The Weight of Time: Jia Zhangke’s “Ash Is Purest White”
It’s been over twenty years since Xiao Wu (1997), the debut feature from master filmmaker Jia Zhangke. Since then, the mainland Chinese writer-director has only occasionally strayed from his homeland when portraying post-socialist China, the country’s national identity fractured by the increasing influence of free-market policies and the impact of widespread globalization. Jia was born in Fenyang, a small mining town in the Shanxi province. A child of the Cultural Revolution, he has primarily depicted the major socio-political changes that he’s observed over his lifetime in his films and writing, often repurposing his own hometown as an epicenter for these seismic shifts in policy and ideology. In Xiao Wu and Platform (2000), Jia mused on history — his upbringing, personally and politically, as well as the remarkable way the past often mingles with the present. From 2002’s Unknown Pleasures onward, he became more focused on the modern world and gave a level of attention to his generation of disillusioned and wayward souls that few other Chinese filmmakers attempted at the time.
Jia’s subsequent films during the aughts became almost entirely fixated on the present, captivated by how so much of the people he knew remained the same even as the times rapidly changed. Although Platform captures China over the course of three decades, this particular structural conceit would not be truly realized until 2015’s Mountains May Depart, an epochal melodrama that also spans three decades, with a central performance by Jia’s wife and constant collaborator, Zhao Tao, that utterly astonishes and nearly singlehandedly conveys the film’s core ideas of generational and class division amongst a melodramatic framework. To Jia, it seems the past resonates more in the present than it did contemporaneously. His latest, Ash Is Purest White, is a similarly ambitious, multi-generation-spanning story, although it would be a disservice to suggest it’s merely a melodrama, a gangland tale, a tragic romance, or any of the various genre registers it flirts with. It’s a fusion of all of these, to its benefit and occasional detriment.
Ash begins in the year 2001, in the prefecture-level municipality of Datong in the Shanxi province. The new millennium is here, but things remain uncannily similar to the turn of the century we saw in Mountains May Depart. The laborers, stoic husks of human beings, still work themselves into lethargy and the would-be capitalists continue to dance to the Village People like it’s 1979 going on 1999. Qiao (Zhao Tao) is in love with Bin (Liao Fan), a small-time boss of the local jianghu (literally “rivers and lakes,” but here is colloquial for outlaw societies such as the Triads). Bin aspires to climb the criminal ladder and eventually legitimize his illicit businesses. Qiao, while no ordinary gun moll, is still something of an outsider to the jianghu, which is very clearly a boy’s club. She commands respect and drinks alongside Bin and company during a ritual toast involving pouring alcohol from the “Five Lakes and Four Seas,” but she’s still considered by the mob’s sworn brothers to be just the boss’ girl. Qiao doesn’t seem to want out of this lifestyle nor does she necessarily seem to want in; she wants to be happy with Bin, even as his ambitions lie beyond her. It doesn’t take long for this classic tale of amour fou to morph into something far more narratively layered.
After a sworn brother of the jianghu is killed in a seemingly random assault, Bin and his gang grow increasingly paranoid as Qiao becomes concerned over Bin’s safety, specifically his insistence upon carrying a gun on him that he carelessly drops at a disco, Liao Fan and Zhao Tao playing the scene with palpable embarrassment. Early on, the film cheekily parallels the significant symbolic energy of the gun to that of the golden statute depicting Guan Yu, a general who played a major role in ending the Han Dynasty and establishing the militaristic state of Shu Han during the Three Kingdoms period, who is revered by Bin, his followers, and commoners alike. Following an attack in which he is mistaken for another mark, Bin is in crutches and becomes dependent on Qiao for assistance. He takes her to a rural area near an inactive volcano to teach her to shoot, an act that he claims christens her as true member of the jianghu.
