2018 NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL: This reviewer has not experienced too much of Chinese cinema, except for some of the more mainstream highlights over the years. Proud to say that experiencing an ambitious and sprawling look at the lives of two people in “Ash is Purest White” is a wonderful gateway and introduction for many who aren’t too acquainted. With an arsenal of technical highs, most particular, stellar camera work by Eric Gautier (most known for his work on “The Motorcycle Diaries” and “Into the Wild”), the result is a sobering study of love within the confines of crime and emotional betrayal.
“Ash is Purest White” is a film initially set in the “jianghu” criminal underworld. In a three-part structure, it begins by following the quick-witted Qiao (played expertly by Tao Zhao) and her mobster boyfriend Bin (Fan Liao) as they stake out their turf against rival gangs and upstarts in 2001 postindustrial Datong. The film then expands out into an epic narrative of how abstract forces shape individuals lives, within the themes of violence and love spanning from 2001 to 2017.
At a robust 150 minutes, the film’s theme of time, though relative and apparent, seems lost in parts due to execution. We spend a 16-year time frame with Qiao and Bin, the former of which never looks like she aged, rather than get a few haircuts over that time. Writer/director Zhangke Jia allows moments to linger, focusing on the facial sentiments and reactions. Jia paints a portrait of two flawed people and doesn’t stitch them together as star-crossed lovers who are destined to be together. He humanizes them as individuals who not only make mistakes but pay gravely for them. It’s not just within the boundaries of their relationship either. Their decisions offer a snowball effect on their families and those who have surrounded them. The film becomes an allegory of love that we may have witnessed at some point in our lives. This is not a fairy tale, and Jia succeeds even more because it is not.
Tao Zhao, who some may recognize from 2015’s “Mountains May Depart,” delivers a beautiful, depressing portrait of responsibility and redemption. She fashions her doctrines and convictions with obvious care, allowing Qiao to show pure strength one moment and utter vulnerability the next. She finesses her approach, never overreaching her predilections about what her relationship has meant over a seventeen-year period. As humans, we don’t always have the answers in regards to the people we’ve loved the most. The same daunting catechism plagues Qiao before she relentlessly regains herself in the process. Zhao’s performance echoes every last ounce of her abilities as an actress. We have a better world because of it.
Fan Liao‘s approach to Bin is more conventional and equally charged as he carries the yearn for respect on his sleeve. Thanks to Jia’s approach to manhood embedded within its script, Liao can show love in a way a man from the crime-ridden background can only do. He allows the evolution of his character to wear itself on his movements, slicing through scenes like a knife, commanding our utmost attention.
“Ash is Purest White” offers an absorbing treatise on fate and fortune. It’s easy to compare a story such as this to the “Before” series, as we span decades of a love affair, but Jia’s account on the subject is far bleaker and even more intricate. A slow burn, as it analyzes the unfolding and cognizance of their own existence and what’s brought them to this point, the film soars at moments. Eric Gautier‘s frames bring both tension and sorrow, wrapped even in times that play comedically. It’s a masterful manner in which to tell a story such as this.
“Ash is Purest White” is not for the faint of heart. The viewer must want to indulge in this world for this period, allowing themselves to become a part of the story. Not every love is meant to be and not every desire is worth the sacrifices. Jia, his cast and technical team, teach us this. It’s a hard lesson to learn but an extraordinary one to take with you as the credits roll.
“Ash is Purest White” is screening at the New York Film Festival and is still without U.S. distribution.