Ash is Purest White (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Here is a story of woman who gave five years of her life in prison all for her boyfriend. She is convinced that their love is so strong, he is certain to be there waiting for her when she gets out. But when she is finally released, he is nowhere to be found. Jia Zhangke’s gangster romance “Ash is Purest White” chooses to be far more observant and insightful about the big picture idea of love, what it means to us as observers, and what it signifies for its specific and well-written characters than a typical romantic film with the all too familiar plot and an exhausted dramatic parabola. At its core, the film is about human weakness and so we cannot help but be drawn to it like moth to a flame.
The story of Qiao (Tao Zhao) and Bin (Fan Liao) takes place over sixteen years. Divided into three sections—before prison, release day and the following days, a decade after prison—each one is equally compelling and curious. I admired the way the writer-director wallops us over the head with time jumps and gives us time to orient ourselves instead of spoon-feeding us information by employing the usual title cards regarding how many years passed or what happened during the years not shown. It moves forward with conviction, confidence, and purpose. So following a major event, which is often surprising, we cannot wait to discover how might Qiao summon the strength to take a step forward in a world that inherently values men over women, both in terms of traditional Chinese culture and the underworld culture that she is only really marginally a part of—if that.
Although a gangster picture, it is drenched in melancholy colors, heavy atmosphere, and music—not of gunshots and bullets ricochetting but of ballroom music, disco, droning of electricity, mahjong tiles, the rain. Instead of overt violence, its focus is the violence within, what we consider as love does to a person who bought into it hook, line, and sinker. In order to appreciate the picture fully, it is required that we embody the headspace of Qiao.
There are many silent sections in the work that trusts the audience to observe: Qiao at contentment, survival mode, when required to be resourceful, to give and be selfish. Zhao creates a thoroughly believable character with every passing chapter. Also notice how Qiao acts or behaves differently depending on the person she is with. This is a character who cannot—not for one second—afford not to be the smartest, most adaptable, most resourceful person in the room. For good reasons.
Another special trait: it is a romance picture that poses the question of what happens after love fades. The answer is not apathy or feeling nothing at all. Zhangke makes a point that it cannot be described and so it must be shown. It is a prime example of why movies matter because sometimes words are not enough to describe a feeling or a specific situation. Qiao and Bin’s relationship is so complicated yet by the end of the story we have an appreciation of why their special connection evolved the way it did. It’s strange because the movie ends in an open-ended fashion but at the same time there is a finality to it, as if to say we have seen and known the characters well enough that whatever we think might happen next can happen.
“Ash is Purest White” is achingly beautiful, layered, without having to be opaque or obtuse with images, characters, or way of storytelling. It simply trusts that the viewers have the desire to see because we have our own definitions of what love is. So we take those definitions and measure them alongside or against what the movie is trying to show or say. It unfolds like a great novel; I wanted it to go on for another two hours.