Admittedly, I’m fairly new to the Chinese cinema game, and Ash is Purest White is the first I’ve seen by storied director Jia Zhangke. And although I may not yet fully understand the sensibilities of Chinese filmmaking, this new experience has forced me to be more openminded with my expectations.
We follow the story of two lovers over the course of 17 years. Quiao (Zhao Tao) falls in love with a Chinese gang leader, Bin (Liao Fan). During an altercation with a rival gang, Quiao uses a gun, given to her by Bin, to protect him. She is sent to prison for five years. Upon her release, she sets out to find Bin to figure out what remains of their relationship.
The premise comes off as fairly basic, yet somehow avoids ever becoming predictable. Jia throws in minor details here and there which adds flavor to his otherwise straightforward narrative. The director tells his story in three distinct acts. The first being set in 2001, the second in 2006, and the third in present day.
Jia’s style is offbeat, perhaps even for the genre. I know a basic rule of screenwriting is enter late and leave early. But Jia takes this guideline to the furthest extremes, constantly forcing us to deduce what’s happening in a given scene from the most minuscule context clues. This could be annoying in a less artistic endeavor, but here we like how it keeps us on our toes. The film is spliced together at an oddly syncopated pace, which at first may catch us off guard, but ends up turning into a refreshing deviation from our typical American formulas.
This movie reminds me of another similar love story saga, also a foreign release, called Cold War. But everything Cold War fails to hit the mark on, Ash is Purest White succeeds at. Other than perhaps a satisfying ending–which neither movie has, even though the one in this film is objectively better.
Impressively, Jia portrays a deeply developed relationship without a single sex scene. No moment is gratuitous. This is not something I think I’ve really ever seen before on screen, the more I think about it. But through his performers and deft storytelling, he’s able to use raw emotion and circumstance to get his points across.
If nothing else, it’s a joy to watch Zhao and Liao act on screen, whether together or apart. Zhao absolutely kills it as Quiao in honestly one of the best performances I’ve seen in recent years. Her every move is brilliant as she conveys each emotion down to the most nuanced facial tick. While not given as much screen time, Liao is just as impressive, and the two of them constantly feed off each other. You simply cannot take your eyes off either of these actors, nor would you want to.
Jia infrequently implements some subtle humor as garnish, but just enough to lift the tone of his film from depressing misfortune to bittersweet reality, breathing life into his achingly low-concept premise which does have a difficult time stringing us along at times. The filmmaker also mixes in brilliantly unusual camera work that wisely never quite settles into a consistent style, despite the expected nature of a deceptively auteuristic project like this.
Ash is Purest White may have you looking down at your watch a few times, but Jia’s latest movie is a perfect example of simple, yet elegant filmmaking if you know where to look.