Jia Zhangke’s Latest is an Ambitiously Personal Slow Burner
DIRECTED BY JIA ZHANGKE/CHINESE; MANDARIN/2019 (U.S. Theatrical Release)
There’s no denying that “Ash is Purest White” is quite the title. The grand mental evocations it conjures come quick; though the poetic sweep of established Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke’s latest is not of the automatic variety. A not-inelegant epic of sorts, the often deceptively laconic two-hour and sixteen minute Ash navigates its own multiple layers of meaning and interest by way of handheld camerawork, rainy landscapes robbed of their richness, and busy interiors bordering on claustrophobic.
Jia makes movies about China in the guise of making movies about people. But in a perfectly valid way, it’s just as much the reverse. It’s the toils and troubles of the people- specifically the Everyman and Everywoman of the country that fuels his continuous need to examine China. As a westerner who hasn’t done his “homework”, it’s nevertheless easy to get caught up in the human drama that is expertly told in the director’s personal style, which is one of decompressed intensity. Though not a masterpiece, and not quite living up to the level of his previous film, the woefully underrated Mountains May Depart, Ash is Purest White (Jiang hu er nü) matches that film’s ambition, it’s craftsmanship, and it’s brilliance in its central performance.
Considering that this is, among other things, a film of a seasoned auteur taking stock of his career, it is possible to be under-qualified to completely contextualize Ash is Purest White. And yet. Yet, it almost doesn’t matter.
With this latest work, Jia takes us through a contemporary China deeply embroiled in a crisis of confidence via the plights of his characters. Modernity has been a blessing and a curse to this sprawling ancient land, a country that’s seen no shortage of national upheavals. As always, the highest cost of any such upheaval is leveled upon the common people, the working class. Uprise of the disaffected masses, whether it be peasant revolt, unionizing, political protest or just good old fashioned anarchic rioting have ways of granting limited success. It’s the kind of success that somehow inevitably gives way to an eventual need for the next uprising. Over the course of Ash’s seventeen year narrative span, from 2001 to 2018, proletariat mining protests give way to an uneasy new complacency. For our characters, moderate-level organized crime is the answer.
Having told a story or two rooted in crime (most notably 2013’s A Touch of Sin), the doings of the unsavory are once again Jia’s purview. Their misguided, underworldly ways and (essentially) the surrounding consequences, bear the metaphorical brunt of the entire undertaking, it’s true. Collectively, the central pack of tough guys study for work by sitting in chairs and intently watching explosion-filled chaotic Chinese gangster/action movies. Their idea of classing up a funeral of one of their own is a scantily clad, overly sequined tango performance. The absurdity of it all is too tragic to be laughed at. The representational intent is clear enough: China has lost its way. Metaphorically, the mighty Datong volcano visited in the film, once feared for its searing explosive power, now reads as dormant. They’re not even sure. The pure white ash it rendered back in day was absolute. Today, the only ashes are remnants; the only white is that which is defined by its absence of all other colors.
Which isn’t at all to say that this is a colorless film- quite the opposite, in fact. In its neon nightscapes and primary hued set dressing, there is much for the eye to gather, the current aesthetics of the several provinces and regions to be admired and/or lamented.
Ash’s heart, though, as well as its top billing, belong to Tao Zhao. Tao, the reoccurring leading lady of the Jia Zhangke filmography, plays Qiao, a gangster’s girl; colorful and austere. Guns aren’t her thing, though Bin (her gangster love played by Fan Liao, as imposing as he is quietly smoldering) is impartial to packing heat. Being a woman of strong resolve though, she goes along with an awful lot in the name of devotion. By the end of Act I, she’ll know all too well the price. He is the volcano, she the innocent bystander.
It is once again impossible to overstate the vitality of Tao Zhao in this starring role. Her character is both staunchly confident yet embroiled by a man. Her hairstyle changes several times throughout, though her fierce/fragile compulsion never does. The physicality of her face tell the story- a flat surface protruded by orbic eyes, her nose and her mouth. Her eyes, though, tell of multitudes. This is nothing short of an actress truly immersed. Jia’s continuing method of building movies around her ranks among his smartest moves.
A flashpoint can occur in a millisecond of a muzzle-flash; history and headlines tell us so much. Gun possession is illegal in China; lying under oath is even worse. Qiao commits both infractions, if only once, all in the name of love. Love, or something vaguely resembling it. Perhaps commitment is the better word. The film dares to question the valiancy of such unwavering commitment, as the aftermath of her longwinded legal consequences cost her most everything.
It’s fair to say that Ash is Purest White is thoroughly Chinese to the extent that it doesn’t cow-tow to international audiences that are far less likely to be tuned to the wealth of cultural subtleties and nuanced that permeate it. Jia has made an uncompromisingly personal film, one that revisits locations and themes of his past films. Cynics might consider Ash to be “self indulgent” in that Holy Motors kind of way. And perhaps it is. But while it’s adorned unmistakably with directorly fingerprints to spare, style never trumps substance, nor does substance trump emotional resonance.
Considering that this is, among other things, a film of a seasoned auteur taking stock of his career, it is possible to be under-qualified to completely contextualize Ash is Purest White. And yet. Yet, it almost doesn’t matter. It is entirely possible, even probable, for a newcomer to venture into this film and this film only and come away having had an altogether fulfilling cinematic experience, right and true. These are the three immediate layers of Ash: its characters, its country, and its maker. None are so burnt as to be brilliant, but all are purely real.