[Film Review] Ash Is Purest White (2018)

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English Title: Ash Is Purest White
Original Title: Jiang hu er nü 江湖儿女
Year: 2018
Country: China, France, Japan
Language: Mandarin
Genre: Drama, Crime, Romance
Director/Writer: Jia Zhangke 贾樟柯
Music: Lim Qiong 林强
Cinematography: Eric Gautier
Editor: Matthieu Laclau
Zhao Tao 赵涛
Liao Fan 廖凡
Xu Zheng 徐峥
Casper Liang 梁嘉艳
Diao Yi’nan 刁亦男
Zhang Yibai 张一白
Zhang Yi 张译
Ding Jiali 丁嘉丽
Dong Zijian 董子健
Li Xuan 李宣
Feng Xiaogang 冯小刚
Kang Kang 康亢
Feng Jiamei 冯家妹
Rating: 7.6/10

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9th feature film of Jiang Zhangke, ASH IS PUREST WHITE continues his ardent exploration of the vast shifting landscape of a contemporary rural China, and like MOUNTAIN MAY DEPART (2015), it also has a tripartite structure defined by three different times: 2001, 2006 and 2017, but without the ministrations of inter-titles, instead, the specific time-frame is segued with mobile public vehicles.

The tale commences in Datong, an old mining town in Shanxi Province, Qiao (Zhao Tao, Jai’s wife and leading actress in almost all his films, sporting a gun moll’s pageboy hairdo that takes its cue from Uma Thurman in PULP FICTION) is the girlfriend of the local gangster leader Bin (Liao Fan), and the whole set-up seems to be a continuation of Jia’s fourth picture UNKOWN PLEASURES (2002), takes place in the same town with characters of the same name (in which Qiao is also played by Zhao Tao).

Weaned on Hong Kong action flicks and its idealized code of honor of Jianghu (the film’s Chinese title literally means “Sons and daughters of Jianghu”) – John Woo’s THE KILLER (1989) is shown in the fleapit and Sally Yeh’s Cantonese theme song punctuates and pipes up through the whole film – an aspirant Bin has no discernment of the changing tides and looming danger of supersession (even after an elder kingpin figure is murdered by unruly saplings), assisting Qiao to shoot her first bullet from the Glock pistol he illicitly acquired, he initiates her into Jianghu, but before long their relationship will be abruptly severed by a life-or-death accident, Bin is foolhardy enough to leave the pistol in his car and tries to square off a whole mob of hooligans mano-à-mano, while his life is saved by the woman who truly loves him, Qiao also takes the rap for possession of the ill-gotten sidearm and is sentenced to the joint for 5 years.

2006, Qiao regains her freedom and embarks a request voyage to reunite with Bin, who bluntly goes radio silence and has relocated to Hubei province after losing his repute and turf in Datong (since Qiao is the sole cynosure here, Bin’s undoing is left off screen, which somehow challenges audience’s comprehension of the turnabout). Why a man should callously and decisively jilt the woman who not only saves his life but also goes to the jail for him? Jia’s surgical scalpel precisely bears down on the cruelty of a wounded masculine ego, a ubiquitous canker in any patriarchal society, for Bin, Qiao represents the harrowing past he tries to ditch, as he tells her eventually (after Qiao cunningly forces him to show up by proxy of police interference), he has quitted Jianghu, which means she is merely a collateral damage of that decision, a hard-hitting excoriation of the gender bias (a woman’s subordinate nature is dyed in the wool) and Qiao stomaches it without a grudge, she carries Jianghu with her now, all she needs a closure and there it is.

Reframing Zhao Tao on the ship transiting the Three Gorges like in STILL LIFE (2006), Jia’s self-referential propensity is in full swing (the opening DV footage on a bus looks like exactly the outtakes from his feature debut XIAO WU, 1997), and later, Jia takes another cosmological cue to STILL LIFE when Qiao apparently has witnesses a UFO after she thinks better of a pipe-dream in Xinjiang and her life hits its nadir.

Heralded by the barreling bullet train, the final chapter rushes into the present, a decade or so has passed, a hemiplegic Bin returns to Datong after suffering a stroke and is taken under the care of Qiao, who is still unmarried and runs their old mahjong parlor. Yet, cannot find peace with his humiliating fate, Bin is sulfurous with everyone and everything, but Qiao patiently attends to him anyway, and as soon as he regains his mobility, guess what happens? Bin is the exemplar of a victim inculcated by a toxic culture and its trimmings who cannot live down the past to start anew, Liao Fan cogently and unsettlingly cuts deep into Bin’s smoldering frustration, ire and evasion with flying colors, a true class act among his peers.

An ode to a woman’s inestimable resilience, fortitude, kindness and a spiritual purity, ASH IS PUREST WHITE sees Zhao Tao at her most expressive, versatile self, and a sterling bunco artist too (a textbook example of how to tactfully extort money from total strangers, soft-soap a sexual predator and get out of harm’s way, or crash a wedding banquet), whose distinctively ethic look has now become an international name card for everyday Chinese women and Jia makes sure her virtues and emotions are vicariously conveyed to the fore. Coaxing various apparatuses ranging from home DV, 35 mm negative, Super 35 to the newest digital camera), and gaining a time-capsule visual felicity from French DP Eric Gautier, Jia’s latest enterprise is cut from the same cloth from his prior works, tackling its under-represented subjects warts and all with bracing urgency and intoxicating nostalgia.

referential entries: Jia Zhangke’s MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART (2015, 7.5/10), STILL LIFE (2006, 8.6/10); Bi Gan’s LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT (2018, 7.9/10).

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