With a touch over two decades of feature filmmaking under his belt, writer/director Jia Zhangke has distinguished himself among Chinese filmmakers and gained a firm footing in the world’s directorial elite. Zhangke’s newest film and ninth narrative feature, Ash Is Purest White, is yet another captivating entry in his already glowing oeuvre. Like many greats, he has a propensity to dig into close-to-home themes he has explored in the past (think: Barry Jenkins and black suppression, Sofia Coppola and alienated women, Lars von Trier and depression, Roberto Rosselini and war). In the case of Ash Is Purest White, Zhangke zealots will notice a conspicuous blend of his past two films, A Touch of Sin (2013) and Mountains May Depart (2015), and a continuation of his thematic examination of the dilapidated socio-economic state of rural China in the wake of ever-advancing globalization.
Ash Is Purest White blends the underground crime setting of A Touch of Sin with the decade-spanning triptych narrative structure of Mountains May Depart. Like Mountains, the story is focused on a woman facing severe hardships in three chapters over a long period of time, but where Mountains locates its female lead in between two men and the complicated relationships that they develop, Ash Is Purest White places its heroine at the center of a small town mob at the right hand of a man she dearly loves who likes to think of himself as the godfather.
The film takes place from 2001 to 2017. Crowned jewel of Zhangke’s filmography (who appears in all 9 of his features and happens to be his wife), Zhao Tao plays Qiao, a terrifyingly independent and empowered woman. She loved Bin (Liao Fan), the chief mobster of the jianghu, the criminal underworld of Shanxi. Together, they head a surprisingly gracious mob, due to Qiao’s different way of running things, taking hits only when necessary and extending life to the rival scum who most movie mobsters would eliminate without blinking. But rest assured they are still a mob. There is no hesitation at the threat of violence, but it is not mindlessly exerted. If not for the gender dynamics of business dealings, Qiao would probably be equal to Bin in rank. She lectures captured rival mobsters with the authority of a god, struts with the confidence of Cleopatra, and shuts potential naysayers up with sharp glances. When we meet her she hasn’t been in the jianghu long, but you would think she was born in it.
A sudden ambush from a gang catches them off-guard one evening. They surround the car, smash the windows, and drag everyone out besides Qiao with the intent to kill. Bin fights impressively, fending off the first many that strike him, reminding us why he has reached the top, but he is gravely outnumbered. In a pitiless display of violence, they slam Bin’s head on the hood ornament of his car repeatedly until Qiao has had enough. Underestimated and ignored, she emerges with poise and fires Bin’s handgun into the air with a stone cold countenance. The shots send the rival gang running and we find ourselves in front of a judge in the next scene, Qiao on trial for 5 years for the possession of an illegal firearm that wasn’t hers. Regardless, she takes the fall so Bin doesn’t have to.
We meet her again 5 years later. She gets out of prison, but there is no Bin waiting for her as she expected. She sets off toward the Three Gorges to reunite with him only to discover some painful truths. She is no longer living the life of the jianghu, but she must swindle, cheat, and con people to get what she needs to travel and survive. Her skills learned in the jianghu prove valuable. On the outside, she looks different. In the first chapter, she flaunted her adorning jewelry and fashionable attire, while in the second she looks as if she’s on her way to a telemarketing job interview. However, she is still a woman in a man’s world—a woman whose consistently callous strength of character keeps her moving. Like before, she exhibits no fear. The third chapter takes place back in Shanxi, where Qiao is once again entrenched in the jianghu, and Bin’s involvement is not what you might expect. But I will leave the rest of the details for your own discovery.
Ash Is Purest White is a stark and emotional feminist portrayal of a woman on the fringes, betrayed by the man she loves, yet unflinching in her pursuit of him. Zhao Tao’s performance (nominated for Best Actress at Cannes) is nothing short of brilliant. She rises to every occasion with an iron will, repelling the cruel tendencies of men and displaying wisdom and grace in the most significant moments. As always, Zhangke’s screenplay and direction are harmoniously synced in ways only few writer/directors could exemplify. They come together to form a melancholic epic saturated in atmospheric darkness and tenderized with romance. He uses the perplexing and inconsistent flow of time to set a precedent for Qiao’s life and life in general. Zhangke’s treatment of time itself forms an existential set of questions that the film contemplatively presents its viewers.
He fashions a masterful blend of the personal and political by richly displaying Qiao’s story without detracting from the larger issue of China’s forgotten class, the “floating population,” as they’ve been ominously coined. (He even manages to slip in some much-appreciated humor.) There’s much more at stake here than the fictional tale of a female mob lord, or the loss of love, or the strange passage of time. The livelihood of an entire people group is a dying light that Zhangke righteously refuses to let go out. If you don’t see Ash Is Purest White you will miss one of the year’s greatest treasures, one of its most mature, complex characters, and certainly one of Zhangke’s best.