anything that burns at a high temperature is made pure, thus, volcanic ashes are purest white, an apt metaphor as the story unfolds. The Chinese title, however, is less philosophical. 江湖兒女 (“Jianghu er nü”) literally means “jianghu’s sons and daughters”, implying an action genre movie.
“Jianghu”, that undefinable term with no direct English translation, gives it away as it refers to the ancient wuxia (martial arts) world or the gangster realm in present day. In an early scene when the two main characters, mobster big brother Bin (Liao Fan) and his girlfriend Qiao (Zhao Tao) are out in the natural landscape with a volcano in the backdrop, Bin says he belongs in the jianghu underworld: “For people like us, it’s always kill or be killed.” Qiao quickly responds, “I’m not part of the jianghu. You’ve watched too many gangster movies.” Bin in turn takes out his gun, wraps Qiao’s hands to hold it up, shows her how to cock and fire. “See now you’re in the jianghu,” he says.
That is a pivotal scene as it foreshadows things to come. Qiao is pushed into jianghu as she later fires the gun to ward off a group of hooligans in order to save Bin. What more, to protect him, she admits to the police that the gun belongs to her. With that, she spends five years in prison. Jia has created in Qiao a reluctant heroine, capturing our attention with her loyalty and courage, two elements that are essential in jianghu.
“Ash is Purest White” is a mixed bag of crime thriller, melodrama, acerbic realism and humour; the story is an engaging vehicle taking us on Qiao’s personal journey. With this his latest film, Jia won Best Director at the Chicago International Film Festival and Zhao, his wife and muse, Best Actress. Most recently, he added one more accolade as the film garnered Best Screenplay at the 13th Asian Film Awards in Hong Kong on March 16th.
A story told in three acts, the feature is a dramatic depiction of Qiao’s change as she is swept through the currents of life, first as a young woman following Bin around as his girlfriend, a relationship that he is reluctant to confirm. Then comes the pivotal scene of fate sending her to the second act, incarcerated. Later when released, she becomes more street-smart––being cheated, she learns to cheat––all for finding Bin, to pick up where they have left off.
The last part is 18 years from the beginning, Qiao has established herself in Bin’s previous hood, but Bin is no longer the feared and respected big brother. Fate has led him onto a path towards oblivion. The final scene leaves us with a poignant realization, the currents of time may have altered physical landscapes, certain things do not change within the hidden vault of the heart.
(A full version of this review is posted on Asian American Press. Click here to read. )
~ ~ ~ Ripples