Film Review: Ash Is Purest White

Chinese Gangster Saga Evolves With Its Country’s Economic History

Devin D. O'Leary
5 min read
Ash Is the Purest White
Date night in gangster town
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Leave it to Chinese kitchen sink realist Jia Zhangke to drain every ounce of exoticism from the gangster film genre with his most intimate yet sweeping epic to date, Ash Is Purest White. Over the course of his career (which includes such international art house sensations as The World, Still Life, A Touch of Sin and Mountains May Depart), Jia’s independent, “underground,” shot-on-digital-video features have established him as a pioneer among China’s “Sixth Generation” filmmakers.

Ash Is Purest White looks, on the surface, like a typical jianghu film. Jianghu—which translates as “rivers and seas”—refers to a subset of Chinese martial arts films centered on the underworld of beggars, vagabonds, bandits and gangsters. They’ve evolved into the Chinese equivalent of organized crime dramas like The Godfather and Scarface. (In a brilliant, self-referential nod, the gangsters here all slavishly watch John Woo’s action classic The Killer, while Ash’s soundtrack drops Sally Yeh’s melodramatic theme song from that 1989 film into the mix on more than one occasion.)

But Jia isn’t the type to craft a standard-issue, laudatory celebration of criminal behavior. Instead of focusing his lens on low-level Chinese gangster Bin (Liao Fan from
Black Coal, Thin Ice), Jia moves his camera over a foot or so to gaze into the face of Bin’s companion Qiao (played by Jia’s wife and muse Zhao Tao). Qiao is a pretty, not-necessarily-young woman with personality and energy. She hangs out at Bin’s garish nightclub, and it’s clear from her interaction with the various mahjong-playing hoods who habituate the joint that she’s not the type to take crap from anyone. She flits among these gun-wielding criminals—utterly unintimidated by the macho environment—playfully socking them in the back and stealing cigarettes.

Ash Is Purest White starts out in 2001—an important step back in China’s recent history. A quick side trip to Qiao’s hometown reveals a grim little village choked with concrete-colored government housing. Qiao’s father is an aging miner, still parroting the party line about workers rights and railing against the encroachment of capitalism. Contrast these scenes with the ones of Qiao dancing to the Village People in her boyfriend’s nightclub and it’s clear that the capitalist invasion her father fears has already happened. China is on the verge of some rapid social change.

Back in the big city, Bin’s ballroom dance-obsessed boss is assassinated by a rival gang. Soon, Bin finds himself targeted by some young punks on motorcycles. He holds his own in the ensuing street fight, but is quickly overwhelmed. Following this rare burst of action, Qiao frightens the thugs off with a warning shot from Bin’s handgun. When the authorities follow up with an investigation, Qiao refuses to rat out Bin over the illegal weapon. She takes the rap and ends up with a five-year prison sentence. It’s clear at this point—as if it weren’t already—that Qiao takes the
jianghu idea of honor and loyalty more seriously than Bin. No mere trophy girlfriend is this gal.

From here the film leapfrogs to 2006, when Qiao is released from prison. Unfortunately, Bin—embarrassed by Qiao’s sacrifice and his inability to visit her in jail—refuses to speak to her. Unwilling to accept the brush off, she undertakes a long journey to see him. In this middle section, our protagonist is exposed to even more of the country’s shifting values. After being robbed of her cash and ID card along the way, Qiao is forced to live off the larcenous skills she acquired in prison. Looser and more amusing than the segments that bookend it, this extended road trip also opens up the film’s camera work, winding down the Yangtse River with Qiao and into a string of rapidly swelling towns—all of which are about to disappear under the looming Three Gorges hydroelectric dam project. Yet more metaphorical evidence of China’s shifting cultural landscape.

In the film’s final section, we slip into present-day China, with Qiao running her own gambling den back in the big city. Fortunes, times and people have changed dramatically.
Ash Is Purest White is a long journey from start to finish, and Jia has a lot to say here—most of it tied to China’s rapid transition from communism to capitalism. It’s less about the dangers of an international, money-based economy and more about the inability of China’s population to make the sudden cultural shift.

Most of the film is shot on handheld DV cameras in dark back rooms and dusty, overcrowded neighborhoods. But Jia and his regular cinematographer Yu Lik-Wai (with an assist from French director of photography Eric Gautier) know when to make with the vivid pop of color or the striking composition. This isn’t the often depressing neorealism of Vittorio De Sica or Roberto Rossellini. Like his idols (Michelangelo Antonioni, for example), Jia finds a humble beauty in brutal honesty. Minimalist in nature and almost documentary-like in its visuals,
Ash Is Purest White is a surprisingly light and engaging journey—one that evolves from revamped gangster film to contemplative character story to quietly observational look at modernity and the various discontents that come with it.
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