Not long after, Bin and Qiao — cigar in mouth, proud of her criminal maturation — are traveling via motorcade to a dumpling house per Qiao’s playful insistence. A horde of rival gang members descend upon them and a brutal fight breaks out, photographed with astounding panache, each blow landing with a visceral intensity that rivals The Raid (2011). Bin manages to dispatch a few foes before they overpower him, proceeding to ram his head into the hood ornament of his black luxury sedan, a scene guaranteed to make viewers wince. In order to protect him, Qiao determinedly exits the safety of her vehicle, Bin’s Tokarev in hand, and discharges it into the air twice. The sound of these shots reverberate like audible heartbeats, a demonstration of a passion so intense, wielded vis-à-vis a symbol of absolute power, the almighty firearm, that it wards off Bin’s ruthless attackers. As a result, Qiao takes the fall for Bin and is sentenced to five years in prison, transitioning the film into its next temporal setting, illustrated by the shift from warm, nostalgic 35mm to crisp but alienating modern digital video.
Interestingly, this is Jia’s very first film without regular cinematographer Yu Lik-wai, instead having Frenchman Éric Gautier (best known for his work with Arnaud Desplechin and Olivier Assayas) assume DP duties this time around. Ultimately, this translates to a visual palette that, while still adventurous, has fewer forays into different aspect ratios and distinct visual schemata, although they are still present. Take for example the rather quiet opening to the film with Qiao commuting to the jianghu mahjong parlor — shot in fuzzy 1.37:1 video with an emphasis on the bus’ pedestrian riders, such as an infant whose gaze transfixes the camera’s view, implying Qiao is simultaneously closer to citizenry than her jianghu cohorts yet distanced from her modest childhood. This is particularly discernible when Qiao visits her aging father, a recently laid-off coal miner who spends his nights drinking and fruitlessly calling for a worker’s strike over the mine’s PA system. She lends him a wad of cash to gamble his woes away, a gesture that stuns her father, shocked that his daughter makes more than he ever will.
Jia’s films often feature remarkable flourishes of surrealism and magic realism, such as the condemned building-turned-UFO from Still Life, but Ash’s mid-section takes things to a whole new level for his filmography thus far and tests the boundaries of his supposed fiction. After serving her time, Qiao travels to Fengjie near the Three Gorges Dam via ferry in the year 2006 in search of Bin. Astute followers of Jia’s work will be immediately blindsided by this progression as it exactly mirrors the time and setting of Jia’s Still Life from 2006, a film that won him the Golden Lion at Venice and helped catapult him to worldwide acclaim. Han Sanming, who played the protagonist of Still Life, makes a cameo appearance on a train and Zhao Tao even wears the exact same outfit as she did in that film. According to Jia, the inspiration for Ash came from pondering certain romance scenes featuring Zhao Tao he cut from Unknown Pleasures and Still Life, which he says made him imagine them as kindred spirits, if not the same character in different timelines. It seems Qiao is in search of a past she was forced to leave behind as much as Jia is in search of one he can only revisit through the power of the medium. He mostly succeeds at effectively recontextualizing visual and narrative elements from his own filmic past, although it does seem thematically tangential at points.
In the final section, Bin reappears in Datong over a decade later, even less of the man he used to be. Disheveled, despondent, and wheelchair-bound due to a stroke caused by years of alcohol abuse, Bin returns home and immediately contacts Qiao via smartphone — an understated indication that a great deal of time has passed since 2006. Reluctantly, Qiao meets him and pitifully cares for him, even as his wounded pride continuously undermines her years of hard work becoming the boss of the jianghu mahjong parlor — brimming with a new batch of impressionable young thugs and veteran brothers who stayed local and have seen more success and good health than Qiao, let alone Bin. Here Zhao Tao and Liao Fan push their characters to their emotional limits, both characters hopelessly in love with each other but unable to connect because of their checkered past together.
In the end, we are left with only Qiao, reduced to an anonymous formation of pixels by a surveillance camera. Qiao is seen, not by her estranged lover, but by whom? Or what, if anything? She is physically trapped in the dismal present, although her heart and mind seem to be tragically engrossed in a romanticized past, recalling the bittersweet ending of Mountains. This time, however, with an emphasis on the bitter. The parting image of the film is not in the least bit hopeful and comes courtesy of a diegetic formal device loaded with real-world significance that ends up muddling the cogency of the conclusion. Nonetheless, Ash Is Purest White still packs a punch and further reinforces that Zhao Tao is one of our greatest living performers, though the meta-textual nature of the film does leave it on uneven ground at times, making it a considerably tricky film to fully parse, especially for those unfamiliar with Jia’s previous work.
Ash Is Purest White screens at the 56th New York Film Festival on October 1 and October 10.