Thursday, March 14, 2019

Movie Review: Ash is Purest White

Ash Is Purest White **** / *****
Directed by: Zhangke Jia.
Written by: Zhangke Jia.
Starring: Tao Zhao, Fan Liao, Yi'nan Diao, Xiaogang Feng, Zheng Xu, Yibai Zhang.
It’s not surprising to learn that Jia Zhangke’s latest film, Ash is Purest White, is made up of material that he didn’t use when making some of his previous films – Unknown Pleasures, Still Life – and uses a structure very much like his last film, Mountains May Depart. In many ways, Ash is Purest White, feels like a career summation, up to this point of Jia’s career – not quite a greatest hits collection, but not terribly far from it either. What is surprising is that given this, Ash is Purest White doesn’t really feel like a retread – doesn’t feel like Jia on autopilot. He has taken elements of his previous films, yes, but he has packaged them in a way that points in a new direction.
The film is basically split into three different sections, spanning more than a decade. In the first section we are in the same town Jia made Unknown Pleasures – and the film is focused on the same kind of characters there, who are drifting aimlessly through their days. The film focuses on Qiao (the great Tao Zhao, still Jia’s muse), who is the girlfriend of Bin (newcomer Fan Liao), who is a powerful local gangster (although it’s arguable what being a gangster here actually means – other than to be violent). When his life is at risk in a fight, she gets his gun and fires it off into the air – an action that leads her to spend 5 years in prison, while Bin gets away unscathed. When the prison sentence is over, Qiao goes on a journey to reconnect with Bin – we’re now in the same time and place as Jia’s Still Life (complete with the same unexplained alien spaceship). But Bin has moved on – he’s gone legitimate now, although he’s now a bitter, angry man who cruelly refuses to see Qiao for most of this section. The third part is set today – back in the same hometown of the first segment – with Qiao now running things in her understated way, when Bin returns – needing help.
There is a cyclical nature to Ash is Purest White – which essentially tells a similar story in each one of the three segments, when Qiao does everything she can do for Bin – who essentially does nothing to deserve such loyalty. In every other way, Qiao seems independent and smart – able to get by all by herself – but with Bin, she is in love and cannot help herself. Bin is, by contrast, weak and ineffectual – allowing Qiao to sacrifice herself for him, with nothing in return.
This is, of course, the point of Ash is Purest White – which like all of Jia’s work looks at the mixed blessing of China’s modernization. There is a lot of travel on display in the film – Qiao goes great distances throughout the film, but various different means of travel. And yet, no matter how long she travels, no matter how many things change, her relationship stays the same. The more they change, the more they stay the same.
As always, Tao is great in the film – doing a lot with very little in the way of phony dramatics – right up until the great, ambiguous ending of the film, shot on a security camera. The triptych structure works better here than it did in Mountains May Depart (where is till worked very well) – but perhaps it just feels that way, because this time, Tao is the center of all three segments (she wasn’t in the third one in that film). After watching Ash is Purest White, I do admit that I’m not quite sure where Jia goes from here – he’s young to be doing this kind of career summation work. Perhaps we will see something very different next time – or perhaps, like his characters here, the more things change, the more they’ll stay the same.

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