A story of violent love within a time frame spanning from 2001 to 2017.
‘Ash is Purest White’ is the latest offering from Jia Zhangke and it continues his exploration of modern Chinese society and the people who live within it. It’s a romantic drama wrapped up in the trappings of a crime thriller, focusing on Zhao Qiao (Zhao Tao), the girlfriend of a mob boss (Guo Bin, played by Liao Fan) who finds her life turned upside down when events spiral out of Bin’s control in the old mining city of Datong. The crime elements propel the plot along and are always intriguing but this film is really about Qiao and how she navigates through life and love, facing challenges every step of the way.
The film opens in the city of Datong, a formerly prosperous city that has been impacted by a drop in the price of coal. Zhangke’s direction centres us in this place where everything is run down, the locals are restless and crime, both petty and serious, are rife, and this escalates after Bin’s boss is brutally murdered by a gang of youths. This sets off a chain of events that sends Qiao to jail and causes her relationship with Bin to disintegrate, and the second, more interesting part of the film follows Qiao on release as she tries to build her life again. The film portrays a China away from the modernised major cities, almost a place where time forgot, where people continue with their lives but with everything falling down around them (neatly emphasized through a ferry ride down a body of water that will engulf much of the nearby city before too long due to rising water levels). Zhao Tao is a formidable presence as Qiao, at times tough and confident, at others vulnerable, and she crafts a compelling character to invest in.
The scenes between Qiao and Bin are the high points of the film as they ponder on their relationship, their past and how events have shaped them and led them to where they are in the present. Bin’s selfishness is barely under the surface as is Qiao’s clear devotion to him, despite the way he often treats her, and ‘Ash is Purest White’ builds to a heartbreaking, but fitting conclusion of their story. This is a strong piece of work from Jia Zhangke that tells a deeply personal story whilst also commenting on China’s speedy modernisation and the people and communities left behind by it. It’s often funny, often tragic and always engrossing and I really liked this film.
Directed By: Jia Zhangke
Starring: Zhao Tao, Liao Fan, Feng Xiaogang, Xu Zheng and Zhang Yibai