A Film a Week - Ash Is Purest White / Jiang hu er nv

It seems like the Chinese auteur Jia Zhangke is playing with the cinematic language and moves the borders of filmmaking with each of his films, but we can always rely on two things. His wife and muse Tao Zhao will be the star and with his every film he will examine how the “people” element gets lost in the transition of the People’s Republic towards the modern and technologically developed world. China is a land of contrasts in which the time travel is somewhat an ordinary thing: over the course of one day a person can see the close future in the centre of the big cities, recent industrial past on the cities’ periphery and in the large provincial towns and even the relicts of the nineteenth century in its vast rural area.

His newest feature, Ash Is Purest White, is the story of crime, love and honour that follows the gangster’s girlfriend on her rise, fall and moderate rise again over the course of fifteen years or so, noting the changes in society in the background. The plot starts in the year 2001 in the mining town Datong in the filmmaker’s native Shanxi province where the small-time gangster Bin (played by Liao Fan of Black Coal, Thin Ice fame) controls the local gaming parlour that turns to nightclub in the evening with his girlfriend Qiao (Tao Zhao) as his right hand. Bin seems satisfied working and basically running errands for the local big boss that plans going legit until the boss is murdered and he has to step in. He is unprepared for the job since his actual knowledge of the world of the “jiangsu” (gangster) world does not exceed the things he learned from the Hong Kong flicks he and his buddies are obsessively watching.

Soon enough, he gets in trouble – the new kids are aggressive and eager to take over and he gets himself under attack which leads to a violent street fight which is interrupted by Qiao holding Bin’s gun and shooting in the air in an iconic frame. She takes the fall for him and is sentenced to a five-year stretch in jail with him getting considerably less time. Once she is out, she is surprised that he has moved on, having a non-criminal business and a new girlfriend now. She decides to track him down, which she does in the budding region around the, then future, Three Gorges Dam project, and she does it in a resourceful way via scheming the businesspeople for the money in a funny-to-die sequence, but she is actually searching for herself.

That she finds once she leaves him and moves on with her life. Her prospects are grim, with a fellow passenger on a train talking about UFO tourism in the desert as one of her rare hopes. In the film’s gentlest moment, he says he has a business of giving guided tours to UFO enthusiast, she replies that she has never worked in tourism, but is an actual witness to the UFO activity. The both lie, they know that they lie and the other one lies, but they just go with the flow for the sake of the conversation. Instead, she decides to go back to her hometown, back to the place she started and back to the same mahjong parlour business. Years later, Bin follows her, paralysed from the stroke and bitter, with the ending that will leave the viewer deeply unsettled.

It is evident that Jia does not only dwell on the same subjects as the ones in his 21st century films, but also quotes himself quite often, along with a number of other filmmakers in the wide range from Martin Scorsese to John Woo to Wong Karwai to Michelangelo Antonioni, playing simultaneously with the images, the words and the music. The using of the 80’s Western pop standards and chansons in the likes of the ones heard in Hong Kong gangster flicks tells the story about the cultural trends coming way to late to deep province of China where they are taken way too seriously for no reason. The same tricks he employed in his previous two films actually work well also in this one, but the goal is a bit different.

The reason for that is that Ash Is Purest White is not just emotionally packed and beautifully shot film, but also a supreme vehicle for its actors (both Fan and Tao have never been more tested to a greater result) and an ultimate feminist story about fighting uphill battles and gaining empowerment. All things considered, it might just the Jia’s best film since Still Life (2006) if not in his entire career.

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