Reel Critic: ‘Ash is Purest White’

By QIAN LI

A few weeks ago, I watched a film with a friend at Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York. As we walked out of the cinema, I realized my eyes were dry from tearing up so much in the dark. My friend laughed at me quite heartlessly, though later she admitted shedding tears during the screening as well. 

The film was “Ash is Purest White,” a 2018 drama film written and directed by Jia Zhangke, one of the leading figures of the Sixth Generation of Chinese cinema. Like several of Jia’s recent features including “24 City,” “A Touch of Sin” and “Mountains May Depart,” “Ash is Purest White” centers on marginalized characters who have no power over their individual lives as China enters the capitalist market and undergoes fundamental changes in its society. 

In Jia’s typical semi-documentary style, the film unfolds the journey of Qiao (played by Zhao Tao), a quick-witted young woman, who saves the life of Bin, her gangster boyfriend, only to later discover his betrayal after she spends five years in jail in his place. The opening scene, in which the camera casually skims over passengers on a bus, takes the audience back in 2001 with old grainy footages shot in a 4:3 frame. 

Situated in Datong, a northern mining city that is changing drastically, the first part of “Ash is Purest White” captures the absurdity of an old-fashioned underworld at its finest. When one of the gangsters aims the gun at another over a petty argument, the mob boss, Bin, simply appeases them with the presence of a gold statue of Guan Er Ye, an ancient general who was later regarded as a godlike figure of war. Gathered in a karaoke club, the gangsters pour nine different types of alcohol in one vessel before each scooping a bowl of the mixed drink to celebrate “loyalty and righteousness” in the underworld. Shortly after a member’s death, two fully dressed dancers are invited to perform ballroom dancing at the funeral in the dead’s honor. 

All of those scenes contribute to bringing forward a real presence of the modern Chinese underworld, also known as jianghu, that may or may not be familiar to the audience. There are certain rules to be learned and values to be appreciated in this world. Even though Qiao is in a romantic relationship with this dangerously charming gangster, she does not quite understand how to navigate in jianghu and dreams of settling down with Bin one day in Xinjiang, a vast northwestern region in China. Therefore, it is not surprising that Qiao has to be the one who fires the gun to scare off a young rising gang that violently attacks Bin and claims the illegal gun only to receive nothing except for life behind the bars. 

Five years later, in a ship on Yangtze River to Fengjie, Qiao embarks on her search for Bin. We hear the tour guide introducing the Three Gorges Dam project over the speaker, a real-life large-scale building project that resulted in rising water levels and resettlement of residents along the Yangtze River. Not only does this situate the audience within a larger historical context, the changes brought by the massive waves of construction also reflect the important personal changes Qiao has undergone in prison and her uncomfortable readjustment back into society. The scene where Qiao goes to the company of a previous gangster is full of displacement in time and space. Waving at the glass door several times, Qiao eventually gets frustrated by the unopened door that rejects her unwelcoming presence in this new world where Bin resides. It is only later when the receptionist opens the door from inside that Qiao gets a glimpse of the company and puts a plastic water bottle between the shutting doors. The squeezed and deformed water bottle mirrors Qiao’s situation in re-entering the society. 

What fascinates me about Qiao’s character is her refusal to disclose her emotions on the screen. In a way, we never quite get to see her tears, and that emotional repression only adds to the poignancy in the scene when she confronts Bin with his betrayal. Qiao realizes that he has forgotten about their past and moved on to a new chapter of his life. She walks to the door and leaves her back to the audience. Her quivering shoulders are all we get. Just as her quivering eyelashes are depicted later in the film when she closes her eyes saying she has no feelings left for Bin, there is something touching about Zhao’s performance that does not downplay the character but rewards the audience with the greatest satisfaction with the slightest trace of her emotions. 

Throughout the film, more often than not, the scene is tinged with different shades of green such as the furniture, the window frame and even the water flowing in a painting on the wall, etc. The color green is so vividly prevalent in not only “Ash is Purest White” but also many of Jia’s films that it is impossible not to notice. While this hue of green does add to the underworld feeling with an implied messy, murky chaos, it also transfixes the audience to the early time period portrayed in the film with nostalgia. It is almost always that Jia’s films present more than one time frame in modern China and fixate back in time as if the filmmaker himself lives in the past. 

The final scene of the film recalls the opening scene. The audience sees Qiao through a security monitor, leaning against a wall. Blurring the line between past and present, the film leaves the audience to ponder upon this lingering question of time. 

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