Over the past decade there have been a growing number of Chinese films critiquing the free-market policies adopted by the government and the impact of globalisation on its citizens, particularly those based in rural areas of the country. Writer-director Jia Zhang-ke has spent his entire career incorporating these gradual changes and their effects on society into his narratives and his new film, Ash Is Purest White, is another ambitious effort set across a 16-year time span.
While his last film, Mountains May Depart, was broader in scope, his latest story isn't too far off in design, serving as part tragic love story, part gangster flick and part socio-political drama. Time waits for no-one and it’s a measurement which bears down on Zhang-ke’s characters while all around them buildings, technology, commerce and relationships seem to evolve in the blink of an eye.
Zhang-ke himself was born in a small mining town and over the years it’s provided a fruitful point of perspective for the filmmaker. Similarly, Ash Is Purest White begins in 2001 in Shanxi, a declining mining town facing up to the prospect of closure and sweeping changes. We meet Qiao (Zhao Tao), a quietly formidable woman deeply in love with her mobster boyfriend Bin (Liao Fan), a relationship which seems impenetrable from outside forces.
Despite Bin’s bold plans to expand his gang’s activities, the first signs of change rear their head when small pockets of violence are displayed against his men and Bin himself from young, ambitious rivals. This period of the film culminates in a brutal showdown on the streets that sees Qiao step out of the car to fire shots into the air, forcing the young mob to back off from the vicious beating of Bin. Even though the gun is not Qiao's her loyalty holds no bounds and she takes a five year prison sentence to protect him. When she comes out in 2006 Qiao quickly discovers picking up where things left off is going to be far from easy.
The evolving nature of Qiao and Bin’s relationship over the next decade acts as the adhesive for the social themes Zhang-ke is ultimately more concerned with. Upon Qiao’s release from prison we hear an announcement about the planned Three Gorges Dam as she returns home along the Yangtze River, passing an area that will soon be completely submerged underwater. Aerial shots of the local landscape focus on row after row of identical new build property developments, while images of ageing locals act as a watermark of the passing time. From small flip phones, to tiny Nokia 8210s and modern day iPhones, mobile technology also identifies the changing modes of communication as Qiao and Bin gradually age.
At the centre of all these changes are the traditional values of Bin’s Jianghu brotherhood. But even these are eventually corroded by the dog-eat-dog attitude that comes with embracing capitalism. Seeing all of this through the eyes of Qiao demands a performance that can reflect the country’s transformation and emotional timelines between the increasingly distanced couple, and Zhang-ke’s wife and regular collaborator, Zhao Tao, is note perfect. She rarely gives away much with her facial movement but the clash between past and present can be seen burning brightly in her eyes.
There is something of a novelistic feel to Ash Is Purest White, a title that refers to a comment made by Qiao about purity being found in anything that burns at the highest temperature. This is perhaps in reference to her belief that their relationship can withstand the march of time and infrastructural revolution taking place all around them. Yet ironically, for a film that runs for almost two-and-a-half hours it paces itself extremely well, although Zhang-ke’s meta-narrative leaves more of an imprint on the mind, rather than on the heart.
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