There is such haunting truth-telling about the way in which certain fated relationships work in the latest from the great Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke, Ash Is Purest White, that you’re almost forced to look away from the screen to avoid watching the characters get their hearts broken so completely. The movie spans a number of years in the lives of a couple who begin the film as the ultimate gangster power couple and end desperately clinging to whatever it is that has pulled and kept them together over many years. It’s also a perfect examination of how the rapidly changing face of modern China quite often meant that many got left in its wake, either to catch up or simply fall into obscurity.
Beginning the story in the early 2000s, Zhao Tao plays Qiao, the longtime significant other of local mobster Bin (Liao Fan). They walk through their neck of the woods confident and clearly the smartest people in any room, with her perhaps being the most knowing of them all. But as younger rival gang members threaten whatever passes for power in this province, the couple are put in a situation involving an illegal weapon that ends up in Qiao’s possession, landing her in jail for five years. Bin goes to jail for only one year, and never comes to visit her after his release, instead opting to return to more legit work and even a new girlfriend, leaving Qiao high and dry when she’s finally sprung from jail.
Her journey to find, confront, and possibly get over him is the real heart and soul of Ash Is Purest White, and it is not a simple or easy endeavor. But that has been the playground of the director (Still Life, Unknown Pleasures) for years. He wants this couple to feel lived in, and in the film’s final act, when they are reunited under unusual circumstances (more or less in the present day), it becomes clear to a point that he didn’t wait for her while she was in prison because he was embarrassed about what he’d become and how far he’d fallen. But even in its final moments, the movie has a few surprises and gut punches to leave us staggering out of the theater.
By using expectations about gangster movies and love stories, this masterful filmmaker seems to relish messing with our heads. But he’s also telling a uniquely Chinese story, and he takes time from his primary story to linger on the hands and faces of those around the central characters, to see the exhaustion and premature aging visible on every part of their bodies. This period in Chinese history saw a great deal of displacement and economic strife, and while Jia Zhangke doesn’t address them directly, you can’t help but see the impact in every corner of the frame. Most films don’t attempt to ever make you feel more than one emotion a time; those who make movies may think that audiences can’t handle more than that. But Ash Is Purest White is a soul-flooding marvel that will make you feel so many things all at once, which is just one of many reasons it’s so remarkable.
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