Ash Is Purest White review – epic outlaw romance in a changing China

A resilient gangster’s moll burns with misguided love in Jia Zhangke’s melancholy drama

Qiao is a coalminer’s daughter from Shanxi, northern China (played, in a riveting performance, by Zhao Tao, director Jia Zhangke’s wife and muse). A gangster’s moll, she holds court among the men in the back room of a mahjong parlour, spending five years in prison after taking the fall for boyfriend Bin (Liao Fan). Yet upon her release, she finds herself unceremoniously dumped. Qiao’s grit sustains her; when a petty thief steals her wallet, she scams her way into a wedding buffet and swindles cash from lusty, gullible men. But she’s crippled by this tenacity, too, fighting for Bin against her best interests. Her love for him burns at a high temperature; like the volcanic ash referred to in the film’s title, it’s “made pure”.

Jia adopts a tripartite structure, beginning in 2001, jumping to 2006 and concluding in 2018. His last film, Mountains May Depart, followed a similar trajectory but lost its footing in the final segment. This one hits its stride somewhere in the middle, bounding confidently towards its hopeless, poetic conclusion. At one point, a UFO appears; the scope and scale of Jia’s vision stretches beyond cruel realism. As the country undergoes social, political, economic and ecological transformation, he asks how an old model of being can survive, suggesting that the jianghu, or outlaw, spirit might be the thing that persists.

Watch a clip from Ash Is Purest White.

Contributor

Simran Hans

The GuardianTramp

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