Ash Is Purest White indicts Chinese life through an individual’s experiences.
Slowly, very slowly and deliberately over two and a third hours, writer/director Zhangke Jia’s Ash Is Purest White nonjudgmentally watches as Qiao’s world falls apart. Incidentally but significantly, the Chinese environment that provides the backdrop implicitly exposes economic and social deterioration between the 2001 to 2017 years of Qiao’s story: mines closing, workers unemployed, gambling and gangsters pervasive.
Due to the Three Gorges Dam inundating previously inhabitable areas along the Yangtze River, over one million Chinese must relocate; overhead shots reveal huge, impersonal housing complexes; and, more than once, violence erupts unexpectedly. All of this remains secondary to Qiao’s obsession with Bin, a mafia man with power and prestige who frequents Qiao’s mahjong bar. Also important for the story are prison, alienation, and a lack of adherence to loyalty, respect and righteousness, the Jianghu code invoked several times.
Featured in a previous Jia film, Still Life, Tao Zhao as Qiao delivers an equally superb, multifaceted performance, moving from ebullient dominance to mind-numbing depression. As Qiao’s love interest Bin, Fan Liao demonstrates a lesser range both verbally and nonverbally, but he is, after all, merely the catalyst for Qiao’s downward trajectory.
The eclectic music score, including a wildly entertaining disco dance to the Village People’s YMCA, highlights the multicultural influence of the US on today’s China. Visually, metaphors abound: a dormant volcano looming in the background in two important scenes, a tiger and a lion in a small cage in another scene, luminous indoor lighting versus gloomy illumination, Bin and Qiao dwarfed and isolated, moving alone across a vast gray concrete backdrop. Set in director Jia’s hometown in northwestern China, Bin’s fate, no spoilers here, is equally suggestive of cultural collapse.
The title itself, Ash Is Purest White speaks volumes about these individuals’ disintegration, though an extensive assortment of aspirational and lost men and women populate the streets, trains, boats, and bars. In fact, the film’s concentrated focus on one couple indicts all of contemporary Chinese society with its subtle but unmistakably sweeping critique. In Mandarin with English subtitles.