“The bottom line is, we’re all prisoners of the universe.”
Director Jia Zhangke has established himself as the greatest Chinese director of the 21st century, but his latest film, Ash Is Purest White, seems at first glance to merely be a culmination of his previous work. Zhangke frequently uses people from different walks of life to examine China’s recent progression towards modernity and its broader acceptance of Western culture and capitalism. Yet, to boil his work down into one certain theme is also to ignore Zhangke’s humanist qualities: from Ash Is Purest White alone, one can see how much he cares for the characters in his films. The two lovers, Qiao and Bin, pulled together and apart from one another throughout Ash are achingly human, even when both commit terrible, immoral actions to survive. While the backdrop for Ash Is Purest White may be a China on the cusp of economic growth and expansion, Zhangke uses the setting to explore deeper themes such as the frailty of human relationships and the cruelty of time’s swift passage.
Spanning almost 20 years, Ash Is Purest White opens in 2001 with Bin (Liao Fan), a gangster of the jianghu underworld working in a small Chinese town with several “brothers” and his girlfriend Qiao (Zhangke’s wife and frequent collaborator Zhao Tao). When Bin is beaten up by a group of angry rivals, Qiao shoots her boyfriend’s illegal gun in the air, scaring them off and subsequently landing her in jail for the next five years. From there, Ash focuses primarily on Qiao, as she is released from prison in 2006 into a world that has grown and (like Bin) left her behind.
The two main performances by Zhao Tao and Liao Fan are, simply put, incredible. Tao in particular is phenomenal as the leading lady; she moves from each moment of her character’s life (from carefree girlfriend to hardened ex-convict to tough jianghu leader) with grace, yet never fully transforms Qiao into someone unrecognizable. However, even though Tao is the clear protagonist of Ash, Liao Fan does a brilliant job in his own role. It would be easy to write off Qiao’s boyfriend as a stereotypical tough-guy gangster at first, but Fan’s performance—and Jia Zhangke’s expertly written script—turn Bin into a woeful man reminiscing of a past life that he can never gain back.
Ash could be described as either a gangster film or an epic, but ultimately it works as a poignant, heartbreaking melodrama. There are so many scenes filled with longing and desire, where Tao and Fan’s faces tell the story and there’s no need for dialogue. Take one of the first scenes in the film set in 2001, where Qiao and Bin are dancing in a packed club to the Village People’s “YMCA”. They jump up and down in a frenzy, until Bin’s gun (the same illegal gun that Qiao later uses to scare off the men assaulting Bin) falls to the ground with a clatter. Embarrassed, Bin picks it up as Qiao watches and moves away, her expression disapproving. Slowly, the two begin dancing together again, moving closer and more passionately with each beat of the song. The scene not only serves as a subtle foreshadowing of the upcoming split between the two, but also as a showcase for Tao and Fan’s talents: they effortlessly express all these different emotions between each other in mere seconds, and tell us more about themselves than any amount of exposition could.
The swift progression of time in the film is reflected in both Qiao and Bin’s relationship and the simultaneous changes that occur in China. Time and change are everywhere in Ash. Bin promises to get Qiao’s poor father a house of his own as soon as possible, which Qiao angrily takes to mean “in three years.” On a cruise home from her years in prison, Qiao hears a tour guide say, “A few years from now, if you visit the Three Gorges, much of what you now see will be underwater.” A man on a train ride to Qiao and fellow passengers lie about a UFO-hunting spot that will be opened in a few years to tourists. Everyone in Ash Is Purest White looks ahead at what will or could come, and not at the present moment. Zhangke implicitly critiques this worldview and shows through the story of Qiao and Bin how it can lead to dissatisfaction and regret.
If nothing else, Ash Is Purest White truly demonstrates how much China has changed since 2001. At the beginning of the film, Qiao, Bin, and others are clinging to an old way of life that eventually fades away with the spread of Western capitalism. By 2006, Bin has abandoned the jianghu underworld for a much better-paying job in the local chamber of commerce. In 2018, when Bin reunites with his former brothers and Qiao, his friends take videos and pictures of him with their expensive cell phones. Zhangke treats this rapid shift to modernity with a hint of nostalgia, but also uses the change in China as a way to develop the characters of Qiao and Bin. Neither truly adapt to 21st century China by the end of the film: Qiao works in Bin’s old position in the jianghu and Bin returns to his hometown after struggling with his modern lifestyle as a businessman.
Ultimately, Ash Is Purest White is an ode to the people who get left behind by a rapidly progressing world, the story of Qiao and Bin being but one fictional example. After the screening at AFI Fest on Friday afternoon, Jia Zhangke talked about the ending shot of the film, a close-up digital image of blurry surveillance camera footage. He said something along the lines of, “Each person you see through a surveillance camera has a story that you will never know. Cinema helps tell us those stories.” It’s nice to know that even as the world continues to change and shift around us, directors like Zhangke will still create such loving, melancholy films that explore and cherish ordinary people caught in the whirlwind.