Ash is Purest White Review
It’s something of a miracle that we’re being able to see Jia Zhangke’s new film. In recent months, the Chinese government has been more censorious than usual, which is saying something; planned premieres of new films by Zhang Yimou have been swiftly removed from international festival lineups, and certain films that have already made their debut (such as Suburban Birds, which screened at LFF last October) are also getting pulled from festivals en masse. Anything that could even be remotely alluded to a critique of China’s politics is being swept under the carpet, and Ash is Purest White might be one of the last films we see that offers a damning look at the changing face of the nation in the 21st century.
This might sound like the film has some edge to it, but if you’ve seen any of Zhangke’s previous films, then you’ll be keenly aware that this is business as usual. The film opens in 2001, using an intimate character study as an allegory for the effects rapid globalisation has had on those who have been left behind by society. For a director who likes his on the nose metaphors, this is mercifully a lot more subtle than in his previous film Mountains May Depart, a decades spanning epic about the nation’s turn of the century economic prosperity. Here, the socio-political commentary remains ever present but unspoken, a spectre looming over a drama about a woman who finds her life and relationships dramatically altered after spending time in prison. Zhangke’s thematic interests are so easily defined at this stage, they remain hard to ignore - and the problem with Ash is Purest White is that it becomes hard to invest in a story clearly written as an allegory, that adds few unique ideas to what the director has previously discussed at large elsewhere.
Opening in April 2001, Qiao (Tao Zhao) seemingly has it all. Her boyfriend Bin (Liao Fan) is a mob boss with tight control on their economically unstable city of Datong, looked upon by those with deep rooted commercial interests in the city, such as real estate agents, as a powerful contact. But then he’s attacked, seemingly at random, by members of a rival gang - Qiao picks up his gun and fires warning shots in the air, only to discover later that this weapon was illegally owned. Lying that it belongs to her, she’s thrown in prison for five years, a period in which Bin never visits once. Leaving prison, she aims to track him down and resume an old life, hungry to regain the importance that she was once adjacent to and wishes to become accustomed to once more.
Zhangke has often been praised as the most important of China’s sixth generation filmmakers, because unlike earlier generations (including the aforementioned Zhang Yimou), he’s never shown a desire to transition into blockbusters for international audiences - even if his specific form of cultural critique never guarantees a run in his country’s multiplexes. For a filmmaker working within such a censorious authoritarian regime, his lack of compromise remains truly inspiring, but it is becoming increasingly frustrating that he has nothing new to say. The stories are changing, but the messages behind them remain the same; the alienation of a small town China left behind by the rapid commercialisation of the country at large. Ash is Purest White is one of his finer marriages between his thematic interests and form of genre storytelling, but the narrative trajectory still remains somewhat obvious, so attuned to what he’s already stated repeatedly elsewhere.
If there is a reason to watch Ash is Purest White, it’s the lead performance from Tao Zhao, which manages to depict a powerful woman’s fall from grace without delving into histrionics. When we’re introduced to the character, she has an inherent cockiness; belittling her mob boss partner and his associates, examining their weapons with a confidence that shows that she knows nobody will dare question her actions. In the film’s subsequent chapters, following her prison stint, that cockiness is replaced by a desperation to fall back into the groove of her old life; it’s to Zhao’s credit that all of her awful behaviour to regain contact with her former partner (which builds up to stealing a man’s motorbike and filing a claim of sexual assault against him, so her ex will collect her from the station) is played with a sense of detachment rather than that of a cliched femme fatale.